First all-photography exhibit at Mt. Airy Art Garage looks at ‘Philadelphia Through the Lens’

 Morning sunrise over North Philly seen from the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line. (Courtesy of Sheppard Williams)

Morning sunrise over North Philly seen from the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line. (Courtesy of Sheppard Williams)

For a few of the photographers featured in “Philadelphia Through the Lens,” Mt. Airy Art Garage’s (MAAG) first all-photography exhibition, the things that forced them to put their cameras down ended up being just as important as the things that inspired them to start shooting in the first place.

Chatting with NewsWorks at MAAG last week alongside four other featured photographers, Sheppard Williams said an important part of his evolution as a photographer wasn’t something he chose.

Several years ago, the self-described lifelong “shutterbug” suffered a case of glaucoma that almost cost him his eyesight. He recovered full vision in his left eye, but lost about 70 percent of the vision in his right eye.

Today, that doesn’t stop him from loving photography. He even appreciates the way his changed vision affects his sense of composition and light and shadow in unique ways.

But the thing Williams says did make him put his camera down for awhile was a troubling “racial profiling” incident in Chestnut Hill in 2013. One Sunday, after attending church in the neighborhood, he took his camera to a nearby street to capture some fall foliage. But he said he was accosted by someone from a nearby town watch group who told him to leave.

“They accused me of casing out the neighborhood to rob it,” Williams remembers. “That really threw me.”

It dampened his artistic spirits for a long time, he says.

‘Frivolous’ photography to pictures with a mission

Denise Allen, another photographer featured in the show, says she got her degree in photography from Chicago’s Columbia College, and then went into commercial and editorial work in New York City. After losing many of her friends in the AIDS crisis, she put her camera away because the work suddenly seemed “frivolous.”

Years later, a national event reignited her passion for photography.

“When Trayvon Martin got killed, it forced me to pick my camera back up,” she says.

Inspired in part by her own teenage son, she began a portrait series called “My Son Matters,” featuring young African-American men. Last summer, she received a grant from the Leeway Foundation to expand the project.

“I wanted to teach him how to speak up in the world,” she says of being an example for her 15 year old.

Landscape and nature enthusiasts

Williams and Allen are joined in the show by Judy Levy, wife of late photographer and MAAG founding board member Solomon Levy.

A New York native with a 35-year career as a social worker, she’s been serious about photography for the last 20 years, and is especially drawn to landscapes. One of her favorites is Roxborough’s Houston Meadow.

Patricia Cousins Smith, a retired Philadelphia Housing Authority employee, majored in science in college.

“I have a tendency to always go toward nature,” she says.

After her two daughters grew up and she retired, she was able to indulge her love for travel. Her favorite destinations so far include South Africa, Antarctica, China and U.S. national parks Yellowstone and Yosemite.

“I grew up teething on a camera,” says Kevin Bennett, another featured artist.

His childhood sojourns with the boy scouts sparked his love for nature. He started out in a black-and-white film darkroom, but gave up photography for few years in the late 1990s, because of problems with the chemicals involved.

But when the technology of digital photography picked up in the last decade or so, Bennett gladly went back to the art form, despite keeping very busy with his two full-time jobs as a paramedic in Springfield and Upper Perkiomen Valley.

He enjoys volunteering for the National Park Service at places like Tinicum Wildlife Refuge, and for the last decade or so, likes getting unusual perspectives by shooting from his kayak.

MAAG photographers get their due

The show itself has a wide range of subjects and styles, from woodsy gelatin silver film prints to shadow boxes and ink jet images. Subjects include everything from songbirds and Philly’s annual Naked Bike Ride to the Cira Centre, Boathouse Row, and views of the Wissahickon.

Frank Burd’s extraordinary “Penn Relays” captures four runners soaring along the track without a single foot on the ground.

“I felt we had really shortchanged our photographers for all these years,” MAAG co-founder and facilities manager Arleen Olshan says of curating an all-photography show.

MAAG solicited work from its members, as well as opening a city-wide call.

“The quality of work that arrived stands out,” Olshan added of the seventeen artists she helped select for the show.

The exhibit’s January opening also marked the launch of MAAG’s new Photo Club, which meets on the third Saturday of each month from noon to 2 p.m. ($5 per person). It will feature discussions, group critiques and photo walks for adults of all skill levels.

“Philadelphia Through the Lens” is running at Mt. Airy Art Garage through Feb. 20. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Friday, noon to 7 p.m., Thursday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (215) 242-5074 or visit the Mt. Airy Art Garage website.

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