The paint is still drying and the prints are still packed up when I walk up the stoop into My House Gallery in early November.
Its denizens, from founders Hannah Heffner and Alex Gartelmann, to friends like Kaitlin Mosley and Jim "Young James" Grilli, are in a flurry, rushing around the living room (it ain't called My House for nothing), finishing the prep work for the gallery's current exhibition. It's their 11th overall, the first dedicated entirely to photography, and the scent of fresh coffee and stale sweat wafts off the very active bunch.
To outsiders, the group might come off as a bunch of Boho art school grads living collectively on a rough-ish block in deep South Philly because rent is cheap, thus giving them the freedom to comfortably turn their living space into a show space. They probably wouldn't dispute this too much because, well, it's kind of true. The My Housers are all former sculpture students at UArts except for Mosley, a photographer, and Gartelmann says the fact that the space is so remote, kind of the only game in town, has been a boon for attendance at exhibits thus far.
But using these identity traits to dismiss their shows would be a mistake.
"We encourage our artists to push the boundaries of their studio practice," Gartelmann says. "I mean, we have a pretty laid-back approach — there's no consequences of showing here. So if you have an idea, try it out, see if you like it."
Sounds idealistic, but there's no bluster. A glance around the room shows a definite cross-section of approaches and styles: digital and film, literal and abstract, successful and un. I spot ho-hum images of empty beaches next to Max Hartley's print of a dozen sparklers bouncing light off beer bottles in the kitchen of some archetypal city apartment (pictured, p. 20). The scene is whimsical, magical and I'm immediately taken with it.
More people are arriving with work, and Gartelmann beckons me upstairs. He wants to show me Sebastien Leqlercq's site-specific photo installation. I'd already studied his crescent of overlapping photos in the dining room, depicting the snowy streets of Fishtown in winter. But in the hall bathroom, Leqlercq replaced the mirror with an image he took of the bathroom's own empty interior. It's a clever illusion, since the viewer steps up to wash his hands and cannot see himself. Gartelmann excitedly explains how Leqlercq did an entire series of work like this in public bathrooms, using photographs to manipulate the viewer's reality. I'm a bit unnerved by my ghostly, translucent reflection in the Plexiglas covering the photo.
Back downstairs, work from the show's bigger names is being hung. A series of Zoe Strauss images lines one corner. A large-scale portrait by Rene Micheli majestically fills a dining room nook. A photo by Dominic Episcopo shows a cut of meat in the shape of New Jersey.
As I wonder why this heretofore mixed-media, anything-goes gallery decided to for the first time focus on a single medium, I find Mosley is the missing link. She works at Old City's Silicon Gallery doing digital printing for a breadth of the city's photographers — the Zoe Strausses and Andy Pinkhams down to the emerging unknowns. To her eyes, it all looks great together.
"Most gallery shows will only include certain work, or only work of a certain maturity level," Mosley says. "I like the idea of getting the range of photographers, some who show at galleries professionally and some who maybe just got out of school, and putting them side-by-side."
It's an equalizing approach. For the newer artists, the bar is raised. For the established names, the work is humbled. And for the viewer, a level of sophistication is taken in that we didn't expect.
"The Photo Show" runs through Dec. 6, My House Gallery, 2534 S. Eighth St., 908-370-1656, myhousegallery.wordpress.com.