The World’s Best Photographers Stop in Syracuse

Beyond heavy doors, in a temperature-controlled room behind the office of Jeff Hoone, Light Work's Executive Director, hundreds of copies of photos previously shown in the studio wait to be rediscovered. Enjoy a few from the most influential contributors.

Words by Johnny Rosa

In the age of Instagram, where the novice and the natural take photos and then edit and disseminate them to the world, the 1973 dilemma of SU student Phil Block and local photographer Tom Bryan seems antiquated — they needed a place to develop their photos. Working with the university, the duo turned an unused kitchen in the basement of Watson Hall into a wet photo lab. That lab became Light Work, a non-profit photo-imaging center with an international reputation that provides a creative space for photographers, of all levels, from around the globe. It also features a competitive, one-month residency program to 12 emerging artists striving to grow as photographers every year. “It is highly esteemed in the photography world,” says Stephen Mahan, a member of Light Work’s board of directors and director of SU’s photography and literacy project. “Almost anybody in the photography world under 60, who is worth knowing, likely had their residency at Light Work.” As examples, Mahan lists Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, and Laurie Simmons.

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Inside the brightly-lit, hospital-white, airy lab massive printers named after pop icons like Biggie Smalls and legendary photographers like Vivian Maier produce finely edited photographs under the watchful eyes of Light Work employees. Beyond the initial building of the space, the facility experienced the biggest change in 2000 when the entire floor underwent a $3.2 million renovation, thanks to the generosity of Robert B. Menschel and Syracuse University. The year-long project doubled the lab’s space to its current 10,000 square feet. Since then, Light Work has scaled back its dark room facilities twice, shifting as the photography industry moves away from film and toward digital.

To the unfocused eye, the photographs that cling magnetically to walls around Light Work seem dynamically vibrant. Bright hues pop out of crisp backgrounds, smoke rises out of an old factory, and a man stands alone in a forest. A moment’s glance from master printer John Wesley Mannion spots lost details, color imbalances, and prompts a quick circle from a black marker. That expertise and attention to detail brings artists to Light Work, and Mannion guarantees he will reproduce each frame as pristinely as possible. Carefully critiquing and analyzing every inch of a scene renders the pictures into exquisite works of art. Under Manion’s guidance, artists edit their files into printable versions of the masterpieces they envision in their minds. “It’s a science,” he says. “It’s repeatable.” Mannion has studied the attentive and precise art of color theory. “If we figure out how to print it here, they can bring it anywhere and get it right,” he says. The biggest gifts the master printer gives his photographers are years of experience and a knack for making photos into the masterpieces artists envision.

Bringing an image from newly-captured film or a digital file to a museum-ready masterpiece involves multiple iterations and a lot of printer ink. The cramped back closet, which the bearded, long-haired, spectacled Mannion calls his office, serves as evidence of the tediousness of his task. Stacks of cut paper and small prints fight with shelves of books for breathing room in a space that barely accommodates Mannion’s rolling office chair. It also explains why the master printer’s projects have expanded across almost every surface at Light Work.

Light Work’s Artist in Residence back in January 2015, Miki Soejima, has four strikingly geometric photographs stand out amongst the clutter. Vivid colors pop off the page against muted backgrounds and dynamic shapes intrigue the eyes of onlookers. Framed by the stark white wall and highlighted by a spotlight from the ceiling, these overlapping prints serve as the culmination of the paper stacked in Mannion’s office. Transformed from film scans to final prints, these prints reflect the work of the master printer and the artist, who work collaboratively on every aspect of production and editing en route to most artists’ end goal: a book cataloguing their final products. The process is lengthy and technical, but the final products boast crisp, deep blacks with no variation, bright colors that burst from the page, and all printed on the high-quality paper to achieve the kind of color and quality professionals demand. Analyzing, printing, comparing, and reprinting drafts can take days or weeks to get right, and each process depends on what kind of material an artist begins with and what end goal he or she has for their work. Notes to further enhance or correct every image are scrawled across the margins of the prints. Some pages hold multiple iterations of the same image, an effort to analyze different color decisions. Manion taught himself the finesse art of color theory and photo correction, but the subject is so vital to photography that students at SU can pick from five different courses focusing on light and color alone.

At Light Work, artists receive the intense editing and high-quality data analysis Mannion can provide, but they also join a nonprofit that holds exhibitions and residencies. A membership with Light Work makes practical sense for artists. For $150 per year their work gets fine tuned, all of it can be printed on site, and then it immediately goes on display in one of Light Work’s various programs. A special $300 “Printmaker” yearly membership is even available for artists who want to print their work more often. Light Work combines the editing of a service bureau with the content of a nonprofit gallery. It also makes sense for students and for those in the community interested in photography. Photography students in the Visual and Performing Arts’ transmedia department receive memberships to the nonprofit as part of their tuition. Lectures with visiting artists in residence and internships with master printer John Manion are commonplace. Any students or those with an SUID (as well as those 65+) can purchase a year-long membership for $100 or a four-month membership for $60.

