Re:Collection: Pacifico Silano on Robert Benjamin

Visitors to our website can now explore thousands of photographic works and objects from the Light Work Collection in a new online database that expands access of work by former Light Work artists to students, researchers, and online visitors. To coincide with the our new 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 Robert Benjamin’s Jaiya, 1984 from 2016 Light Work in-residence, Pacifico Silano.

If you’ve ever taken a Photography 101 class, you’re familiar with the cardinal rule: no pictures of babies or dogs. There’s something about how everyone likes them, and so that deems them “unserious” subject matter. And yet many photographers, over the course of their careers, will, at one point or another, break the rules and turn their camera to the family pet. We love to be disarmed by these images as they bring us a sense of levity in an increasingly divided and hostile world.

Robert Benjamin’s 1984 photograph, Jaiya, is a gentle reminder of the unconditional love we receive from our devoted, four-legged friends. A bed of grass fills the frame, the dog laying against it in the sun, with a glimpse of the photographer’s foot appearing in the lower right-hand corner. It’s an image that tells us of the simple pleasures in life like laying outside in the summer and briefly forgetting our troubles. We want to be as carefree and content as a dog, to not have to stress, worry, or live in fear for the future.

Find more of Pacifico Silano’s work online here.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at

Re:Collection: Robert Benjamin on Lawrence McFarland

Visitors to our website can now explore thousands of photographic works and objects from the Light Work Collection in a new online database that expands access of work by former Light Work artists to students, researchers, and online visitors. To coincide with the our new 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 Lawrence McFarland’s Untitled image from Robert Benjamin, Lab member and 2014 Light Work artist-in-residence.

Special note: Robert Benjamin: River Walking is on view in the Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery March 18 – July 27, 2019

At times photographs can feel too substantial, anchored to the hard, physical realities of our world. Here, in McFarland’s beautiful photograph, even the road seems to evaporate into the almost weightless atmosphere. The black top and fence posts remain vague markers, while light and space emerge as the true subjects―as in a dream or vision.

I find myself wondering if Mr. McFarland has still to travel down this expanse to nowhere, or has he successfully and gratefully left the worst behind? The icy tire tracks don’t answer the question, only confirming a passage has occurred.

Of course, the happy news is that he made it home again, and has stopped long enough to hear the quiet, smell the snow, felt the small mystery―and brought it back for us to share.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at

Re:Collection: Marvin Heiferman on Toby Old

Visitors to our website can now explore thousands of photographic works and objects from the Light Work Collection in a new online database that expands access of work by former Light Work artists to students, researchers, and online visitors. To coincide with the our new 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 Toby Old’s Diving Mule, Orange County Fair, from Loose Games Series, 1991 from Marvin Heiferman, Faculty, International Center of Photography.

Square photographs, like snow globes, are classically balanced and seem to offer up perfect little worlds, at least until their contents get shaken up a bit. Think Vivian Meier, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar or Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Fink, and even Robert Adams. Think Toby Old, too, who, since the 1970s, has been drawn to various spectacles in, and the fleshiness of, everyday life. Trained as a dentist―a field that, like photography, demands a forensic eye for detail―Old went on to picture disco revelers, boxers, strippers and their audiences, and public events, all with an appreciation for both localized cultural values and the more generalized ways of the world. In this photograph, a silhouetted mule, hurtling headlong into a swimming pool at a state fair, hints at mythology, Muybridge, and danger, while rapt observers underscore Old’s fascination (and ours) with extraordinary things we can see when we’re receptive, patient, or maybe just lucky enough.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at

Re:Collection: M. Neelika Jayawardane on Zanele Muholi

Visitors to our website can now explore thousands of photographic works and objects from the Light Work Collection in a new online database that expands access of work by former Light Work artists to students, researchers, and online visitors. To coincide with the our new 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 Zanele Muholi’s Lerato (Syracuse), 2015 from M. Neelika Jayawardane, Associate Professor at SUNY Oswego and Light Work board member.

