Drinking With Jake (Round One) – Chris Bennett
Written by Jake Shivery
The first in an ongoing series in which Jake Shivery and a guest get pickled and talk photography.
Chris Bennett and Jake Shivery founded their businesses with similar goals, at similar times, in the same city. As friends, they promote one another’s artistic ventures, and have spent the last decade or so in an ad-hoc proprietor support group. This is not their first time drinking together.
Who: Mr. Chris Bennett, founder and Executive Director of the Newspace Center for Photography
Where: Jake’s garage
When: March, 2012
What: Manhattans – later, Bulleit Rye, straight up
Jake: Thanks for coming over. Tonight I want to talk about three things: I want to talk about Newspace, of course, and I want to talk about your art and your progress towards an MFA, and lastly, I want to talk about photographic politics.
Chris: Ah. The tricky one.
Jake: And that’s why we’re saving it for last.
JS: So, let’s just dive in on Newspace.
CB: Blue Moon and Newspace are right about the same age…
JS: Blue Moon’s a bit older, actually.
CB: Yeah, fine – by like a year. You always remind me.
JS: And I always will. But there was an outfit there before there was Newspace.
CB: Yeah, there were some Russian brothers there running a for-rent darkroom called Paparazzi Studio. I was a photographer looking for a place to print, needed somewhere that could handle fiber. Paparazzi had opened up, like, six months before I took it over. They didn’t want to do it anymore – I was working in there when they decided to bail out.
JS: I can vaguely remember that. There was a lot of techno music.
CB: Oh yeah, it was a scene. They had decided that they were through and were trying to get out of the space. They wanted to sell me some equipment, and I just ended up buying the whole thing.
JS: That’s a big bite.
CB: It was, but I needed a place to print, and I knew other people did as well. Got some credit card loans, asked the folks to fill in some gaps here and there, and found myself sitting in the office with a lease and some equipment and a few people that I knew in town who were photographers. It was definitely born out of the need for a facility.
I figured I had the skills from being a darkroom tech and a photo assistant. All the aspects of it, from being a commercial assistant and knowing how to run a studio and knowing how to run a darkroom from high school and college and knowing how to run classes from working in Santa Fe. I just started asking friends – people that I knew who had work – if they wanted to have gallery shows. We just started going from there. And that, really, is still what Newspace is – just that. And yet, now, it’s so much more, so much different. I don’t think I ever would have dreamed that it would be where it is today.
JS: And where is it today?
CB: It’s where I dreamed it would be. [laughs] I’m not kidding. I saw Seattle and their photo center up there – what a fabulous resource for the community – classes, and facilities and a place to work among like-minded people. The space I took over was a little rough around the edges – well, it still is in its way – but we’ve come a long way.
JS: That first darkroom was a little rough around the edges, all right.
CB: Yeah, but we’ve built since then – built from scratch. The new Newspace is custom built to suit our needs. Even on our limited budget, we’ve still managed to make it quite nice.
JS: It certainly is.
CB: I felt like Portland was the perfect place for this – I mean, why would it not work here? Although there were many times when it almost didn’t work. But somehow it’s always made it through. Even today – well, we had a rough stretch recently, but we toughed it out and we’re back where we need to be.
JS: How would you say that Newspace’s mission has changed since you’ve opened?
CB: The core of the mission has not really changed. What we’ve had to do is stay current with technology, know what will attract people and keep them interested, but overall the mission has stayed the same. It’s developed along with our maturing programming, but in the end result it’s a place for creatives to create their work, share their work, and show their work. And be inspired, hopefully.
JS: You got Newspace started on the front end of digital photography.
