Light Work Receives $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts CARES Act Grant

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded Light Work a $50,000 grant as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Light Work is one of 855 organizations that the NEA selected from 3,100 applicants nation-wide who requested $157 million with $45 million available in direct assistance. The non-matching funds support staff salaries, fees for artists or contractual personnel, and facilities costs.

The NEA has been an important funding partner with Light Work for nearly 50 years,” said Jeffrey Hoone, Light Work’s executive director. “We are extremely grateful for this grant as we continue our core mission to support emerging and under-recognized artists during this challenging time.

The CARES Act recognizes the nonprofit arts industry as an essential sector of America’s economy. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded funds to nonprofit arts organizations across the country to help these entities and their employees endure the economic hardships caused by the forced closure of their operations due to the spread of COVID-19. The grants support exemplary projects in artist communities, arts education, dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literary arts, local arts agencies, media arts, museums, music, musical theater, opera, presenting and multidisciplinary works, theater, and visuals arts.

During the past five months, Light Work has navigated the challenges COVID-19 pandemic-related closure and tallied numerous successes. This emergency grant helps Light Work continue to deliver on a 48-year legacy of advocacy through exhibitions, an awarding-winning publication entitled Contact Sheet, a state-of-the-art community-access digital services lab, and a permanent Collection comprising more than 4,000 photo related objects and images. Light Work remains devoted to serving the artists and the community in meaningful and safe ways. Staff and board eagerly anticipate reopening with new exhibitions, online educational opportunities, and remote print services that include safety protocols.

At this challenging moment for arts organizations across the country, Light Work is extremely grateful to receive support from the NEA as part of the CARES Act,” says Light Work director Shane Lavalette. “This grant will offset some of the pandemic’s financial impacts and ensure that we can continue to provide artists with support they need through this difficult and uncertain time. 

Like many cities across our national landscape, Syracuse is poised for a reimagining of arts engagement within our sites. Arts and culture are vital parts of our city’s dynamic economy. In the Greater Syracuse area arts and culture generate over $130 million in economic activity, support more than 5,000 full-time jobs, provide $110 million in household income, and deliver $20 million in local and state government revenue. This NEA funding helps support those jobs and nonprofit organizations during this time of great need. Arts and culture will persevere as significant contributors to Syracuse’s community life and recovery. 

All of us at the National Endowment for the Arts are keenly aware that arts organizations across the country are hurting, struggling, and trying to survive. Our supply of funding does not come close to meeting the demand for assistance,” said NEA chair Mary Anne Carter.

Congress established the NEA in 1965 as the independent federal agency whose funding and support allow Americans to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the skills in every community across America. Visit​ to learn more.

To become a supporter of Light Work yourself, consider making a contribution by beginning or renewing your subscription. We encourage you to help us achieve our goal of matching the NEA’s generous support. Contribute today and get something back in return. Browse limited-edition prints, signed books, and Contact Sheet at

Urban Video Project Installation “In Solidarity” Closes for Projection Equipment Upgrade

Wednesday, July 8, at midnight, Light Work’s Urban Video Project installation, In Solidarity, will go dark to make way for a long-awaited upgrade of their projection equipment. The culmination of years of fundraising and planning, the upgrade will make it possible for Urban Video Project to continue their mission to present urgent, thought-provoking work of media artists from around the world at their outdoor projection site at the Everson Museum of Art.  With the contributions of  Black photographers and photojournalist allies, UVP’s act of solidarity has appeared each night for more than three weeks, offering viewers on the plaza an opportunity to witness the passions, frustrations, and determination driving the protest movement in Syracuse, New York. We extend our appreciation to the many photographers and artists who made images of the marches, rallies, and actions organized by Last Chance For Change, Raha Syracuse and YouthCuseBLM. The photographs and labor of Cheriyln Beckles, Mylz Blake, Kollina Dacko, Dennis Fernando, Eric Derachio Jackson Jr., and Maranie Staab chronicled the protesters’ unwavering commitment to condemn and root out police violence, systemic racism, and state-sanctioned violence.  

Those who journeyed to the museum’s plaza provided powerful feedback that reaffirms art as an indomitable tool in challenging injustice and inequity. “We appreciate the work of the photographers covering the movement in Syracuse and the Urban Video Project’s willingness to have a solidarity display,” said Rannette Releford, director of Syracuse’s the Citizen Review Board (CRB), which hears complaints about police misconduct. “This was a perfect example of how important this movement is to our community and the choices an organization can make to show support. We appreciate being showcased in the ‘In Solidarity’ installation because accountability and transparency are necessary to improve relations. You cannot have one without the other, and for far too long, neither has been a top priority to the Syracuse Police Department.” 

Having visited the exhibition on numerous occasions for documentation purposes, UVP communications coordinator Cjala Surratt said she was struck by the installation’s ability to create space to empathize and mourn in a large public site. “It’s quiet there,” said Surratt. “The rhythmic sounds of the fountain encourage introspection and stillness. There I had permission, one I had not extended myself before to grieve. To grieve with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and Tony McDad, and with so many others in America’s Black communities, who have suffered devastating losses and live in fear because of racism, violence, and injustice.” 

At the launch of this collaborative project, UVP director Anneka Herre spoke of the location’s importance. “It is not a coincidence that UVP’s  Everson Museum site is proximate to where many of the protests are happening along the downtown law enforcement and legal corridor. This corridor of civic buildings was created through an urban renewal program that displaced a population of Black citizens who are also disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. It is incumbent upon us to use this site in ways that amplify the voices of those who are doing the difficult work of making change and to add our own voice to that call.”

