A collection of Princeton-area artists — dedicated to presenting photography and photographic images as an art form — opened Gallery 14 in Hopewell just after the September 11 attacks. Even with that shadow hanging over the group and its venue, the resilient members went forward with their premier exhibit and have never looked back.
Though most of Gallery 14’s exhibits feature the work of its members, the venue has hosted a juried photography show for the past few years, including this year’s National Juried Photographic Exhibition, opening on Friday, July 12, and running through Sunday, August 11.
Curated and judged by Katherine A. Somers, the curator of the Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, the show includes a variety of photographic styles, from nature studies and landscapes, to abstracts and nudes. Participants hail from numerous states along the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions, but most are from New Jersey, including Leigha Cohen of Lawrenceville, Michael Endy from Westfield, Kendall Park’s Mary Leck, Princeton resident Byron Lum, Patrick Shannon of Frenchtown, and Herb Way of Skillman.
Judging a fine art photography exhibit was a new experience for Somers, a Princeton resident, as well as a veteran curator, consultant, researcher, and art historian. She admits that she felt a little out of her comfort zone when Larry Parsons, vice president of Gallery 14, asked her to jury the show.
“I have a fair amount of experience dealing with photo-documentary work as the curator of the Bernstein Gallery,” Somers says. “And while esthetics is very important to the success of this genre, the narrative in the work is where it’s at: what is this picture saying, describing, evoking about its subject matter? I think my initial reluctance to accept Larry’s invitation is my limited knowledge of photographic technique. However, spending time with Larry and looking at all of the wonderful submissions — truly high quality across the board — I quickly realized that one assesses, say, an abstract photograph, as one does a painting or sculpture. Is there something about the picture that is exciting or thought-provoking, does it raise questions, does it make you respond emotionally, is there a mystery to it, etc.? Or is there a part of the picture that doesn’t work, falls flat, undermines the rest of the composition?”
“You don’t need to know about the latest photographic technique to ‘get’ a photograph, just like you don’t need to know exactly what number brush an artist used to paint a landscape,” Somers adds.
The decision-making process — whose works would be included — was both objective and organic, as there were no names or residences to be seen on the images as Somers looked at them. She says there were many, many works, and it took the better part of a day to make her choices.
“The way we worked was that I ran through all of them first, then I went and indicated ‘maybe’ and ‘yes’— I never did a ‘no,’ ” Somers says. “Larry wanted to accept about 50 in total, so then I went back and counted the ‘yeses’ and went to the ‘maybe’ list again. A couple of times I saw something that didn’t make it in the first go ‘round, so I said, ‘wait a minute, let’s have another look.’ It was a pretty fluid process.”
Though Somers admits to a slight preference for black and white street photography, such as the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, she really does love it all.
“Just as in painting and sculpture, I’m always being asked this,” she says. “That being said, what do I look for in any work of art? I want to get excited about it, I want it to be something that makes me think.
Growing up on a farm outside of New Hope, in Bucks County, Somers reflects on the dearth of artistic personalities in her family of origin.
“I came from a family of lawyers,” she says. “I don’t remember going with my mother or father to a museum. My parents raised four children, and this was alongside of their very busy careers. Plus, having three older brothers, the focus was more on soccer and tennis. About the only cultural thing we did together was that my mother would take me to New York City on my birthday, to see a musical. I remember seeing ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ and that’s pretty much all I remember about the arts, growing up.”
That’s not too bad though, considering “Forum” boasted music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, with a book co-written by Larry Gelbart, who went on to create and produce the TV show “MASH,” among many other works. Perhaps her young life had more art in it than she first thought?
Examining her childhood a little more, Somers recalls fine works of original art, created by noteworthy Bucks County artists, on the walls of the family’s old farmhouse.
“They had really wonderful paintings on the wall by Harry Leith-Ross and John Folinsbee,” Somers says. “If my memory serves me correctly, my mother gave legal advice to some of these artists, it was the barter system, and that’s how we came to have these paintings. In fact, John Folinsbee did some portraits of my brothers.”
Folinsbee was an American landscape painter, and a member of the New Hope art colony. Leith-Ross, who settled in New Hope in the 1930s, also became an integral part of the town’s artistic community. Both lived into the early 1970s.
“So, although I was culturally challenged in my younger years, I did grow up with some nice artwork on the walls,” Somers says. “I always loved to draw as a kid, but I remember taking my drawings, and showing them to my mother, but her head was into something else, into law and raising children. But maybe that’s why I went into art history: I knew I had some talent.”
It was at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she took her first course in art history, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the subject in 1981.
“I fell in love with art history and that was it,” Somers says.
After college, it was marriage, moving here and there with her husband, Stephen A. Somers, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Center for Health Care Strategies, and then finding her way back to Bucks County. Once back in the region, Somers returned to her studies in art history at Rutgers, earning a master’s degree in 1990.
Beginning in the early 1980s Somers conducted research for and editing of material for large-format art books undertaken by fine arts publishers Stewart, Tabori and Chang, (an imprint of Abrams), based in New York. She was also assistant to Gary Snyder, director of Gary Snyder Fine Art in New York (formerly the Princeton Gallery of Fine Art), and for about a decade commuted back and forth from Bucks County to the city.
From 2000 to 2006, Somers was the director for the Sculpture Project and Fine Art Exhibition Program at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb’s corporate headquarters in Lawrenceville. She has been a consultant to other corporate and public collections and has acted as a consultant to artists’ estates. Her writing has included an essay in “Daily Bread,” an artist’s book by Lisa Salamandra (Cheminements Editions, 2009), as well as numerous catalog introductions for artists, including Amy Oliver, Hetty Baiz, and Jim Perry.
In addition, Somers has been a consultant to the Princeton University Art Museum in campus arts and to the borough of Princeton, on public art.
Now that she has judged and curated fine art photography, Somers says she would be happy to be involved in similar projects and exhibits in the future.
“I really enjoyed the experience and look forward to seeing the exhibition,” she says. “While picture quality was the first criteria, I did try to be mindful of the overall look of the exhibit, trying to get a nice range of subject matter — abstracts, nudes, nature studies, etc. As a curator, you’re always trying to put together a balanced show.”
National Juried Photographic Exhibition, Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Friday, July 12, through Sunday, August 11. Curated by Katherine A. Somers. Opening reception, Friday, July 12, 6 to 8 p.m. Free. www.photogallery14.com or 609-333-8511.