Volume 75, Number 47 | April 12 - 18 2006

© Estate of Sophie Lauffer

A photograph by Sophie Lafleur, an early member of the Pictorial Photographers of America, now in its 90th year.

Historic photography club celebrates 90th anniversary

By Aileen Torres

When modern photography first emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, it was considered a practical tool, not a viable art form. But beginning in 1916, three New Yorkers helped garner respect for the medium. Among these visionaries were Clarence White, who started his own school of photography in 1914; Karl Struss, who won the first Academy Award for cinematography, and Edward Dickinson, who is not well known for his images but was interested in developing the artistic status of photography. Together, they founded the Pictorial Photographers of America in New York City, a club that still exists today. In honor of its 90th anniversary, its current members are paying homage to the club’s storied past with an exhibit called “Platinum to Pixel,” which runs from April 8 through April 30th at the Westbeth Gallery.

The organization, which meets at St. Peter’s Church on W. 20th St. twice monthly from October through May, has changed significantly since its inception — particularly in size. The club still meets to share and critique each other’s work, but the PPA has gone from an international organization with regional branches to a primarily local club with most members hailing from New York City and New Jersey.

“When it was an international group, membership was in the hundreds,” said Stuart Nudelman, former club president who joined in the 1950s and was an active member until 1987, when he moved to Maine. “It was in these sort of organizations that the skills and knowledge of photography were passed on. The breakdown may have been in the ‘30s, when there was a big surge to create more camera clubs.” As these amateur chapters developed locally, he theorized, there was less of a need for PPA. “But PPA was probably the progenitor. It was also a breeding ground for professional photography,” he said.

Despite the decline in membership, the club is still integral to the member’s work, says Kathryn Buck, who has been a member of PPA since the mid-1980s and became president about three years ago. “It offers an intimate month-by-month setting where you get feedback on your work,” said Buck. There are currently 25 members in PPA, she said, many of whom are just now learning about the club’s heyday.

“This exhibition is us getting to know our history,” says Buck. “We’re reaching back into our archives and getting to know our past.” This process of discovery has partly happened by accident. Buck’s first lead about the early days of the PPA came in the form of an email almost two years ago, from the great grandniece of Sophie Lauffer, one of the original members. “I almost deleted [it],” Buck said. But because she did read it, she was introduced to a distinguished member of PPA’s past, which inspired her to start seeking out the club’s archives—represented by the five annuals that were published by PPA between 1920 and 1929 that she had read about in various reference books. These annuals were a compilation of selected works that had appeared in the international traveling exhibitions once sponsored by the club. PPA had none of the annuals when Buck received the email, so she scoured the Internet looking for book dealers who did. She was able to obtain a copy of each of the annuals online.

Then, four weeks ago, Buck met John Stevenson, the dealer for Clarence White whom Buck discovered via another Internet search. She visited his gallery near her home on W. 23rd St., and when they got to talking, he said, “I had no idea PPA still existed!”— a statement similarly expressed by Verna Posever Curtis, curator of Photography for the Library of Congress, according to Buck.

White’s widow gave a lot of her husband’s work to the Library when he died in 1925. As Buck recalls, Curtis said that White’s work was instrumental in capturing the Library’s interest in photography as an art form. She said that Curtis, with whom she’s been in touch for the show, feels that White deserves to be more well-known in the history of the medium. His use of light and shade lends a hazy, dream-like quality to much of his work, giving his images a highly romantic feel, such as “The Orchard” (1905), featuring three women in long dresses standing by a tree, “The Ring Toss” (1899), an image of three girls playing a game indoors, and “Mother and Child” (1919), a photo of a mother in bed, breast-feeding her baby.

Says Richard Trapani, editor of PPA’s newsletter and a member for 29 years, “I was very impressed by these annuals. I felt that in some respects they were better than what we’re doing now. Sometimes I feel what we’re doing now might be a little on the trite side. One thing that color brought to photography was that it got people enthused with color and nothing else. Many times black-and-white and sepia bring a stronger focus — a situation where less is more. I think it should cause us to reflect a bit, reevaluate what we’re doing.”

The idea for the 90th anniversary exhibition came about three years ago after Trapani met Theresa King at a photography show she had curated at Westbeth Gallery, the exhibition space of the artist residence at West and Bethune in the Village. A month later, he asked her to be a judge in one of club’s competition meets. She agreed and then decided to join PPA. “The next meeting or so, they asked, what would we do about the 90th anniversary? I realized there was so much history in this club. This would be a spectacular event.” King, a resident of Westbeth since 1970, was then inspired to book Westbeth Gallery for the PPA exhibit.

Looking through all the work that will be shown, Buck sees “how enduring a lot of the types of images are. There’s a lot of continuity there [from the annuals to PPA’s present work], from portraits, abstracts to bucolic landscapes…. Ninety years later, you somehow feel you’re coming full circle again.” For her, the show is the club’s way of “getting organized for the future,” and she hopes the images will inspire others in their own work.

Past members’ images will be featured in the show, including those by White, Sophie Lauffer, D. J. Ruzicka, Norman Rothschild and Ernst Ebbefeld, as will work by 19 current members.

In addition to the photos on display at the gallery, there will be free educational programs scheduled every weekend through the duration of the show. John Stevenson gave the opening lecture entitled “Handcrafted Photographs, for the Hopelessly Obsessed.” Sophie Lauffer’s great grandniece, Carrie Bortz, will also give a presentation. Peter Stein will discuss the work of his father, Fred Stein, who photographed celebrities as well as Paris in the 1930s and New York in the 1940s. Jonathan Hyman will give a talk about images related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Ellen Fisher-Turk will do a presentation on “PhotoTherapy and Body Image.”

“Platinum to Pixel” runs through April 30 at Westbeth Gallery, 55 Bethune Street, between West and Washington Streets. (212-989-4650, www.westbeth.org/gallery-3.html).

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