It’s not exactly how they drew it up, but Ten Years, the latest exhibition from the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, is on display – virtually. Two days after debuting at PPAC’s Olde Kensington location on March 12, non-essential businesses in Philadelphia were ordered to close to comply with social distancing measures put in place by the city to combat coronavirus. So PPAC’s executive director, Sarah Stolfa, made the decision to move the exhibition online.
“It was some really quick thinking to get it photographed and up online,” said Stolfa. “I think it’s a beautiful way to experience it.”
The exhibition features the work of alumni of PPAC’s Honickman Foundation Teen Photo Program, in which public high school students in Philadelphia are given a DSLR camera to conduct photo projects with. This past January was the 10th anniversary of the program, and PPAC decided to celebrate with an exhibition featuring the work of Teen Photo students of years past.
“It takes a lot of dedication for students to be in the program,” Stolfa said. “We’ve been very adamant that it’s a year-long program because we believe in authentic impact. It takes time to develop relationships with students and for them to develop their own skills.”
Stolfa said the exhibition features a large chunk of portraiture work.
“There’s quite a bit of experimentation as well,” she said. “There is video work in the show and there’s even photographs that come off the wall or enter the 3D realm with more sculptural elements to the work.”
Stolfa added that the exhibition celebrates “creativity and joy” through images that utilize an aesthetic of fashion that entails bright colors and dramatic gestures in terms of the space or the clothing.
“If people check it out online they’ll see what I’m talking about,” she said.
She concedes that viewing the work online isn’t as effective at seeing it in person. That being said, she thinks there could be a future for the internet to be used as a medium for PPAC exhibitions.
“COVID is training to find ways to use the virtual realm to engage more people in our programming,” she said. “How can we have our exhibitions online virtually and how we can develop programming online so people can livestream and view afterwards?”
As of right now, the exhibition is scheduled to end on May 2, but that will likely be extended depending on how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts.
“We’re going to keep the show up until we can reopen so people have the opportunity to see it in person,” she said. “It’s really great to be able to experience the work in that capacity but it’s not the same as experiencing it in person.”
Stolfa said that there are plans in the works to have some of the artists do virtual tours and speak about their work in the gallery.
Speaking of the artists who have participated in the Teen Photo program, Stolfa said that many of them have gone on to become professional photographers or fine artists.
“Our students are kind of all over the place,” she said.
Part of what students learn in the program is how photography and imagery can be used for harm and for good. When asked how photography can be used for harm, Stolfa referenced Unbranded, a body of work created by artist Hank Willis Thomas that stripped words and branding from advertising images from the 1970s to the 2000s.
“The astonishing thing that you see is how stereotyped African Americans have been delivered through photographic imagery,” Stolfa said. “It purports inequality and racism.”
Many of the students who participate in the program have “experienced trauma in one way or another,” Stolfa said, “but the pictures that they make are of such joy and beauty. It’s really important to see that because that’s not what we’re always fed.”
The exhibition can be viewed at philaphotoarts.org.