Urban Video Project again extends our gratitude to everyone who stood in the presence of this installation, either in solitude or gathered in small numbers, to consider the reckoning that is now underway in our city, state, and nation. 

We are excited to announce In Solidarity will be part of Light Work’s 2020-21 exhibition calendar for those who did not get the opportunity to see the installation in person at the plaza. This body of work will be on view in the Hallway Gallery at Light Work later this fall. Keep an eye on our website and social media platforms for updates regarding online programming running in conjunction with these forthcoming exhibitions. The show will run concurrently with Matthew Connor’s exhibition in Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery. Please be aware at this time that we have temporarily closed Light Work to the public and canceled all scheduled opening receptions and artist talks as part of our commitment to helping flatten the COVID-19 curve. We encourage you to visit Light Work exhibitions online. 

Urban Video Project (UVP) is a program of Light Work in partnership with the Everson Museum of Art and Onondaga County. This outdoor architectural projection site offers public presentation of film, video, and moving image arts, using cutting-edge technology to bring art of the highest caliber to Syracuse. It is one of the few projects in the United States dedicated to ongoing public projections and adds a new chapter to Central New York’s legacy as a major birthplace of video art. 

Using a large permanently installed projector and all-weather sound system, UVP’s outdoor architectural projection site on the north façade of the Everson Museum of Art transforms the adjoining Onondaga County Community Plaza into a massive,  year-round video installation every Thursday through Saturday night.

Long Read: Interview with Poulomi Basu

“I owe it to the women who have opened themselves up to me. I want them to know that we are fighting this oppression together. And we are doing this with agency. Our collective voice of resistance.”

Content note: contains a personal narrative of domestic violence 

Poulomi Basu’s work advocates for the rights of marginalised women using the power of photography as a tool for storytelling – amplifying the voices of women from the majority world. An Indian artist, photographer, and activist, she has become widely known for her powerful photographic projects Blood SpeaksCentralia and To Conquer Her Land, to name a few. Her first photobook Centralia was recently published by Dewi Lewis.

Autograph’s Curatorial Project Manager Bindi Vora has been working closely with Basu over the past eighteen months to present the international debut of her decade-long project Centralia, which was due to be exhibited in Arles as part of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award. Unfortunately, the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of this year’s festival.

One of Autograph’s core aims has always been to enable artists to develop their practice. We recently sent Basu on the Autograph / Light Work residency, to support the development of her new series Fireflies. Each year, we team up with Light Work in Syracuse, New York – a non-profit, artist-run organisation providing direct support to emerging and under-represented artists working in photography. Autograph selects an artist to go on a residency at Light Work’s studios to pursue their personal projects: an exhibition, publication, printing, or even just space to think. They are provided with travel expenses, a stipend for living and production, a private darkroom, an apartment, and 24-hour access to Light Work’s photo and computer lab facilities. We’ve been doing this since 1996.

As we reflect on life since lockdown, Vora spoke with Basu about Fireflies, and some of the enduring legacies of women’s trauma.

from the series ‘Blood Speaks’ by Poulomi Basu

Bindi Vora:  Fireflies is a new work you began editing during your residency at Light Work. To begin, it would be good if you could introduce the project, and how it’s been evolving over the last few years. 

Poulomi Basu: Fireflies was a combination of ideas and of accumulated experiences which made me feel compelled to turn the camera upon myself; to tell my story of resistance and stand in solidarity with the women who have opened their lives to me.

The work is a response to the trauma of my own background as told through the relationship between my mother and I. When I was 17, my mother told me to leave home so that I would be able to live a life of freedom and choice that had been denied to her, and my grandmother, who were both child brides and then young widows. Rooted in my experience of domestic violence, this work navigates the blood lines of our collective trauma, mapping an elemental journey of survival. From the claustrophobia of the home, through to dreams of escape and transcendence, this is a kinetic and spiritual work lingering on the fragility of time and our earthly insignificance when contrasted against the celestial wonder of the natural world.

The work further explores the themes of gender, identity and violence building upon my previous works exploration of these topics. However, it further extends these explorations into hinterland between fact and fiction, using the tropes of female centred, science / dystopian fiction, to weave a narrative simultaneously real and fantastical. 

There is so much pain, anxiety and fear behind most women I have met in life including myself. Yet we are strong and magical. I wanted to celebrate both those dualities.

BV:  I want to first delve into the title of the project. Fireflies – as when I think about the idea of a firefly, it insinuates an occult reality, a sense of light, flight and freedom. There is a fine balance of magic which I think is emphasised within the context of this work.

When you initially shared the project with me as you were preparing for the residency, I began to research into the firefly, an insect that is characterised for its distinct glow and the way in which they use their luminosity to detract predators. It’s a power. Although we see an overall sense of harmony within the images and how they appear, as you delve further there is an underlying dystopian reality.

It’s this way of storytelling which I find runs as a common thread throughout your practice – such as in Centralia, where you have these incredible landscapes, juxtaposed with portraits of people who have been killed – all across one or two spreads (if we take a section of the Centralia book). It’s only as you delve deeper into the oscillating narratives and begin to read the stories of the female guerrillas, that you begin to sense the deciphering of truths as they converge into one another.

