In Tribeca, City's Longest-Running Photo Gallery Celebrates 50 Years

A recent opening at Soho Photo Gallery, where each month up to seven artists show their work. The gallery offers nearly 400 linear feet of wall space to hang pictures. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 24, 2021

As Tribeca’s prominence as a gallery district grows, the art space that has been in the neighborhood the longest may be among the most overlooked.

This month, Soho Photo Gallery celebrates its 50th year, the last 42 of them in its current home at 15 White Street, where it opened in December 1979 and is the longest-running photo gallery in the city.

Over the years the cooperative gallery’s exhibitions by members, invited artists and national and international competition winners have included a vast range of photographic practices and techniques. Such variety might be seen in a single visit, with traditional street and landscape photography sharing the gallery walls with conceptual and abstract works, or pictures made in ways that stretch the boundaries of the medium itself.

The pictures are for sale, but sales are hardly the objective.

“It’s always been a place where you could put something out there and have it measured by your peers,” said Martin Rich, a longtime member. “And that has caused me to keep working, and doing it better.”

Joel Morgovsky called the gallery “essential” to his life as a photographer. “If I weren’t connected with Soho Photo, I wouldn’t be as passionate about photography in the way I am now,” he said.

Morgovsky noted that a growing number of people are “involved” in photography, “but they don’t know about building portfolios and assembling shows and editing work and thinking about photography at large. That’s what Soho Photo has always been.” 

Members are peeved that The New York Times ignored them in a recent major roundup of Tribeca galleries. “Where were we?” said Norman Borden, the member in charge of the gallery’s semicentennial commemoration. “We were there first. We’re pioneers!

A gallery-wide anniversary exhibit will be on view from Jan. 7 to 30.  “Looking Back: Soho Photo’s First 50 Years,” will feature a sampling of 100 works shown at the gallery over the past five decades. 

The gallery’s name reflects its origins, at 143 Prince St., where it opened in a second-floor loft in December, 1971. There was no bathroom and no office, but plenty of space to hang pictures. New York Times photographer Librado (Lee) Romero, among its eight founding members, is credited with the idea of starting the gallery.

“There were one or two photo galleries in the city at the time and they were not accessible to us,” said David Chalk, one of the gallery’s founders and its director for more than 20 years. “So we had our own place, and it thrived.”

The gallery would move to two spaces on 13th Street (one of them above Quad Cinema) before settling on White Street. Works by Andre Kertesz, Minor White, Ansel Adams and other prominent photographers were shown in those early years. But in 1979 the gallery had to move and spaces were hard to find. When a place on Wooster Street fell through, Ben Fernandez, director of The New School’s photo department, offered the school’s auditorium as a place to gather, buying time for the search to continue.

Finally, Chalk came across 15 White Street, a former live poultry market on the ground floor of one of Tribeca’s early co-ops. “It was a mess,” Chalk recalled in a phone interview. “There were feathers and bird poop and it was horrible. It had great potential but it was awful.”  

So bad, in fact, that Chalk withheld the address from other members even as he asked them for donations to convert the space. But he had a vision for what it could be, and an architectural rendering helped sell the idea.

“They saw this beautiful drawing,” he said. “It was like a magical thing.”

Members share in all aspects of the gallery’s operation, and it was their labor during five months of construction that turned a worse-than-raw space into the polished venue that it is today. Shows by as many as seven artists can be accomodated on the downstairs and mezzanine galleries.

“Everybody put some time in there and it’s what made the gallery so tight with people,” Chalk said. “It’s kind of what vested them in the space. Not the money, but the spirit.” 

There are now 90 members, down from 110 at the gallery’s peak. Many have aged along with the gallery, but there is an effort to bring in new blood, including an internship program with photo students from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and online exhibition opportunities for younger photographers not ready or able to join.  

The challenges of keeping the gallery going have been “continuous,” Borden said. “Paying the rent and keeping members and trying to get our name out there.” Still, he noted, it survived the pandemic, which temprorarily shuttered the gallery, with online exhibitions. And members stayed involved by sharing their work weekly via Zoom. 

“It wasn’t a competition. It was just to show what we were doing,” Borden said. “People really appreciated the fact that we were a community.”