Refloating Maggies vision
by Paul Smart
January 22, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Taking a Different Tack: Maggie Sherwood and the Floating Foundation of Photography, which opens at SUNY-New Paltzs Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art this coming weekend, is an important show on several levels. Consider it as a cultural phenomenon, as the uncovering of a missing link, the tying-together of once-discordant lineages and a springboard for what we hope will be a shimmering new age of curating in the area.

So who was Maggie Sherwood, and why would a foundation of photos ever float? Back in the heady years of New York City in 1969, Sherwood was a photographer in her mid-40s, dedicated to an artform then in a state of limbo, as it were. Not quite the artform it had been heralded as in the 1920s and later the 50s, photographers were striving to make it equal what others were doing in paint, solid matter and even film. Yet they were simultaneously trying to move beyond the documentary shadow of the medium that most were celebrating at the time, via its uses bringing the Vietnam War, a new counterculture, politics and the advertising worlds wishes to new mass popularity.

The fossilized forms of photography will be studied just as assiduously as those of painting, one noted professor of Art, Milton Brown, said at a meeting of the College Art Association that summer, 40 years ago. However, the nagging thought remains that photography has finally attained canonization at a time when its accepted forms may no longer be viable and its younger talents are looking elsewhere  that it has achieved respectability when everyone else is no longer interested in being part of the establishment. In other words, museums were finally accepting certain forms of photography as art at the time. But new talents were looking elsewhere to stretch their creative wings, to capture the worlds that they felt needed the weight of personal expression. And there was nowhere actually to show new photography in New York  then as now the worlds art capital. Quite a paradox, eh?

The feeling of being a free bird has kept me photographing and printing, wrote Sherwood, who had tried to balance the profitable shooting of theater workshops and portraits with her own wish to push her medium of choice into new areas. I break all rules and let the creative juices flow, ending up with a potpourri of photographs.

Enter the sort of chance happenings that often move history in new ways  in this case, via the offer of an old houseboat to Sherwood, which she bought, added a second floor to, painted lavender and decided to make into a gallery and photo foundation. I love the whole thing of bringing people into an environment like this and offering them an artform, Sherwood said of her experiment, which eventually added darkrooms and a classroom and began moving up and down the Hudson beyond its original Manhattan base in the 79th Street Boat Basin. I really hate the idea of an artform being presented under very sterile conditions. Museums are fine, and I go to them all the time myself; but I think there should be something else.

Starting in 1970, Sherwoods Floating Foundation of Photography started as a meeting place for an extended circle of photographer friends, including the likes of Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Tress and our own regions Lilo Raymond, then began putting on thematic group shows as a means of demonstrating the wide potential of photography as an artform. Gradually, mooring herself up and down the vast stretches of the New York City waterfront, on both sides of Long Island Sound and eventually up the Hudson to Sing Sing prison and beyond, Sherwood and crew started drawing new audiences to their gallery, raising peoples idea of photography as an artform. They offered classes to different populations, eventually initiating the first photo darkroom classes in prisons.

The uniqueness of the floating exhibition space attracted those who would not normally set foot in a museum and who might not consider photography an artistic medium, is how the current shows curator, Beth Wilson, has put it. The Floating Foundations significance extended far beyond simply providing a venue for art photography. From the beginning, Sherwood and her son, Steven Schoen [an Ulster County resident], undertook a program of teaching photography to people who might never have thought of it as an expressive outlet, running programs in welfare hotels, mental institutions, drug rehabilitation programs, prisons and other socially marginalized communities. It all lasted right up until Sherwoods death from cancer in 1984 and the subsequent sale of the lavender houseboat in 1986.

Whats really striking to me about this whole story is the sheer expansiveness of the imagination and the energy of that time, Wilson added. Its my hope that this exhibition will open peoples eyes to the possibilities that might still be open to us today, if we can only embrace the sort of creativity  and the hope  demonstrated by Sherwood and all the others who contributed to the Floating Foundation back then.

In addition to the works Sherwood collected for the Floating Foundation  from early works by Eugene Atget, James VanDerZee and Weegee through her teacher David Vestal and contemporary photographer friends  the current exhibit that Wilson has put together with Schoens help includes images by the projects many students, including work from Sing Sing and other prisons, and a recreation of the Central Park show of photo art, put up on standing frames along its pathways, called The People. Yes! back in the summer of 1970.

Finally, an entire section of the Museum has been set aside for Sherwoods own adventurous work, including images of Central Park, of Coney Island, of workers in the garment district, the Horn & Hardart Automat and other quintessentially New York locations. A highly unconventional photographer for the time, Sherwood constantly experimented while shooting, from crumpling up cigarette pack cellophane in front of the lens to distort the image, to using long, shaky handheld exposures to create an impressionistic, atmospheric effect, to extensive use of a fisheye adapter to sharply warp her subject, Wilson has noted.

Versatility is what I strive for, and I can enjoy any form of photography, is how the elegantly eclectic Sherwood herself put it. I hope my future prints will sing with energy.

In addition to this being the first major exhibition of this important artist, this show also represents a major curating coup on the part of Wilson, who has recently finished her long run as a local visual arts critic to focus more on her teaching and curating work. What a treasure she has been  but also what a gift shes now given us in this exhibition (as well as the last 2007 Kingston Sculpture Biennial)!

It opens this Saturday, January 24 and runs through April 8, with an official opening reception set for Friday, February 13, a gallery talk by Wilson on Thursday, February 19, a panel discussion with Schoen and several Floating Foundation photographers on March 12 and the concurrent publication of a 72-page catalogue on Sherwood and her grand experiment, to be published by the Museum with a recollection of the Foundations era by noted photo critic A. D. Coleman. A simultaneous show of Sherwoods work, Free as a Bird, is up at Gabriels Restaurant in uptown Kingston.

For further information, visit the Dorskys website at or call (845) 255-3844.

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