Cliff Culpepper recalls viewing the dramatic work of commercial photographic illustrator and then Charlotte Observer photographer Tom Walters in an exhibition at the Mint Museum in 1969 and thinking he’d never seen anything like it.
Within the week the two men met, hit it off, and began discussions that would grow to include other enthusiasts and form the geneses for what became The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film.
The Charlotte institution is celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer with exhibits and events recognizing the organization’s heritage and contributions to the community.
Included in the celebration is the 40th annual Members Show, a juried exhibit of works submitted by museum members on display through Aug. 12.
Like the Members Show, The Light Factory got its start from the efforts of members of the community who share a passion for photography.
‘Exchange of work and ideas’
Culpepper’s recollection of the earliest days name John Daughtry, photojournalist at the Observer, Martha Strawn, faculty member at UNC Charlotte, and Walters as the original group of founders who met regularly, though it wasn’t long before their ranks began to swell.
Byron Baldwin taught photography at Myers Park High School. He joined the group in 1972.
“There was an eclectic mix of people involved,” Baldwin said. “What was so exciting was the dynamic of the exchange of work and ideas. This is what I believe has been the fuel for our longtime success, the joy of learning, teaching and sharing our love of photography.”
According to Baldwin, 15 members pooled their resources and rented the first gallery space in a house on Torrence Street in Elizabeth.
The first show at the gallery was held in 1972 and featured the work of photographer Steve Perille.
The group could hardly know at the time that their fledgling organization would go on to hold nearly 600 shows over the next 40 years, host 35,000 annual visits and average more than 1,000 adult education students annually.
The next several decades saw expansion of exhibitions, lectures and education efforts, community outreach projects, and, in 1999, the addition of video and film.
Annual Members Show
The Light Factory has more than 400 members. While most are from North and South Carolina, the organization has members across the U.S. Dues are offered in levels from $50 for individuals to $75 for a household membership. Student discounts are available.
The membership includes professional photographers, portraitists, mixed media artists, novice photographers, hobbyists, and everyone in between. Open to all with an interest in the art form, the museum remains true to its grassroots origins as an environment where tips on technique, equipment and composition are shared.
Nowhere is the diversity of the photographic experience more on display than in the annual Members Show. With its beginnings stretching back to the Torrence Street gallery, the original members show offered the opportunity for a handful of enthusiasts to showcase their best work.
Forty years later, the tradition carries on with a show open to all forms of submission.
“We take black and white, color and, mixed media and all types of formatting,” said Dee Grano, director of marketing for The Light Factory. “We had 64 submissions from 64 different artists this year. Most are from local members but a handful came from as far as New York and Maryland.”
The theme this year is “Celebration.”
Visitors can view black and white and color photography, figurative work and abstract, portraiture and architecture. There are some images that are paint on photograph, others that incorporate elements of nature, even photographs stitched onto leaves.
A digital video installation runs continuously showing abstract and shadowy figures moving to the beat of an old-time string band.
“You can learn a lot from the show,” said Dennis Kiel, chief curator. “There’s a section on children, and another that, more visually speaking, focuses on the abstract and color. Since the theme of the show this year is celebration, it’s a great way to study different takes on a central concept. There are some very obvious connections and ones that make you really think.”
Images of celebration
Mary J. Ellis of Ballantyne joined The Light Factory two years ago.
“I submitted a black and white print for the show that featured a group of classmates in a small local pub enjoying a toast together,” Ellis said. “That image said ‘celebration’ to me as we were at the end of a long day and we had accomplished a lot.”
A two-year member of The Light Factory, Allison Pell of Gastonia is an architect and professional fine art photographer. His work has been shown in Charlotte galleries in addition to being featured at Charlotte’s May Soiree and the Gaston Chamber of Commerce.
His entry in the Members Show, “Weeping Rust,” was selected as the third-place winner. The abstract image depicts a closeup of a steal plated beam embedded in a stucco covered wall. The colors – gold, off-white and blue – make this image stand out.
“I took the original picture in 2010,” Pell said. “The location is the old Verna Residential Tower that went belly up. What is neat about photography is it is part of history now. This photo is an example of beauty even in dismal situations, (it is) a celebration of sorts.”
Aspen Hochhalter is an assistant professor of art and the photography area coordinator at UNCC. Her entry was selected as the second-place winner.
“Red” is a pop-art style abstract featuring a close up of a woman with a large mole and pouty red lips. Her image is a bit distorted with a shadowed form appearing inside the portrait. Red hues and bluish sepia tones create a dramatic look.
“What is unique about this print is that it is an image taken without a camera,” said Hochhalter, a five-year member. “I used photographs in old magazines and went into the darkroom, where I used a chemical process that transferred both the front and back of the magazine page into one image. It is a celebration of creation in that regard.”
Judging was done by Jae Emerling, assistant professor of modern/contemporary art at UNCC. Emerling chose, in a blind review, Baldwin’s 1974 print, “Plymouth” as the first-place winner.
The curvy, rounded early model roadster sits alone on dirt patch, its shiny black hood gleaming from a fresh rain. Photographed from above, the black and white image shows the power of light and shadows.
In his judging notes, Emerling commented, “To encounter a print of such quality makes the rest of the room go a bit silent. Even from across the room it stands out in its singularity. It is a stunning photograph.”
The photo was taken looking out the window of The Light Factory’s first location on Torrence Street.
“One of the most remarkable aspects of photography is its ability to help us with our powers of observation,” Baldwin said. “Looking out the window at that car after the rain, I knew it was a special shot. There are many stories in that single image.”