WHEN Stephen Perloff launched The Photo Review in 1976, it was a golden age for photography in Philadelphia. More than three decades later, he thinks a new golden age is dawning here. "We're getting back to the energy and vibrancy of the earlier time. It's quite heartening," said the self-taught photographer, whose publication has kept him at the center of all things photographic in the region.
Philadelphia today has three community photo art centers: Project Basho, the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and the Light Room. It has a commercial photo gallery in Gallery 339. The public can see photography exhibits regularly at academic galleries such as the University of the Arts' Sol Mednick Gallery and Gallery 1401.
Blue-chip gallery Locks has periodic photo exhibits. So do galleries such as LG Tripp, which closed its fourth-annual abstract photography show last week, and the Print Center, which opens its 86th annual international competition in photography in June. Museums are showcasing photography, too.
What's more, according to Perloff, young artists are staying here instead of moving to New York or the West Coast, where the fashion and music industries historically provided more jobs. Those industries have changed. Digital photo tools have made photography at once cheaper to work with and more specialized.
"It's a hard time to get a job as a photographer," said Sarah Stolfa, founder of the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center in Kensington. Stolfa launched PPAC in 2009 after earning a master of fine arts at Yale School of Art. Tired of running up to New York, she created the digital lab so she and other photographers could scan, print and work within a local, like-minded community. Stolfa, like many photographers around here, also teaches photography, at PPAC and at the University of Pennsylvania.
PPAC is a nonprofit arts center with classes, lectures, movie screenings, a book fair, an exhibition gallery and the closest thing the city has to an annual photo festival. On Philly Photo Day,anyone can take a photo in the city; PPAC prints and displays them during a two-week exhibition.
What the city needs now is an international festival to brand it as a photography hub and bring together artists, collectors, scholars and gallerists, said Martin McNamara. With partner Tom Callan, he founded the commercial photo space Gallery 339 in 2005.
"Since we opened we've seen a lot of interesting nodes of activity: two photo centers [Basho and PPAC] and increased activity with universities that offer photography degrees," said McNamara. "Temple opened their new building - an amazing facility. And, of course, the art museum opened their dedicated photo space [the Levy Gallery] in the Perelman Building. One thing that's not in place yet is a festival."
Not that he doesn't appreciate Philly Photo Day. "I love the democratic event," he said. "But other cities have multiday or multiweek photo festivals, and it brings attention to the idea of photography."
Efforts to organize a festival have so far come up short. But Tsuyoshi Ito of Project Basho, around the corner from PPAC in Kensington, has decided to create a one-day, festival-like event in conjunction with his center's annual emerging artists' exhibit, "Onward." Scheduled for Feb. 11, the day the exhibit opens, the event will feature speakers, portfolio reviews and other activities. Tickets are $65, and organizers hope for 200 participants at what they hope will be an annual event.
People in the field talk about the collegiality among players in the local photo scene, though there's also healthy competition.
Al Wachlin Jr. is a founder of the oldest, yet most under-the-radar photo art center, the Light Room in Fairmount. The 10-year-old member organization has a darkroom, a small digital lab and a gallery space. Its mission is to serve its members, so they refer non-members to other spaces, Wachlin said. "We're definitely trying to support each other."