PB:Fireflies glow in the darkness. So, there is both this element of something free, pulsing and magical, yet dark. I associate that with feminine powers. Women are powerful and magical yet there is a lot of struggle laced in our history and constant battleground of misogyny and patriarchy. There is so much pain, anxiety and fear behind most women I have met in life including myself. Yet we are strong and magical. I wanted to celebrate both those dualities.

Centralia is a journey into the heart of darkness, but you find these powerful women in the work who are standing against the establishment and fighting back. They are fighting not only the economic and political realities, but also patriarchy and caste system. I wanted their voices to be heard, known and celebrated despite the nightmare they find themselves in.

I promise myself I would never live in the shadow of men.

BV:  Activism and advocacy for women’s rights is at the heart of your practice, with sensibility and care as you collaborate with marginalised communities. You have this innate way of creating safe spaces full of choice, which empowers these women with whom you spend time, creating bonds to share their story through their words.

Blood Speaks for example, changed the law in Nepal – it outlawed the physical controls imposed on women whilst menstruating. Although more work by lawmakers needs to be done to completely banish this practice, it’s a huge achievement for those suffering under these constraints. To now turn the camera on yourself and perhaps in some ways use this as a form of therapy to heal a deep trauma, that has for years sent ripples within your family dynamics. Why is this work at this stage of your life important for you to make?

PB:  I grew up in a very volatile home feeling very ashamed of myself and my self-worth constantly under the shadow of men. I watched women in my home including myself getting repeatedly abused and our potential diminished. My father sometimes used to beat me up with an iron rod and other days stop me from going to school to write my exams. He would take away my school uniform and school shoes. I remember calling up friends borrowing their extra clothes and turning up in school without proper shoes and then getting punished in school for that. But at least I got to write my paper. It was very violent and controlling. But I knew having a proper education was my ticket to freedom. But I had to fight for it. But many girls don’t have that option even today.

I wanted to be a dancer. I was trained in classical Bharatnatyam, lyrical jazz and funk jazz dance growing up and I used to perform in shows. When I turned 15 that was stopped too because my father thought that professional dancers were harlots. Because I wanted to be a dancer, he called me a slut.

India is an exclusively male space. Misogyny filters through almost every environment. I really wanted out. I became a very rebellious teenager as a result, and I promised myself I would never live under the shadow of men. I was 17 when my father passed away and that was my chance really. My mother asked me to leave our home and the city of Calcutta and try and live a life of independence and choice that was denied to her. So, I packed my bags and left.

Today I live in the UK. But it’s been a crazy long journey uprooting myself. I have directly seen the impact of abuse and of not letting women get ahead in life very closely. My work on women is a direct outcome of what I have experienced in my life. Trauma lingers long and I don’t know if peace will ever come. Both my mother and I felt ready to make this work. We are ready to tell our story. This work is the root of my artistic practice and activism. This is where it all began. I owe it to the women who have opened themselves up to me. I want them to know that we are fighting this oppression together. And we are doing this with agency. Our collective voice of resistance.

It is not enough for me to just provoke an audience. Because then you leave them no agency of what they should do next? Empathy is not a destination.

Blood Speaks deals with blood politics and its larger implications, such as menstrual exile, child widows, sexual abuse, dowry deaths, child brides, abortion, women in lifetime prison who have killed their abusive husbands to escape all kinds of stories. That work has encompassed large campaigns, community engagement, art as social practice. It took five years of hard work but ultimately, we saw light at the end of the tunnel. The practice of menstrual exile, known as chaupadi, was criminalised, and finally arrests are now being made. Thankfully! It’s a start but more work needs to be done.

It was not easy making that work. I have had death threats on the field. Once a man came at me with an axe because his wife decided to collaborate with me. Another time, during my first major project To Conquer Her Land, at an army camp I had a continuous knock on my door for three hours in the short hours of the morning. I was alone there. Another time, I saw a teenage girl getting horribly beaten and shamed in font of 30 men because she entered his threshold while menstruating. So, it is quite devastating to witness. I can tell you endless stories as to what I have seen women go through. With Centralia, if I give up my Indian passport my country likely will blacklist me from coming back because of the human rights crimes and extra judicial killings I have recorded. I was embedded with the guerrillas and told the stories of the female guerrillas. So yes, it is hard doing social justice work. Too many forces are against you. And then there’s always mental health, worries and self-care.

I was not interested in winning art awards and medals. It is not enough for me to just provoke an audience. Because then you leave them with no agency of what they should do next? Empathy is not a destination. I have barely exhibited the entire work. I do hope more people show the complete work somewhere. But I was really interested in seeing a constructive ground swell and impact. And I am actually glad it changed a law rather than me winning awards or climbing up the art ladder.

Poulomi Basu, from Centralia, 2010 – ongoing

BV:  It would be very naïve to skip past the obvious traumas that are present with this work. But, I want to talk about your relationship with your mum. From our conversations, I know it’s a bond that despite all the challenges so far faced is incredibly strong. How does she feel about this work and her roll in this project as your co-collaborator?

PB:  She feels very empowered to be able to conquer our collective shame. The injury, taboo and violence we have faced. She is an extremely bold, creative and forward thinking woman. If she had a real complete education and a chance in life, she’d be very successful. This I feel is true for many women. We have a very strong bond. But I do live in daily guilt of being able to escape while she is still trapped in a culture of violence. That thought haunts me every day. Even in my freedom I feel her pain. That is why it is important not only to tell women stories but to actively work towards ‘activating’ them. I have had many people who have sponsored girls after seeing stories I have done. So, it is possible to amplify our voices. Just have to keep working as fighting for women’s rights. It is an unrelenting battle. I do feel it is my calling. But it is also our collective responsibility.

