In the beginning… there was Limelight Gallery.
I first heard about Limelight Gallery while reading the book “Street Scene – The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959″. From there I ordered Helen Gee’s memoir “Limelight” (1997) and her book “Photography of the Fifties – An American Perspective” (1983). All this took place last winter (2011) and I’m finally getting around to writing about this amazing scene.
Helen Gee opened the first gallery in the country to exhibit only photographs. The Limelight Gallery was located on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village and operated for 7 years.
Gee’s ability to run a business was non-existent but she was an avid photographer and one day while eating a sausage sandwich in NYC where she lives, she had an epiphany: “Why not open a European-style coffeehouse and combine it with a gallery devoted exclusively to photography?” Thus starts the story of a 7-year odyssey of horrible business practices, few – very few – sales, and a photographers’ hangout that became a legend.
Rarely had any gallery included photographs in their exhibits and even more rarely did a photograph sell. As Gee says, photographers just exchanged photographs and talked about them, but a sale was hardly considered part of the program. Helen Gee had to have a way to support a gallery to show photographs – assuming sales would be infrequent – and as coffee houses were springing up in NYC, she decided to create the combo.
Limelight was the first gallery in the USA to exhibit only photographs.
She decided the right photographer to launch the gallery would be Robert Frank and she made a decidedly bizarre visit to his studio/living quarters. Frank was not agreeable to the notion, but over the next year Gee featured the work of 24 fine art photographers (including Frank in a group show) ranging from Rudy Burckhardt to Berenice Abbott, and Ansel Adams to Edward Weston.
As the Limelight Gallery and coffeehouse exploded into the scene, Gee accomplished another of her goals for the place: it became THE hangout for the photography crowd. On any given evening you could wander in there and chat with Arnold Newman, Weegee or Lisette Model, among other now famous artists.
Frosted Window, Rochester, New York, 1952©Minor White. All Rights Reserved.
It was six months before she had her first sale. Minor White’s work was on display for 5-6 weeks in the fall and a young guy had been pondering the exhibit for an hour before he decided which image to purchase. AND he wanted to take it with him! In a panic, Helen Gee phone Minor White to ask his permission, seriously doubting he would give it, as the sequencing of his work in any exhibit was vital to him. Surprise! Here’s what he said to her on the phone:
“WHAT? Somebody wants to buy a photograph? And he wants you to take it off the wall? TAKE IT DOWN!”. It was a $10 sale, White receiving a check for $7.50 representing the balance after the gallery’s commission. He was delighted.
Advertisement for the Limelight cafe and photography gallery located at 91 Seventh Avenue South at Sheridan Square, published in The Village Voice on February 15, 1956.
Selling photographs is still a tough road for artists and galleries alike. When I was reading these books, I had just come off of a frustrating fall – I had put out so much energy promoting the work of the twelve artists associated with VoxPhotographs and had little to show for it. It was a sort of schadenfreude consolation to read that at Limelight, sales were few and far between. But on the other hand, it was deeply depressing. After 60 years, had nothing changed?
Tetons and the Snake River, 1942©Ansel Adams. All Rights Reserved.
In February of 1956, Ansel Adams had his first show at Limelight. Over 50 prints were installed at a price of $35 each. Frankly, it’s painful even typing that sentence. Included in the show were two portfolios of work priced at $100. One of those portfolios was the only sale during the show. In fact, it was not overly popular, especially with other photographers. Comments were made that it was too dramatic, too romantic, not gritty enough for the NYC crowd.
Interestingly, Vincent Hartigan, head of the art dept. at the University of Maine, booked the second venue of Adams’ show. He had collaborated with Helen Gee previously – providing a second venue for Eliot Porter and Arnold Newman shows. Gee considered it a bold step for Hartigan to be including photographs in the mix of exhibits. Very few institutions were doing so.
Can you see why this whole scene is a fascinating read? It’s the BEGINNING of photographers showing work in galleries. And the stories! weird and amazing about Imogene Cunningham, Edward Steichen, and many others. There are stories about W. Eugene Smith that will curl your hair.
Gee is the first to admit in her memoir, “Management was not my forte. I was not good at firing. Neither was I good at paperwork.” And I can assure you this lack of business acumen and people management resulted in some really wacky scenarios more befitting the “I Love Lucy” series.
Men’s Fashions, Atget, Eugene (1857-1927). 1925 / printed 1956 by Berenice Abbott from Atget’s negative toned gelatin silver print.
There’s an interesting scene too, with Berenice Abbott, who approached Gee about an exhibit, but not of her own work. She had made prints from Eugene Atget’s plates and had had no luck in getting anyone interested in exhibiting them – including MOMA, George Eastman House and many other institutions. Julien Levy, who had collaborated with Abbott to save and preserve the Atget oeuvre, had had an exhibit of the prints priced at $10 – but no sales. Helen Gee tried $20 – Abbott insisted on keeping the price down, being very pessimistic about the success of the exhibit. But Gee had a hunch the Atget images would strike a chord with her crowd – and she was right. Forty of the sixty prints on view sold during the show.
As Gee worked her way through exhibits of the works of well over 100 photographers of the day including David “Chim” Seymour, Robert Doisneau and Gordon Parks, the strain and struggle of keeping the Limelight going became too much and she sold it. It went through several morphs, eventually becoming a transvestite bar “with a heavy drug scene” and was closed by police in 1971.
Her penultimate show of work, in 1960, featured the photographs of Paul Caponigro and Minor White. And the final kicker? From 12/16/60 – 1/31/61, the vintage works of none other than Julia Margaret Cameron were exhibited as the last hurrah. Did I mention Gee had no insurance by this time?
“Mrs. Duckworth” by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Helen Gee’s last sale as proprietor of the Limelight Gallery and coffeehouse was to Beaumont Newhall. He purchased a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of Mrs. Duckworth (Virginia Woolf’s mother) for $45.
“Limelight” is just an amazing read – Helen Gee is not afraid to tell it like it was and my jaw was dropping constantly as I turned the pages. Winter’s here. Find a copy of the book and give yourself a big, juicy and unforgettable treat of a read to pass a few of those snowy hours ahead.
Photography of the Fifties – An American Perspective – published in 1983.