Gerard Gaskin is one of those artists who enjoys the technology, expertise, and community of Light Work. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Gaskin, a commercial photographer, found a new home at Light Work when he and his wife moved to Syracuse from New York City. After working in the industry for more than 20 years, Gaskin knows a good gig when he sees it. The massive printers, strong community, and powerful technology that fill the Light Work lab are what the seasoned professional find to be the most valuable assets of working with the nonprofit. As with most of the industry, Gaskin is in the middle of converting years of film negatives into digital files. Light Work gives him access to tools that would be costly to use back in the Big Apple. The Flextight film scanner outside Manion’s office alone would cost more than $50 per hour in New York. Artists can only manage about seven or eight scans every hour, converting an entire life’s work into data adds up quickly. Gaskin takes full advantage of the technology under Watson Hall to bring his portfolio into the modern era.

But lab membership offers more than high-end equipment. The revolving door of artists, students, professors, and professionals like Gaskin provide a sense of community. Working side-by-side, all these individuals learn from each other, elevate each other’s work, and share tips. For example, the nonprofit saves money refilling their ink cartridges instead of buying new replacements thanks to techniques brought by members passing through. And Gaskin considers conversations about art and photography to be just as important as those about the city around him. New to Syracuse, Gaskin used discussions about Salt City neighborhoods and events downtown to get him off the hill and out of the university neighborhood where he lives. “We sort of live in a bubble up here,” Gaskin says. “I like to know about what’s going on downtown.” Light Work helped Gaskin form a community that helped improve his body of work and connect him and his family to Syracuse.

Board of directors member Mahan echoes that sentiment. He met his wife, Mary Lynn Mahan, an art teacher at Syracuse’s Edward Smith Elementary School, at Light Work. She struggled to use an enlarger, and he offered to help. That was 28 years ago. Light Work continues to be a touchstone for the couple. For 10 years, they brought about 75 fourth and fifth graders to Light Work to show them how to make and print images in the dark room. “It was like magic to those kids,” Mary Lynn says of the experience. They gave students cameras, asked them to document scenes from their lives, and told them to write about what they captured. The works were displayed around the city, including exhibits at Light Work, city hall, and SU’s warehouse.

When Light Work downsized its dark-room offerings, the annual project ended, but Mary Lynn still remembers the value of that experience and of Light Work. “Thinking back on walking to Light Work with all those students and hearing their voices and excitement, I realize how isolated our lives can get,” she says. “When you’re working in that dark room and sharing that medium and there’s a professional there side-by-side with you, there’s a sense of being with one another, a sense of being and of making something,” she says. That was true for her students and for her. “It’s not like the resident artists are in a golden tower. They are right beside you, working. I would be using the dryer and someone would be using the loop, and they would be from Germany or California. That kind of exposure is wonderful. And there are just not a lot of places where you can do that.”

Thanks to its role in identifying emerging artists, and the hard work of Jeffrey Hoone, who has been the director of Light Work since 1982, the art world knows all about the little Syracuse nonprofit. In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Light Work $50,000 to support its artist-in-residence program and the production of the organization’s quarterly photo book, “Contact Sheet,” that highlights the work of the resident artists. Hundreds of photographers, collectors, and institutions around the globe receive the publication, providing exposure for new photographers. “‘Contact Sheetreally puts photographers on the map internationally,” says Mahan. Weems, one of Light Work’s more celebrated artists and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “genius grant”) in 2013, credits the publication with initiating dozens of phone calls and letters from people, institutions, and curators who played a key role in launching her career. Equally important is the residency program. Over the course of a year, the residency program gives 12 different artists a place to live in Syracuse for a month and unlimited access to the labs for that time. Last year the organization received more than 900 applications for the spots (Gaskin managed to get in on his first try). But many end up with a rejection letter in their mailbox. “A lot of artists say it’s the best rejection letter they ever received,” says Hoone.

It’s clear why — Light Work is run by artists who understand the struggle. Above Hoone’s desk hang three black-and-white photographs with three simple labels: “Hook,” “Line,” “Sinker.” The photographs are excerpts from one of the director’s projects exploring objects whose names describe either its form, function, or use. From the director down to the students interning at Light Work, everyone involved with the organization identifies as an artist. They’ve all received rejections letters. The staff members writing the rejection letters know the pain and care enough to write thoughtful responses to all the artists who don’t get into the residency. Ultimately, that connection to artists and their work epitomizes Light Work. Since its original dark-room days through all of the modern renovations, Light Work has stayed true to its mission of caring for the artists. Every renovation aims to give photographers better tools to accomplish the best art possible. Long days of meticulous editing by Manion, hours of struggling with finicky printers, and long conversations about how to print a single photograph all inform the same motivation.

Despite its global reputation, Light Work sticks to its original purpose — listening to and supporting artists and continuously changing its facilities to provide the space photographers need to be creative. “When you’re working in a dark room, that five-by-five space, and you’re a beginner and they’re a professional, there’s just something extra, something important that you don’t get from working alone,” Mary Lynn says. “I wasn’t a student when I went there. I paid my fees, I went there, and it changed my life.”

A selection of some of the award-winning artists-in-residence who spent six months at SU, sharpening their skills and building their careers.