BV:  I think in some ways this leads me to the very strong undercurrent of science fiction that runs within the work. The locations you’ve chosen together, the spaces in which the bodies feel boundless – such as you floating in the abyss of water. Did tropes of fantasy and dream help you work through some of the more difficult and / or painful elements in which you both appear vulnerable.

PB:  Creating a fantasy, a kind of fiction, creates a level of abstraction, allows me to view myself from an external perspective, to universalise my interior world and struggle so that these abstract thoughts and feelings can be communicated to an audience. Within my work, as seen in Centralia, I am interested in blurring the line between reality and fiction; in creating work that exists in a hybrid state. The tropes of science fiction allow for the reimagining of reality; of creating an exterior world that is comprised of elements that are normally interior. In this way the dystopian landscape becomes a metaphor for my vulnerabilities. The landscape as trauma.

BV:  How has the residency at Light Work helped you develop the work? 

PB:  During my time in Syracuse I was able to fully immerse myself in this work. Diving deep into these themes and ideas to edit a selection of images that were true to my original conception of this project. In doing so, I was also able to begin development of the written piece that will sit alongside both the images and is to be used within the 16mm films I am creating. This written piece takes the form of a free form poem that provides a thematic and narrative backbone to the project.

Additionally, I would say that the financial part of the residency helped me to travel and make the 16mm film and the photographic elements of Fireflies. I also started drafting my first script whilst at the residency. But that has evolved since then. A script needs to sit for a bit before it is final and ready in my opinion. Photographically, I will continue to develop this body of work, but at present, I would consider a portion of the photographic element complete. The work also comprised of two films. Editing is underway of the two films. They will be ready in 4-6 weeks. I am collaborating with filmmaker CJ Clarke on the films.

from the series ‘To Conquer Her Land’ by Poulomi Basu

BV:  The global presence of Covid-19 has dominated and consumed all aspects of our lives in over the last few weeks and months. Do you think the exploration of the self especially in relation to this project has evolved even further?

PB:  As with any work of art, I feel like Fireflies is reflective of the times in which it is made, perhaps more so given the themes of isolation and self-exploration, very much in evidence within our Covid affected societies. The conception of the work took place pre-Covid, but the evolution of the themes are definitely affected by what is occurring at the moment, and perhaps certain elements are more evident as a result. Whilst Fireflies is not a work directly about Covid, it definitely is, in part, a meditation on isolation and the resulting journey towards inner space that takes place as a result of such prolonged exposure to the self.

If we keep looking out for the community, the community will look after us. There is no greater need for this, than now.

BV:  Since we began this conversation, a devastating cyclone hit Calcutta and west Bengal – I know this is your home city and your community and being in the UK it must feel even further away, to just observe the destruction as a spectator.

PB:  Home has never felt this far away. We haven’t had power for almost 28 hours now*. My mother’s phone is about to die and in typical post-apocalyptic fashion Ma using the last bit of battery to let me know she is safe. Horrifyingly, the BBC has reported more on this than our national media, and the central government remains silent. All the trees have fallen. Hope seems lost. The scale and power of what happened yesterday has shaken us. We still don’t have power / running water / drinking water / windows smashed glass everywhere / water inside / intermittent phone network / a staff got through at one point to say our books storage studio is flooded. Our precious stock, books, stationery for school students and our shop, that has kept us going through this mess, paying rent and salaries. We are in despair, but my family still have a roof over their head. There was chaos in our brick home, can you even imagine what happened to the rest of Bengal?

Bengal, which is one of the poorest parts of the world in the best of times. Rural Bengal is finished. Calcutta is chaos. Millions of people are hungry, homeless, unemployed and possibly facing sickness in the midst of the pandemic. The shelters are overflowing, and social distancing is not possible. If I was terrified about my brick home, I cannot even imagine people in less sturdy structures, those on the streets and the animals. People have lost everything. The Sunderbans, the entire ecosystem has been damaged. Tigers and people are dead. The bottom has fallen out of Bengal. We don’t know what to do. 84,000 houses damaged in Khulna in Bangladesh. By the time you read this there will be thousands more.

Looking at all the photos of fallen trees in despair and thinking there is only one thing that will heal us now: community. People everywhere, Bengal needs your help. And people of Bengal, Bengal needs your help. We need to put everything aside and rebuild together.

It’s been helpless and unnerving to be a remote spectator to the absolute havoc caused by cyclone Amphan in a place I grew up, and where my Mother lives. It’s also inherently human (and flawed), to realize the gravity of something just when it hits home.

What I do completely believe and trust in is Calcutta’s innate resilience in the face of crisis, and the grit to move ahead, and help one another while doing so. Also, in a Calcuttan’s ability to bring humour in while dealing with the most dire of situations. If we keep looking out for the community, the community will look after us. There is no greater need for this, than now.

* Power was restored in Basu’s mother’s house 128 hours after the cyclone hit.

BV:  Resilience through all these hardships, the peaks and troughs will be key to our survival. What comes next for you?