Zanele Muholi’s work has always focused on telling stories that were rarely incorporated into the national narrative, or South Africa’s celebration of itself as a newly democratic nation. As a “visual activist,” Muholi’s portraits provide the foundation for her remarkable, long-term cartographic project, Faces and Phases. This portrait series, created between 2007 and 2014, maps, “commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers” Muholi met during journeys that spanned rural and urban South Africa. The project also collects first-hand accounts that bear witness to the schizophrenic experience of living in a nation where LGBTI people are often the targets of violence—this despite the fact that South Africa’s progressive constitution specifically protects the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) people. Having realised that not having photographic evidence of her maternal or paternal grandparents resulted from a “deliberate” erasure, Muholi remembers feelings of “longing, of incompleteness, believing that if I could know their faces, a part of me would not feel so empty.” That knowledge of deliberate, systematic erasure from the nation’s historical records is so acute that she is driven now to “project publicly, without shame.”

We recognize, today, that ethnographic and tourist photographs serve the function of aiding Western visitors’ creation of subjectivity—as superior, perhaps benign, socially, intellectually, and geographically mobile, and participating in the flows of modernity. That project of European modernity required that the African subject remained firmly “fixed,” immobilized in time and place. Given that history, Muholi’s image of Lerato Dumse, a writer who documents their travels together for this project, reminds us of the significance of black portraiture photography—photographs of black subjects by black photographers—in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As with W.E.B. du Bois’American Negro installation for the 1900 Paris Exposition—which organized 363 images into albums—Muholi uses photography and portrait-making as powerful political tools that contribute to one’s self-perception, as well as to the ways that others visualize who you are, as an individual or as a social group. Muholi’s work also signifies an older tradition of African studio photography, in which it is plain that those within the frame—people who colonial administrators and contemporary travelers from the geo-political West often misrepresented and caricatured—are no longer satisfied with remaining as simple “subjects.”

Today, there is a proliferation of photographs of black people, and in particular of black, African people, by white photographers. It is not just an “absence” of images that Muholi’s work helps counter, but an over-abundance of a problematic gaze that has its roots in white supremacist ideologies. As photography scholar John Edwin Mason recently wrote on Twitter, “White people like to look at photos of black people. There’s a seemingly insatiable demand [for] photos of black folks. Part of the reason is that photos give us permission to stare.” Though we “all like to stare,” he argues, audiences in the geo-political West have historically liked “to stare at the racial other.” Whilst some of that looking can be borne of somewhat benign curiosity, and even accept and celebrate the challenges that Muholi, and other black women and non-cis-gendered photographers pose, much of what we continue to reward in portrayals of African people is what Mason calls a “safe” gaze. That photographic gaze allows the “looker” who is geo-politically situated in the West to remain in a comfortable, traditional role—wherein they are entitled not only to look, but to penetrate, and to impose. It does not “disrupt established ways of seeing—and, thus, knowing—black and brown people,” or “take viewers outside of their comfort zones.” Because of the “safety” that such portraiture affords white viewers, especially, Mason concludes, it does little to challenge or change ways “of seeing and knowing that are the product of societies in which white supremacy is a given.” Though such photographs are often attractive (mostly because they meet stereotypical expectations we have been trained to imagine as “African”), and technically and compositionally expertly-made, they also fail us by presenting our world in solely heteronormative terms.

That failure of imagination is what this remarkable photograph by Muholi—and Lerato Dumse’s seemingly simple, direct look-back at us—counters. Here, Dumse is a powerful, playful co-creator of their portrait. They are self-styled, moving between phases in mood, in dialogue with the photographer and potential audiences.

The photograph gives us permission—perhaps even invites us—to stare back at Dumse’s lovely, symmetrical face, and their choice of slightly oversized check-pattern jacket, paired with an unlikely shirt patterned with bold, vertical stripes. But we know that we are not driving their narrative, or simply instrumentalising the person in the frame of the photograph as an “other” to further our own subjectivities. Rather, we commune with them with a respect and an understanding that this person is able to powerfully fashion themselves and how they wish others to see them. They are in dialogue with us, looking back and pushing back against the narrow possibilities that hegemonic culture made us all believe is all we have. This portrait gives us—all of us— the courage to ask for far more.

Find more of M. Neelika Jayawardane’s work online here.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at

Collection Connection: Dean Kessmann

Washington D.C. based artist Dean Kessmann shares his experiences during his residency at Light Work in July 2009, which culminated in a generous gift to the Light Work Collection.