CB: Yeah, we didn’t get the digital lab until 2007 – that’s when we got our computers – although we had some digital classes before then. Looking back, that was probably the worst time to open a darkroom – the whole industry got turned on its head. I mean, we had the die-hards who wanted to do film and alt process, but there was obviously a lot of interest in the “new” digital medium. We still have those people, people like us, but now we have the equipment to help everybody. It’s definitely not about me – it’s not just my thing, we want everybody to be able to do anything that they want to do. And personally, I’ve shifted, too. I still shoot film, but now I scan and print digitally. Now, when I go in the darkroom, I feel rusty. But it’s nice to still have the darkroom available. I still love the process of film.
JS: Let’s talk a little about Laura Valenti Jelen. The other half of Newspace.
CB: You know, I had met Laura a few weeks before I took the plunge, I had seen a notice at Citizens about a photo group that she wanted to put together. They had the people, but they needed a space to meet. It was within a month that I took over, so I called her up and said: “Well, how about we meet here.” She started teaching our first darkroom class within a couple of months. She also volunteered a couple of nights a week, helping out in exchange for access. It was about 2005 when I brought her on as our first part time employee. She took over the catalog and all the classes – that quickly paid off in the increase in what we were offering. Within a year she was full time – it was great to have her there and the position paid for itself. So, she’s been doing that for seven years now. And then we became a non-profit in 2006. That was a big change. I knew it was the right move, although the IRS as an entity is not the easiest to deal with.
JS: How much do you want to talk about that transition?
CB: It was pretty challenging. I kind of made it harder on myself – I should have just started over with a new name. Going from a sole proprietorship to a non-profit always raises red flags. But I liked what it was, and ultimately, I was trying to run it as a cooperative from the start, anyway.
At the beginning, I was still working outside, too. I was photo assisting and working in the deli at New Seasons the first year I opened Newspace. It took a long time to be able to pay my rent, and living expenses, which back then were quite minimal.
Once we got through the process with the IRS, which took a year and a half, and finally got our status, it was all about keeping the board together and developing policies and procedures – some better business practices – back then it was looser. I used to just stick the money in the bank bag. I still remember when you and Kelly [Palin, former board treasurer] came in and said “OK, now how do you do your end of day?” and I was all, “End of day? Well, the money’s in the bank bag.”
So luckily, you were there early on to bring your business acumen to the table, and you know the story from there for a little while. You, the second board chair, me, with a “plan” – we were all learning as we went along and there were struggles and challenges. But we had some successes, too. That first board was mainly a support group – I had pulled all photography people, and none of us had much non-profit experience.
JS: I remember talking about that first board: “OK, we need some education and some retail and some photo-journalism – we need to encompass all the different types of photography.” But what you actually needed was non-profit people with an interest in the arts.
CB: And essentially, that’s what the board is comprised of today. People with various experiences – lawyers and people good with money to help with budgets and a few with fund raising backgrounds. We just amended the bylaws to go to 13 sitting members. That should make it function a little better in regards to committees. We’ve got a great board right now – all of our boards have been great, and they’ve always been a reflection of where we’ve been as an organization. It took a long time to get here, but we attract some pretty great people to the board. And it’s all because of the work done by the people who came before.
JS: So the transition between the old Newspace and the new Newspace – that was a big deal.
CB: Yeah, the best thing that Newspace ever did was not hire a photographer for something. We hired an honest-to-God grant writer as our development director. A young lad name of Steve, who had gone to the Institute for Nonprofit Management and done some internships in foundations around town. He came in and said, “OK – what are we doing?” And I said, “Here’s my dream.” At that point, we were running out of space for all of our classes. We needed a better digital lab. He started writing grants and making relationships with foundations and we started receiving some very significant grants for our expansion project. We physically expanded, obviously, but we also expanded out programming, and overall made the facilities more legitimate. It makes a huge difference, having such a nice gallery space, having such a nice front entrance. It makes a good impression. Before it was just a cinder block, kind of bland – now we have a much nicer space to accommodate what we’re trying to do. Of course, we’re already getting tight on space.