PB:  2020 has been a strange one so far. On one hand my book completely went out of print and is a ‘lockdown bestseller’ on another hand I have seen huge cancellations of my shows and other events. I really think we will emerge out of this pandemic portal different versions of ourselves. In some cases, injustices will be deepened in some other cases we will come out more kind and spiritual.

It remains to be seen which end we decide to be on.

All images in this article courtesy of / © Poulomi Basu

Poulomi Basu recommends donating to the Amphan Cyclone Relief Fund to help support relief efforts

Basu’s book Centralia can be purchased from Dewi Lewis and Light Work

See more on Poulomi Basu’s website

Bindi Vora recommends this article by 1000 Words about Basu’s work

A Conversation with Pacifico Silano

Pacifico Silano uses photographs from vintage gay pornography magazines to make colorful collages that explore print culture and the histories of the LGBTQ+ community. His works are generally large scale, evoking strength and sexuality along with the underlying repression and trauma that many marginalized individuals experience. Silano was born at the height of the AIDS epidemic and lost his uncle to HIV. After his uncle’s death, Silano’s family erased his uncle’s memory because of their own feelings of shame about his sexuality and the stigma of HIV/AIDS itself during that time. Silano set out to create art that reconciled that loss and erasure. His Light Work exhibition, The Eyelid Has Its Storms…, somberly contemplates his pain and photography’s role in the struggle for queer visibility, while celebrating enduring love, compassion, and community.

The following conversation between Pacifico Silano and Shane Lavalette, director of Light Work, has been edited for length and clarity. They spoke in 2020.

Shane Lavalette: Could you start by telling us a bit about your artistic practice, or perhaps more specifically, what led you to work with images through collage and appropriation? 

Pacifico Silano: I started to work with appropriation while in graduate school. I was just beginning to create work around the themes of HIV/AIDS, inspired by my uncle, but didn’t have any photographs of him to work with. It really challenged me to think more broadly about the themes I was interested in exploring. I was studying under Sarah Charlesworth and Penelope Umbrico at the time. Both encouraged me to work with found imagery and I fell in love with the process of collecting materials and giving them new meaning. 

SL: I gather that your family-owned an adult novelty store while you were growing up. Interesting that you’re working with vintage pornography magazines as your source material now. 

PS: It sounds crazy but I always forget about the connection between the two. My parents opened the store when I was a teenager. It was something I was embarrassed to tell friends about growing up. Eventually I got over it. When I would visit home from college, my mom would have me work at the store so she could take a break. Looking back, it definitely influenced the way I think about the commodification of sex and pornography, which has very much shaped my work.

SL:  I’m curious, what drew you to the particular images from the magazines? Can you talk a bit about the choice to exclude overt sexuality and nudity? Much of your work doesn’t show faces either—how do you see the individuals in the portraits? 

PS: The thing I love about late 1960s through 1980s erotica is that there is a real softness to the way men are photographed. The way models are lit and the settings they’re depicted in are very particular. There’s a lot of nude bodies in the landscape captured in daylight. I like to extract those moments to meditate on loss and longing. By removing the overt explicitness and fragmenting or hiding the models, I’m asking the viewer to reconsider the photographs in a new context.

SL: I know that you’ve faced censorship of your work in the past. Most notably, in 2018, when you were asked to create a public art installation along the beach path in Bal Harbour and the city attempted to remove some of your most compelling works and redacted the word “queer” in the press release. For LGBTQ+ artists, the struggle for visibility—or simply the fight against acts of erasure—presses on. I just wonder how this experience impacted you and your artistic process and principles going forward. 

PS:  It was a really painful learning experience. I spent eight months working hard on something that came crashing down two weeks before it was supposed to debut. I had never had to deal with a falling out so publicly before. So it was an intense learning curve to be feuding with elected officials who had the power to shape their own narrative of what they wanted the public to think transpired. That aspect was frustrating. I’m really glad that I didn’t compromise and that I stood up for myself. The whole thing made me double down. It’s made me more committed to the work that I do.

SL: The Eyelid Has Its Storms… takes its title from a Frank O’Hara poem. Can you talk about how O’Hara’s writing had an impact on you personally, and in what ways it informs the work in your exhibition? 

PS: I really love the simplicity of O’Hara’s poetry. There is a touch of everyday life in his work that’s instantly familiar. I think in challenging times like we are living through, it’s especially comforting to revisit. I was reading Meditations in an Emergency last summer while creating some of the work in this exhibition.

I chose the poem “The Eyelid Has Its Storms…” as a title because of its evocative imagery. I work a lot with the gaze in my work and wanted to play off of that. I also really wanted to anchor this show to queer predecessors. Frank O’Hara lived a fascinating life and died tragically. So in some way I wanted to honor his legacy. 

SL: I always like to ask what other kinds of non-photographic media do you draw inspiration from?

PS: I love sad-ass songs, queer poetry, and good cinema. I also draw inspiration from a lot of my own experiences that I hide in the work.

SL: Beyond the individual collaged works, you’ve made a distinct decision to exhibit many of your works at quite a large scale. I’m curious to hear about how the images change as you blow them up, and your decision to pair or combine and overlay images in the gallery using vinyl on the walls behind the framed works. Can you talk a bit about this and how you see the added layering changing how a viewer interacts with the work? 