Nearly two years ago, I arrived at Light Work ready to start printing a nearly completed series titled A Year at a Glance. Once those prints were complete, I quickly went to work on a second project, Art as Paper as Potential: Giving/Receiving, which was in the middle stages of production. After I made sufficient progress on the second project, I turned my attention to a third project, which is still untitled, and, unfortunately, unfinished. My goal was to complete A Year at a Glance, make significant progress on Art as Paper as Potential, and get at least one test image done for the third project. I’m happy to say that I achieved my goal; it’s amazing how much work you can get done when you have the support of the awesome Light Work staff.

Art Forum (front cover) 2007, Art Forum (back cover) 2007, from A Year at a Glance

Prior to receiving the residency at Light Work, A Year at a Glance was precariously close to being placed on the eternal back burner of ideas that never see the light of day. The worst part was that this project was nearly finished; I simply had not had the time to focus my attention on it once it reached a critical stage in the process. Other projects and other exhibitions were, for various reasons, taking precedence over this one, so A Year at a Glance kept being postponed. When I received the call from Mary Goodwin at Light Work telling me that I had been selected as an Artist-in-Residence, she asked whether the project that I had included in my application, A Year at a Glance, had been completed. Feeling somewhat embarrassed because my application had been submitted over a year earlier, I sheepishly answered, no. To my surprise, this answer was warmly received; Mary was very enthusiastic about having me work on this series when I arrived.

Art Papers (front cover) 2007, Art Papers (back cover) 2007, from A Year at a Glance

Artists-in-Residence are not required to work on any specific project while in Syracuse, which is one of the great things about Light Work. However, after thinking about my options, I decided that I should pull this project off the back burner and make it my first priority. Once the sixteen diptychs that make up A Year at a Glance were completed, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders, a huge sense of satisfaction, and very thankful to Light Work for believing in this project. As mentioned above, I went on to make significant progress on a second project and headway on a third. In the end, I was able to accomplish more during the month in Syracuse than I generally get done in an entire year. This was the gift given to me by the staff at Light Work.

Blind Spot (front cover) 2007, Blind Spot (back cover) 2007, from A Year at a Glance

Most Light Work Artists-in-Residence donate a print or two to the permanent collection at the end of their residency. I could have submitted a single diptych from this series; however, I wanted Light Work to have the entire series. The fact of the matter is that this work may not have been done had I not been awarded a residency. Furthermore, I may not have bothered to complete A Year at a Glance had Mary not told me how excited she was about this series when I talked to her for the first time.

Art in America (front cover) 2007, Art in America (back cover) 2007, from A Year at a Glance

A Year at a Glance presents a snapshot of the art world through the front and back covers of sixteen art magazines. Even though a single diptych encompasses a year of arts coverage from the perspective of one magazine, it provides a somewhat narrower picture than the entire set. While the entire series of prints is not an exhaustive typology by any means, it does provide a slightly wider angle of view. Light Work made it possible for me to complete this project; therefore, it only seemed right that I donate an entire edition of this series to the collection, which I happily did. —Dean Kessmann

Dean Kessmann teaches photography at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His work has been exhibited at a wide variety of venues, from appearances at Aqua Art Miami and PULSE New York to several shows at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. For more information about Kessmann and his work, visit his website at

Students explore the Light Work Collection for curating ideas

We received the following note from Syracuse University graduate student Lily Betjeman, who is enrolled in the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at the school. As part of the coursework, the program asks their students to curate an exhibition from the Light Work Collection, which they do online. Lily writes in to share her experiences looking for exhibition ideas in the Collection:

When Amei Wallach, an art critic and filmmaker who is a visiting scholar for my course, asked us to curate an exhibition from the Light Work Collection, it felt unwieldy at first. After all, where do you start if you have over 3,000 works to draw on? The task proved much more fluid than I had thought, however, once I let myself respond to a couple works and associate from there. I have a feeling this experience may be common for people interested in art.

While reading about Light Work’s history on their website, an image called Cheers, from Standards of Perfection (1999) by Linda Adele Goodine stuck out. The work features a grid made out of wedding cakes interspersed with pictures of young female cheerleaders. The images of the girls look like they are taken from a yearbook, preserved moments of rigid good humor.