And that’s the big lesson. Hiring people for the skill set that we need. I mean, we still want people who are enthusiastic about photography, but hiring a straight-up grant writer was critical. And Steve’s now just part time – we lost him full time in December. Now we’re transitioning again, with hiring a new director – a whole new era for Newspace. So, essentially, that person will do his job, the development job, and with me going to grad school, I’ll be handing off a certain amount of administrative duties.
JS: So you’re making it, it seems.
CB: We’re getting by. It’s hard, of course, with the economy, but we have a dedicated following. The darkroom does well – it still throws off a lot of revenue. I was just running our numbers, and the darkroom is still running in excess of the digital lab. But ultimately, it all comes down to classes and workshops – and memberships – memberships are our lifeblood.
JS: Clearly. You seem to have many, many members.
CB: Are you a member, Jake?
JS: Hey, I was on the volunteer board – I paid my dues early.
CB: Yeah, which we appreciate. But we still need members.
JS: Let’s hear about the family – how did you meet Roseann?
CB: Well, let’s see. She was printing at Newspace, working on a project with her cousin in DC. We got to talking, and then there was a First Thursday opening I wanted to see, so I asked her out for a drink. Being a proprietor, you have to be careful – you can’t just go around asking out the customers. But we got along – we had that drink, and maybe a couple more, and the next thing I know she’s riding on my handlebars back to Newspace. That was a long time ago.
JS: That was a very long time ago. Now your son Brandon is – what?
CB: He’s going to be two in June. He’s a blast – except when he’s not. No, no, he’s a good little guy – he lets us sleep as night. Doesn’t give us too much crap. Yet. We’ll see about the terrible twos.
JS: OK, let’s talk about the road to your MFA.
CB: I’ll be telecommuting the photo MFA at the Hartford Art School, which is a part of the University of Hartford, in Connecticut.
JS: Telecommuting, huh?
CB: It’s the best way. I always knew that I wanted an MFA – if Newspace had not happened, that’s the direction I was taking – but then, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now, talking. I wouldn’t be married to my lovely wife – and there would be no Newspace.
Since then, at least once a year, I’ve gotten the itch and ordered some course catalogs. Life being what it was, I just collected the catalogs and threw them under the bed. But this year, well, I feel like it’s time. It’s starting to feel like it’s now or never. There may be a second child, and then there’s always Newspace – so I feel like the window is closing.
I wanted to go full time, but there are no MFA photo programs in Portland. University of Oregon is the closest one – I had a long talk with Roseann about moving but she loves her job and doesn’t want to go anywhere. And really, I don’t want to totally bail on Newspace.
JS: So, tell about the program.
CB: It’s telecommuting mostly, but with two weeks in Hartford, and then in the winter, there’s a one week trip to NYC, and in the spring time, there’s a one week trip to Berlin. The rest of the time, you have an adviser you meet with, over Skype.
JS: Is there a specific person you’re studying under?
CB: The two main faculty are Robert Lyons and Mary Frey – part time is Alex Soth, a fellow 8×10 shooter, and Doug Dubois out of Syracuse. There’s more, and I’m excited to be working with some really great people. There’s a lot of great work on line – it all feels very mature, very thorough.
JS: It might be a little weird – you’re a photo instructor yourself. Furthermore, you’re the ED of the Newspace Center for Photography, a bastion on the west coast.
CB: Thanks – that’s very nice.
JS: No, but I mean, how do you think you’re going to fit in with your other classmates? Big shot on campus?
CB: C’mon – you know me, it’s not like that. Really, it’s all about the photos we’re making. Right now, I’m even a little intimidated by the quality of the work. I mean, not that’s it a competition, but I want to be able to keep up.
JS: Let’s talk about the evolution of your own body of work.
CB: Ten years ago, when I started Newspace, I was really heavy into video stuff, and slowly started drifting back to still work. I shot the Brownie a lot, and the 8×10 a lot, a lot of travel stuff, a lot of experimentation. Two years ago, I started following the Lewis and Clark signs.
JS: That was on a grant, wasn’t it?