PS: Scale is a really important factor when working with appropriation. I’ve embraced working larger in the last year as a way to explore color, form, and the materiality of each image. I love the way an image falls apart at a large scale. The printing patterns of the magazines are heightened. It points the viewer to all of the subtle details that I’m interested in highlighting. Combining the framed works with vinyls on the wall is a way of replicating my photographic process in an installation. I like the way I’m able to mimic the metaphor of revealing and concealing a history. The layering of the two becomes another life for the photograph to live, separate from when it’s viewed alone. It’s another way to point to the infinite life of an image and its shifting meaning. 

SL: How do you begin a piece? When you know it’s complete? 

PS: I usually browse through new material and bookmark images that I think will make interesting juxtapositions. Sometimes I put them away for a couple of years until I find the right thing to do with them. I sort of meditate on an image for a while, then I’ll re-photograph it when I figure out how I want to re-contextualize it. In the past, I would stop myself from trying to “re-work” something after I put it out in the world but recently I’ve been rethinking that. It’s exciting when I’m able to breathe new life into something by making it part of a new diptych or installation. It sort of speaks to the ephemeral nature of the source material.

SL: You’ve mentioned your interest lies in the “slipperiness” of representation and meaning in photography as our culture shifts over time. How do you think we’ll look at your work in the future? 

PS: It’s hard to predict the future but I think years from now this work will be a snapshot in time. It will be a marker of where we were in relationship to history. So the context of these images will continue to evolve and become more complicated. 

Pacifico Silano is a lens-based artist born and living in Brooklyn. He has an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts. His group shows include the Bronx Museum, Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City, Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, and Tacoma Art Museum. His solo shows include Baxter St@CCNY, The Bronx Museum, Fragment Gallery in Moscow, Rubber Factory, and Stellar Projects. Aperture, Artforum, and The New Yorker have reviewed his work. Silano’s awards include the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s Individual Photographer’s Fellowship, Amsterdam’s Pride Photo Awards (First Prize), and the Aperture Foundation Portfolio Prize (finalist). His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Silano participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in 2016.

Shane Lavalette is an American photographer and the director of Light Work, a non-profit photography organization in Syracuse, New York. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette has shown his photographs widely, including exhibitions at Aperture Foundation, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Fotostiftung Schweiz, the High Museum of Art, Kaunas Gallery, Le Château d’Eau, Montserrat College of Art, Musée de l’Elysée, and Robert Morat Galerie. Many private and public collections also hold his work. Lavalette is the author of four monographs: One Sun, One Shadow (Lavalette, 2016), Still (Noon) (Edition Patrick Frey, 2018), LOST, Syracuse (Kris Graves Projects, 2019), and New Monuments (Libraryman, 2019). One Sun, One Shadow was shortlisted for the Author Book Award 2017 at Les Rencontres d’Arles, nominated for the Kassel Photobook Award 2017, and selected as one of the “Best Books” by photo-eye. Publications and outlets featuring Lavalette’s work include CNN, Foam Magazine, Hotshoe, NPR, The New York Times, The Telegraph, and TIME. His editorial work has accompanied stories in Bloomberg Businessweek, Curbed, Esquire, Monocle, The Guardian,The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wire, Topic, Vice Magazine, and Wallpaper. Lavalette is represented by Robert Morat Galerie in Berlin and We Folk agency in London and New York.

In Solidarity: A Letter to Our Community

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.  

Dear Light Work Community,
It has been an exhausting, sorrowful, and deeply troubling week. Whether you are here in Syracuse, in cities and communities across the United States, or watching from afar the unrest and outrage that the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has provoked, know that we too are hurt and outraged. 

We too ask how many Black men and women must die at the hands of the police before this ends. We too ask what “accountability” would look like. In our own city, police have used tear gas against our young people and physically attacked a respected older photojournalist during a demonstration. Across the country this past week, there have been more than one hundred incidents in which police have targeted and attacked journalists carrying cameras.
We will not be silent. We stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and join those in our city, across the nation, and around the globe that continue to fight against racial oppression, violence, and discrimination. At our Urban Video Project (UVP) site on the facade of the Everson Museum of Art, we’ve projected a series of photographs of protests by photographers Cherilyn Beckles, Mylz Blake, Dennis Fernando, Eric Jackson and Maranie Staab, along with a few quotes that resonate with this moment in history, including those of Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

It is necessary that we all do our part to make this nation better and demand accountability for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and so many individuals who should still be here today. It feels as though we are grappling with multiple pandemics, and the tragic losses are difficult to comprehend. 
Light Work has always made it our core mission to serve and support emerging, under-represented, and diverse artists in those we select for programs, including exhibitions, residencies, and grants. Events unfolding at this moment have reinforced to us that all such efforts are imperfect and that we must also always strive to do better. We must all commit to this, and you have our commitment. We will seek more broadly to exist as a safe space for artists and communities in new ways and we ask for your partnership. This may require us to cross uncharted waters together but we know as artists and members of the community that we can not afford to go back. 

On behalf of the Light Work Staff and Board,

Shane Lavalette, Director
Light Work

Mark McKnight Receives 2020 Light Work Photobook Award

With great pleasure, we announce that Los Angeles-based artist Mark McKnight is the recipient of the annual 2020 Light Work Photobook Award for his monograph, Heaven is a Prison. Loose Joints and Light Work will co-publish the book this year. Light Work gives the Photobook Award annually to an artistic project that deserves international attention. As in all Light Work programs, in selecting the artists for this recognition, we seek to highlight emerging and underrepresented artists from diverse backgrounds. As winner of the Photobook Award, McKnight’s book will be the featured Book Collectors’ selection in Light Work’s exclusive 2021 Annual Subscription program.

“Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison is a provocatively beautiful debut monograph that explores the sexuality and vulnerability of queer bodies,” said Light Work Director Shane Lavalette. “McKnight’s dark, silvery portraits made in the harsh sun and shadow of the desert landscape evoke the intimate connection between pain and desire.”

Mark McKnight
Heaven is a Prison
Loose Joints/Light Work, 2020
132 pages, 60 tritone plates
ISBN 978-1-912719-15-0
First Edition
Signed by the artist

Heaven is a Prison is an exploration of intimacy with and within the austere terrain of Southern California’s high desert. McKnight describes a queer otherworld that is at once utopic and purgatorial–occupied by a solitary pair of copulating, Sisyphean protagonists that appear both liberated and bound by their intimacies and the severe expanse in which they are depicted. Divided into chapters, the poetic sequences in this book oscillate between the literal and the figurative, between distance and communion, and between violence and affection. Claustrophobic, horizonless landscapes are coupled with images of ethereal clouds and tangled bodies that are simultaneously sculptural, shrewd, and tender. Through his synonymous description of landscape and body, McKnight suggests metaphor, pointing at both as vehicles–towards transcendence, bondage, beauty, and abjection–while also revealing them as two sides of the same coin.

Mark McKnight is a Los Angeles-based artist who has exhibited and published work throughout the United States and in Europe. Recent solo exhibitions include Mark McKnight (Aperture Foundation, 2020) and in this temporarily prevailing landscape (Klaus von Nichtssagend, 2020). His work has been written about in Aperture, Art in America, and BOMB Magazine. Mark is the recipient of the 2019 Aperture Portfolio Prize, the 2020 Light Work Photo Book Award, and a 2020 Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant. He is currently represented by Klaus von Nichtssagend, New York and Park View/Paul Soto, Los Angeles.

Pre-order a first edition SIGNED copy of our 2021 Book Collectors Offer. Order a signed copy of Heaven is a Prison by Mark McKnight and you will also receive a 2021 subscription to Contact Sheet (a $115 value) for only $75!

Make the Now Count: Support Light Work on #GivingTuesdayNow

#GivingTuesdayNow is a new global day of giving and unity set for May 5, 2020, as an emergency response to the unprecedented needs that COVID-19 has caused.

In celebration of this day of giving, we are reaching out for support. For more than 40 years, Light Work has been a leading artist-run organization, providing much-needed support to emerging and under-represented artists working in the field of photography and digital imaging—many of our artists have had a significant and ongoing influence on art and photography. With the safety of our staff and community as our top priority, we made the difficult but important decision to close our doors to the public on March 13. Over the last 52 days, Light Work staff and curators have worked diligently to reimagine new and creative ways to remain engaged. We are grateful for the incredible response we have received for our online programs. Yet, even with our hard-won triumphs, there is much work ahead and inevitable financial hurdles.

Please consider participating in #GivingTuesdayNow, lend your support through the purchase of an exclusive signed limited-edition print, a photobook, a subscription to our award-winning periodical Contact Sheet, or enrollment in one of our many online Lab workshops. Enter the coupon code “TOGETHER25” at checkout to take advantage of our 25% discount on all items in our online shop. This offer expires May 17 at 11:59 p.m. EST. Your support—during this uncertain time especially—helps us continue to deliver valuable experiences to our artists-in-residence, gallery patrons, Lab members, and community-wide photography family.

Make the Now Count. Visit the Light Work shop here

Make a donation to Light Work here

Re:Collection / Memoriam: Cjala Surratt on John Pfahl

“Strangers with puzzled looks were amazingly cooperative in letting me into their rooms with my photographic gear. They let me take down the curtains, wash the windows, and rearrange the furniture. Often, too, they expressed their desire to share their view with others, as if it were a nondepletable treasure. I liked the idea that my photographic vantage points were not solely determined by myself. They were predetermined by others, sometimes years earlier, and patiently waited for me to discover them.” — John Pfahl on his series, Picture Windows 

With great sadness, we share news of photographer John Pfahl’s recent passing, due to pre-existing medical conditions complicated by COVID-19. Pfahl was an alum of Fine Arts (’64) and  S.I. Newhouse School of Communications (’68) at Syracuse University. A supporter of Light Work, Pfahl was a beloved University of Buffalo professor and earlier taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology. A wonderfully inventive artist, he pioneered new digital photographic procedures in both printing and digitizing negatives in an image-making career that spanned more than thirty years. Pfhal practiced a photographic sleight-of-hand that skewed the landscape by manipulating the optics of the camera with objects or digitized interruptions. Light Work’s permanent Collection holds a number of images from Pfahl’s seminal portfolio, Permutations on the Picturesque, that particularly exemplify his unique approach. 

Pfahl’s Horse at Rydal Water, Lake District, England (1995/1997) presents an idyllic meadow containing the pastoralist’s usual muses—horse, pasture, watering hole, lush green foliage—a site of nature in respite, save an interruption by the artist’s hand. Two pixelated bars on the left side of the image create a stammer in the viewers’ gaze. Here, Pfahl extends the opportunity to stop and consider the interjection, its purpose, and his own intent as the image-maker. 