Often associated with ambitious if not repressed females, perfectionism can take a powerful hold of people. Goodine’s work shows both the allure and the falsity inherent in notions of female perfection. But I wanted to explore more artists’ visions of perfection.

Enter the search term “perfect” into the online Collection database and more than 700 images show up. The term “perfection” in contrast yields 30 images. I decided to look through the “perfect” images first to have a broader range to choose from. Rita Hammond’s Architecture: Resort Series was haunting and felt related to Goodine’s work. The series of black and white images capture resort culture in central New York. Absent in the photographs, however, are people.  One work, Untitled (track and stands of Saratoga Race Track), shows the deserted track, so lively during the summer months. I felt an inkling of a theme developing: Notions of Perfection in Americana.

I have much more searching to do, and I’m really excited to see where my instinct takes me. The process is about looking at art but also about forming connections, another kind of creative process. The show I end up with may desert my initial idea entirely, but I’m sure the exploration will lead somewhere revealing. — Lily Betjeman

We’re looking forward to seeing the results of the Goldring students’ research, and we’ll be featuring a selection of their exhibitions on this blog in April.

Organizing the Light Work Collection

In 1985 we put together an exhibition from our collection titled Light Work: Photography Over the 70s and 80s. The exhibition opened at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse and then traveled to several locations throughout the state for the next two years. Most of the work in the exhibition was donated to us by artists who had participated in our Artist-in-Residence program (AIR).

We started the AIR program in 1976, and it continues today as our most important contribution to the field. We currently invite 12-15 artists per year to participate in the program with the goal of giving artists the opportunity to do what they do best—make new work. Each artist comes to Syracuse for a month and is provided housing, a private darkroom or computer workspace, 24 hour access to our lab and a $4,000 artist fee. Their only obligation is to work on the project of their choice without any distractions or additional requirements. At the end of their residency each artist is asked to donate a few examples of their work to our collection, and we publish a selection of their work in a special annual edition of our journal Contact Sheet. (Image: Gary Metz, from the series Quaking Aspen, Populous Tremuloides.)

When we did the retrospective exhibition in 1985 we realized that we had a unique collection that would continue to grow along with our AIR program. So in 1992 when we began to catalogue and digitize the collection. Our goal was to make the collection accessible and searchable from a number of different perspectives. In 1992 the database technology, and especially the image data base technology, was nothing like it is today. There was no Internet, and the founders of Google were in grade school. We were able to digitize the work in the collection using Kodak’s Photo CD service where you sent Kodak 100 slides and they sent you back a CD filled with digital files. Kodak also had an image database program called Shoebox, and we used that as our first database.

We created a number of fields in the database to help us organize the work with obvious functions like artist’s name, dates, titles, catalogue numbers, and where the print was located in the collection. Because it was a collection of images, we also wanted to try and develop a way to search the collection in order to find works that might relate to one another. One way to do that was to use a keyword field that might include general descriptions of the image like, portrait, landscape, abstract, etc. We thought that this system was too limited for a number of reasons, including the general nature of the descriptions, and the objectivity of whoever had the task of assigning keywords to each image.

In the original Shoebox database there was a long text field where we could add essays about the artists, artists statements, or just about any kind of description about the artist or the image. We had already been writing essays about each artist for publication in Contact Sheet, so we could easily add these essays to each record in the database and make the entire essay searchable. While this wasn’t a perfect solution it seemed like a good way to search the collection that might turn up unexpected and also useful results. Now that the entire collection in online in a searchable database we want to encourage our audience to use this flexible search capability to make their own connections with the collection. (Image: Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Chest.)

As I am writing this I am looking out over a very snowy January Syracuse landscape, so I decided to type “winter” into the search box in the collection. The search produced 42 matches including work by Peter Finnemore, Hank Willis Thomas, and Gary Metz. I’ve just included the images here along with the caption information and would be very interested to have your comments about the results.

—Jeffrey Hoone, Executive Director

Image: Peter Finnemore, Mad about the Cow.

Birth of the Light Work collection

The Light Work collection is an important collection of contemporary photography and at the same time serves as a record of how Light Work has accomplished its mission to support artists working in photography since 1973.