CB: It peaked for me when I was in that first Lightbox show in Astoria, and started following the landmark signs, and started shooting along the Columbia, and then, yeah, last summer I got a grant from RACC. That aided in my travels back to St Louis.
JS: Specifically, to do what?
CB: Follow the Lewis and Clark Trail and document it. I’m pretty much just now finishing up with that project – wrapping my brain around it, but I’m pretty happy with the way it came out. I just showed the work at SPE in San Francisco, and got some pretty positive feedback.
Working on this project is really what’s amplified the desire to finally get to grad school. Starting from the Lewis and Clark project, I’ve started to develop a new project. Spawning off of that, I’ll be photographing the Columbia, and tracing it back to it’s source. You know, photographing the river, but also, I want to do more portraits. What I’m after – my hot word right now – is the Contemporary American Landscape. It’s comparative – it will be my travels and my experiences, but also the idea that some of the scenes will be just like Lewis and Clark saw them. And some, not so much – there’s been a lot of development and new communities. As I said, my new challenge for grad school will be portraits – more time getting to know people. This is what I’m trying to do – not just the landscape, but also the people that make up the landscape.
CB: It’ll be strange – I don’t think it’s set in quite yet – being part time at Newspace.
JS: You don’t mind giving up the control?
CB: No, not at all. As long as they don’t tell me what to do [laughs] – no, at this point I’ve had control long enough. Of course I want to feel that whoever is calling the shots is making the right decisions, but I’m excited about the applicants. And it needs someone new to take the helm. At this point, it’s beyond my skill set and my comfort level. I don’t want to be an Italian cruise ship, up on the reef. I have a good sense of what I’m good at, and where my strengths can really help. I will always be involved, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but you have to know when to hand it over.
JS: So let’s talk about politics. What do you think about the Portland scene?
CB: I love Portland. This is a great place to do anything that has to do with the arts. People are receptive and anxious to try new things. There are a lot of folks here trying out new stuff.
JS: The NW Center for Photography recently opened with a mission very similar to Newspace’s.
CB: That’s Sharon O’Keefe. I love Sharon, and I know she’s fulfilling a lifetime goal starting that space. She’s always very enthusiastic – you can tell how much she really cares. In today’s market, you have to expect some competition – it keeps you on your toes. More importantly, it only helps to make the market that much more viable. There are a lot of people in town doing interesting things – and a lot of good organizations.
JS: The museum is another good example.
CB: Oh yes – hiring Julia [Dolan, Minor White Curator of Photography] was an incredibly smart move for them. What she’s done in such a short time is phenomenal. And then there’s Todd [Tubutis, ED of Blue Sky Gallery] – all of these people are doing such fabulous work. We’re hoping that Newspace can continue to be an important part of this community.
JS: You want to talk about tech at all?
CB: You mean film vs. digital? It’s turning into a non-issue, really. One thing that’s interesting, from our perspective, since we do both, is the number of people who have gotten started in digital and moved over to film. I mean, not all of them – some of them find the darkroom kind of overwhelming, but when they have access to both sides, we do see a lot of people “graduate” to the darkroom. The film people are pretty easy to keep happy – as long as we’re not affecting their access to their facilities, then they’re fine. Most of the classes are just digital shooters – but there’s still people using a lot of film. And then the students who want to push it further, well, they try out the darkroom. Some really like it, some run screaming, many find a way to blend the two, as I’ve done. The debate is really settling itself – there is some harmony out there.
JS: Anything else?
CB: If I have one bitch about the Portland art scene, it’s that there’s no viable MFA in photography. Now I have to tele-commute just to stay here. But it’s worth it – there’s no place I would rather be.
JS: That’s it?
CB: That’s it. Thanks a lot.
JS: Thank you, and good night.
Chris’s Manhattan Recipe:
2 shots of old Overholt rye whiskey, 1/2 to 3/4 shot of vermouth
2 dashes of bitters, 1 cherry with a spoonful of juice with it – add ice and stir.