‘Evolving’ art

Pasadena Photography Arts uses galleries and grants to help support local emerging photographers

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/31/2013

Whether for its beautiful natural scenery, fantastic events or colorful people, Pasadena over the years has drawn countless photographers who have turned everyday moments into works of art. 
Local schools like Art Center College of Design and Pasadena City College are churning out new photographers every year. However, there is a curious lack of gallery space and other opportunities for these budding photographers. Bill Wishner saw this void and decided to fill it, forming Pasadena Photography Arts.
Sponsored by the nonprofit Pasadena Arts Council’s EMERGE program, Pasadena Photography Arts seeks to support photographers by encouraging more exhibits at local galleries, creating pop-up galleries in local businesses, providing financial support and grants for photographic projects, holding educational workshops, mentoring emerging photographers and providing portfolio reviews and working with local college-level photography programs, among other things.
Tough gig
Wishner, a retired physician who serves as a volunteer faculty member at USC as well as on the Five Acres’ board of directors, came up with the idea for Pasadena Photography Arts in 2012, when his wife and he were attending a photographic exhibit at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.
“I asked my wife why we were always going to exhibits on the West Side, never Pasadena,” said Wishner. “She said because there’s nothing in Pasadena. That wasn’t quite true. We had a lot of resources here, though we were certainly short of gallery space and photographers that were identified on the east side of town. I told her I’m going to go back and start something for emerging photographers who are looking for help, who need that extra boost to get to their next step. She said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘I know, but if not me, then who?’”
Danny Liao, a freelance photographer based in Alhambra who takes pictures for the Pasadena Weekly and other publications, agreed that Pasadena is lacking in gallery space.
“I don’t even know if there’s one gallery in Pasadena, except maybe at Art Center,” said Liao, who studied photography there. “There are tons of photographers in Pasadena, but not really that much space or opportunity. I think there’s always a need for organizations to help out photographers. It’s so hard to get into that industry. I’ve been freelancing for eight years and honestly I’ve barely started getting gigs like two years ago. It’s hard to build a career.”
And building an organization that aims to help photographers hasn’t been easy, either, according to Wishner. He said his group is making progress by developing databases of galleries and photographers, engaging with the community and building relationships with local art schools, but acknowledged that it’s hard work.
“You have to find where these people are, because they’re pretty much hidden,” he said. “They come out of art school and they move back with their parents or they move out of the area. They find little hovels to live in and they’re isolated. There’s no meeting place for them to come to, they have no group to associate with. It’s a struggle for these folks.”
Wishner said his group has met with officials from Art Center and PCC, and plans to meet with leaders at East LA College and others in the coming months to begin finding ways that they can collaborate.
“We have to negotiate with each of them,” he said. “They’re all different. They want something and we want to help. A lot of these institutions are used to not having people come in and say we want to work with you. You have to build something with each of them and it’s a little different. All those things are things we’re doing now. We’ve been successful to this point but we’re still a young organization. However, we’re not going away. We’ve all committed to it. This is a long haul thing. We know it’s going to take us several years before we engage fully with the community.”
All things photography
Since he retired five years ago, Wishner has devoted himself to his full-time passion: photography. He was a jazz photographer for 20 years, but said the industry has changed. He’s no longer interested in music photography.
“There was no money in it,” he said. “It was very expensive to go do. Everybody expects free pictures. Everybody has a camera. In the end, I found I was spending tons of money and it wasn’t fulfilling anymore. As I retired I started up some other photography projects.”
In 2007 he started a local photography discussion group called F8 Pasadena Salon. He and 13 other enthusiasts meet every Saturday morning at a local coffee shop to talk about the art and aesthetics of photography.
“Everybody loves talking about the art of photography,” he said. “But we’re not a camera club. We don’t give a shit how you take a picture or what camera you use, although people always want to know, but basically we’re not interested. We bring guests in, too. We had a guy come over from Caltech to talk about light. That’s what we search for all the time, some kind of light. He spent his whole career in light. We have another person who comes to talk about the ethics of street photography. Whatever it is, as long as it’s related to the art and aesthetics.”
Wishner also donated cameras to Five Acres in Altadena, which uses the photography program as a way to help build self-esteem and social communication, and developed “Through My Eyes” for at-risk children.
“The kids could do one of two things,” he said. “They work with a therapist using photography as a way to better understand their environment. We also took the kids on expeditions in the LA area, to Watts Towers, a baseball game downtown, museums, whatever it was, and they took pictures and that became the art that’s around Five Acres. We gave the kids books with their work in it.”
Filling a niche
Terry LeMonchek, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, has been working with Pasadena Photography Arts and offering the new organization assistance to help them gain momentum. EMERGE is a fiscal sponsorship program and offers its organizations fundraising consulting, referral services, workshops, marketing and other services.
“The photography community is a very vibrant group of people,” said LeMonchek. “Pasadena Photography Arts is giving them a forum and a place to network and showcasing what’s really going on in Pasadena in terms of photography. It really is the only organization that’s filling that niche on the east side.”
Another challenge that Pasadena Photography Arts faces is matching the right photographer with the right gallery or space. As Wishner pointed out, just because you’re an emerging photographer doesn’t mean your work is ready to be shown.
“It’s content that means something,” said Wishner. “It’s the story, the narrative that goes with it and the scope of work, and then it becomes quite different. What is our visual aesthetic in this day and age? What is the art? The art’s being redefined as we speak. Life is changing for the photographer; life is changing for the viewer. The whole thing is evolving.” 
Pasadena Photography Arts will be holding its next workshop, “Getting Creative with LED Lighting & Filtration,” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Keystone Fine Arts Studio, 2558 N. San Fernando Road, Glassell Park. Email doughill@pasadenaphotographyarts.org for reservations and more information.