BY CRISTA CAMMAROTO, Curator
In 1972 there was—according to ten photographers in Charlotte, North Carolina—a serious lack of fine-art photographs available for viewing in the Southeast. They shared their frustration and started regularly viewing each other’s work while enjoying a few beers. Thus The Light Factory (TLF) was conceived.
Soon the group moved to a cooperative gallery space in a renovated church-that came to be known as Spirit Square-in the heart of downtown Charlotte. The founding members of TLF participated in the renovation and created much of the spirit that filled Spirit Square. They invited other photographers to join the group for a modest membership dues, and when the rent increased-as often happens after a gentrification-everyone pitched in and moved TLF to the building next door.
In the beginning TLF provided an exhibition space to fine-art photographers. We had no paid staff-members performed staff duties—but by the mid-1970s we had our first paid, professional director, Howard Spector. Spector brought in nationally known, cutting-edge photography exhibitions, and put the organization on the map.
By 1980 TLF had an adult education program and a new director, Ken Bloom. The exhibits at that time consisted of work by both nationally known and regional artists. Thematic shows, such as “Flesh and Blood” and “Manifest Destiny,” were so popular they drew audiences from afar and became traveling exhibitions. The organization looked great, with publications and exhibits that demonstrated its growth in the photography world. However, TLF went through hard times financially and had to reinvent itself. We moved into a newly renovated space in the historic Park Elevator Building, while our membership kept TLF going.
The organization lay waiting for the life blood of a new director, Linda Foard Roberts, who brought the uncanny abilities of stabilizing the budget, building a cash reserve, keeping the membership happy and involved, and, most importantly, curating challenging shows that made its audience think. Still, the question remained: How can just a few people do all this and not burn out?
During this time our regional support grew like kudzu. TLF hosted regional and national Society for Photographic Education conferences; regional photo educators brought their classes for gallery tours and sent interns to help out; and contemporary and cutting edge artists from around the world submitted work. Historical exhibitions often gave students their first glimpse of actual prints made by the masters who defined photography as an art form, while contemporary photographers gave students their first look at new genres as they were being created. Exhibits were often dynamically curated, and the thematic shows challenged the minds of viewers and students. The buzz of photography in the Southeast became big, and in many ways centered on TLF.
Others contributing to the photo craze at the time included the Penland School and the old Highlands Center for Arts and Sciences. Together we shared artists, audiences, and students. Meyers Park High School in Charlotte was convinced by TLF founding member Byron Baldwin to offer a photography program, and it remains today. The Charlotte school system went on to launch two other high school photo programs. Martha Strawn, another TLF founding member, created the first university photo program in the area at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.
Soon after, the photo bug grew to South Carolina, first through Sam Wang at
Clemson University and later through Phil Moody at Winthrop University and the Leebricks at East Carolina University. Together with Evon Streetman and Jerry Uelsmann in Florida, the small southeastern pool of photographers was busting at the seams. This initial proliferation involved just the academic, fine-art types that we know and love so well.
Then in the 1980s we started our fundraiser, The Shoot Out, which called upon (and continues to call upon) the donation of labor from the innovative commercial photographers in town. For a fee TLF invites the public to participate in portrait sessions with creative professionals. The event educates by showing the public what a great portrait sitting is, and brings the energy of the commercial photographers to TLF. It promotes their work by providing a connection to the community and, in certain cases, increasing their client list. The Shoot Out continues to blend TLF’s audience into an uncommon mix of fine-art and commercial photographers, all wanting classes and exhibitions in the medium.
The Light Factory began with an air of sharing, a connection to community, and a pull on the exhibiting artist because of our fearless dedication to all segments of the photo frontier. Today we are a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to the promotion of photography and film, or as we like to say, “The Power of Image.” Now at Spirit Square for the second time, we have a larger staff and a potent mix of knowledge in the film and photography fields under the stewardship of Marcie Kelso, former Film Commissioner for the Charlotte region. Our Executive Director, Artistic Director, Film Director, Education Director, and In-House Designer allow for a more natural, obvious, and organizationally functional operation. As is true of many arts organizations in these times, we struggle constantly for support from the corporate community and individual patrons. Yet we are still here.
The Light Factory is at the center of a great lake fed by a large river of silver that reaches from the Mason-Dixon Line down to the ocean. Today, of course, the river is made of a few more things. Light-generated media is how we like to define it.
We have a vibrant group of members and receive financial support from grants, individual patronage, and corporate sponsorships. Our outreach has increased to provide arts training through photography to many schools that no longer have a formal arts program. Our programming remains dynamic and awake, our audience still flows through, and we still listen and stay connected to our public. Our audience is now in the thousands, and our list of exhibiting artists has become too large to display in this context. For all intents and purposes we are considered a noncollecting museum. We provide the largest exhibition space, second only to places in New York City, solely dedicated to the promotion of photography and film. Yet, as big as we are, we have remained accessible.
All these accomplishments are true and bright. But the most important one, I believe, is that we have been able to grow larger without losing the symbiotic magic that was mustered over a few beers and good conversation about work prints. This is the strange fertility that makes our region of photographers and filmmakers particularly happy and prolific. Other artists enjoy bringing their work here because it has the blessing of an educated and enthusiastic audience, full of photographers and people from the film industry. And they haven’t left yet-after 32 years and counting.
Cammaroto bio here