Many prominent collections hold his work, including Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Center for Creative Photography, George Eastman House, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Museum of Modern Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Pfahls’s photobooks include Altered Landscapes: The Photographs of John Pfahl (Friends of Photography, 1982), Picture Windows (New York Graphic Society, 1987), A Distanced Land (with Estelle Jussim, UNM/Albright-Knox Gallery, 1990), Permutations on the Picturesque (Light Work, 1997), Waterfall (with Deborah Tall, Nazraeli Press, 2000), and Extreme Horticulture (with Rebecca Solnit, Verlag, 2003).

John’s works and tireless contributions as an educator, innovator, photographer, and author are witnesses to his passions as an artist. Light Work considers it an honor that our permanent Collection holds fifteen pieces of John Pfahl’s photographic legacy for posterity. John’s wife, Bonnie Gordon, and his brother, Walter Pfahl, survive him. We are among the many who keenly miss him. 

View John Pfhal’s images in Light Work’s Collection here.

Browse John Pfhal’s recent work on his website.

John Pfahl (1939-2020)

Stuart Rome, a Light Work artist-in-residence in 1978 shares memoriam tribute to his dear friend John Pfhal. Pfahl passed on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, due to pre-existing medical conditions complicated by COVID-19. He was 81.

One of the saddest and most difficult jobs has got to be writing an obituary for a dear friend — and John Pfahl was that and more.

I attended R.I.T. starting in 1971 amongst an incredible freshman class and teachers to match, but the one who stood out was John Pfahl, who at the time was making photo installation sculpture. I had never seen anything like that and when I returned for my second year, it was with the goal of studying with John.

I, like many, have had my share of good and bad luck and one of the luckiest moments was connecting with John in his introduction to color class. John encouraged me as any good teacher would, but he also took an interest in my welfare. At the time, I was working as a janitor at the school to pay my way and in the summer cleaning students dorm rooms was especially depressing. I remember John phoning to offer the opportunity to work with him on what would become his breakthrough series, Altered Landscapes. I was so depressed that I initially passed up the opportunity, thinking that my mood would negatively affect his work, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  John drove from his home in Buffalo to where I was living on the outskirts of Rochester, made me pack a bag and he drove me to his home, where I spent the better part of that summer working as his assistant. That year, I became like family to both John and his wife, Bonnie Gordon, and from then on they treated me like one of their household. That summer, working daily with John at Art Park in Lewiston, NY, showed me what life as an artist looked like and I was hooked.

After I left Rochester, we kept in touch weekly and if I didn’t call, John would call me to make sure everything was OK. A few years later, when my graduate thesis show opened in Tempe, Arizona, much to my surprise, the first person that walked through the door was John Pfahl. John visited me many times in the many places I lived through the years and when he first got sick with cancer in the ’80s, I started visiting him more often in Buffalo.

John beat the cancer the first time, but it resurfaced a few years later and he beat it once again. The third time the cancer returned was just weeks before I was to leave for a year to work on a photo project in Indonesia and I drove up to Buffalo to see him in hospital to say good-bye, hoping that it would not be the final visit, and he asked me a favor. If he survived, could he come visit with me. When he was a boy, he saw a National Geographic article about central Sulawesi and always wanted to go there and, of course, I agreed. He survived and came to visit and our trip together, photographing side by side is one my happiest memories.

There are so many stories I could tell that would illustrate John’s playful sense of humor, his abiding intellect and his remarkable generosity, but that will keep for now. I still remember a sweltering Philadelphia swamp of a June day a quarter of a century ago when John walked into what would become Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden decked out in a sarong to be best man at my wedding. It feels eternally like yesterday.

Truly, the best possible luck was having John enter my life when he did and remain a close friend, critic, and confidante. The worst was losing him last week. Some memories have a life all their own.

View John Pfhal’s images in Light Work’s Collection here.

Browse John Pfhal’s recent work on his website.

Re:Collection: Dionne Lee on Susan Brodie

Visitors to our website are invited to explore thousands of photographic works and objects from the Light Work Collection in our online database that expands access of work by former Light Work artists to students, researchers, and online visitors. To coincide with the our collection website launch, we’re introducing a series on our blog called Re:Collection, inviting artists and respected thinkers in the field to select a single image or object from the archive and offer a reflection as to its historical, technical, or personal significance.

Today we’re sharing a reflection on an image made by Susan Brodie from multimedia artist Dionne Lee. Lee, born in New York City and based in Oakland, received her MFA from California College of the Arts in 2017. Dionne Lee: Trap and Lean-to exhibited in Light Work’s Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery in 2019.

As most of us remain homebound, I’ve found myself pulled between conflicting emotions and obligations: wanting to help but feeling helpless, wishing for connection in a time of mandatory physical solitude, tired of the indoors and wanting to go out. The desire to take a long walk, to go far away, without destination, grows daily.

This photograph by Susan Brodie offers a possibility of escape within the home. The glowing magnets of fruits and vegetables, familiar objects of a grandmother’s fridge, circling each other in a soft-shaped diamond, suggests a portal made from the most humble of knicknacks. Of course, there also is the fridge itself; both a container and gateway. So are the ingredients inside, the meals that will be created, the company that will share them, and the conversations that will happen over each composed plate (their own individual gateways), arranged and then consumed. Everything is traveling through something.  

I’m left wondering what other household objects can be gazed at, circled, squared, or spread out into an escape route: black beans let loose from their jar, a lasso of spaghetti, the bottom of a glass after the last sip of water…

Find more of Susan Brodie’s work online here.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at