The collection was started by accident rather than by design and as a byproduct of listening to and meeting the needs of artists. Shortly after Light Work was founded as the programming arm of Community Darkrooms, a public access photography lab at Syracuse University, we began to engage the larger community of photography through a series of exhibitions, lectures, and workshops. Our workshops were fairly typical for the time where we would invite photographers from across the country to Syracuse to conduct short two or three day workshops where they could share their expertise and knowledge with photographers from our area. After a few years of conducting workshops led by Larry Fink, Les Krims, Charles Harbutt, Melissa Shook, Linda Connors, and others, a simple conversation changed how we were to provide support to artists for years to come. No one seems to agree on which artist the conversation took place with, but it played out something like this. When either Phil Block or Tom Bryan was taking one of the artists, who had just completed a workshop, to the bus station for the trip back home they were doing a general debrief of how the workshop went. The artist remarked that he thought things went well and that it seemed like the students got a lot out of the experience. After a slight pause the artist offered a candid reflection by saying, “But I’m not so sure what I got out of the experience. You have such a great lab facility, and what I could really use is just the time to come and make new work without any distractions or obligations.”

So a light bulb went off and we realized that a core need that most artists have is to be able to have the time, support, and access to facilities to do what they do best, which is make new work.

Synapse, an alternative video organization that shared the same building with us, had been inviting artists to Syracuse to produce new video works, so we asked to share their artist apartment and invited Charles Gatewood as our first Artist-in-Residence in August 1976. The deal was very simple—we gave him a place to stay, a private darkroom, keys to the facility, and $1,000 and told him that his only obligation was to do his own work. It was probably our good fortune and the good fortunes of the 350 artists who followed Gatewood in our residency program that his initial stint as a visiting artist was so successful and productive. During his residency Gatewood printed in the darkroom and also made new photographs at the New York State Fair, which is held annually in Syracuse at the end of the summer. Although we only invited him for a month, he stayed for six weeks and to show is appreciation he gave us a half-dozen prints he made during his time in Syracuse. Shown here is Human Punctuation, New York State Fair.

We were very pleased with Gatewood’s gift and decided to make it a requirement of each future Artist-in-Residence to ask for a donation of a few prints from their residency in order to have a trace of what they worked on in Syracuse. After just a few years the donations from visiting artists began to accumulate into an impressive collection, and it would take us several more years to organize this great asset and make it available to the public. We will talk about that process in upcoming articles and encourage you to explore the collection online.

—Jeffrey Hoone, Executive Director

New blog features

The Collection Connection is one of several new columns that we are initiating for the Light Work blog. In addition to the Collection Connection we will be introducing From the Files, Best of the Rest, and featuring monthly giveaways of signed prints and books to readers of our blog. We hope you find these new features of interest and plan to return often.

The Collection Connection will feature articles written about work contained in Light Work’s permanent collection of over 3,500 photographs and photo-based objects and installations. The entire collection is accessible online in a searchable image database. There are many great features of the database including the ability to search for any word or combination of words across all data fields and the ability for viewers to save selections from the collection and view or present them as slide shows.

These features make it easy to create exhibitions from the collection and in the coming months we will create opportunities for readers to put together exhibitions from the collection and present them both on our blog and our main website.

There are many things that make the Light Work collection unique. Unlike most collections at museums, universities, and cultural institutions that were built with specific criteria, areas of interest, and noting of connoisseurship, the Light Work collection contains work primarily made by artists who have participated in our international Artist-in-Residence program. An overwhelming number of works in the collection were produced in Syracuse either in the darkroom, computer lab, studio, or in the field. There are very few collections in the world where the creation of work in a single location both defines and feeds the collection.

Also because our mission is to support emerging and under recognized artists the work in the collection has early works by important contributors to the field including Cindy Sherman (shown here), Laurie Simmons, James Casebere, James Welling, Zeke Berman, Dawoud Bey, Fazal Sheikh, Carrie Mae Weems, Andres Serrano, and many others.

So we hope you find this brief introduction to the collection informative and you take the time to view the collection online and check back here for further articles and insights into this unique collection of contemporary photography.