“We didn’t want it to be a party,” said Sarah Reynolds, a director at Root Studios, as a crowd gathered outside of the North 14th Street photo studio and Narragansett flowed freely in what’s normally its echoing room. “We wanted people to be able to talk and show their work.” But that didn’t stop over 300 from showing up to the first Works in Progress on word-of-mouth and a last-minute email blast alone.
The idea was simple: invite the photography and production house’s clients and friends to see the work of “emerging photographers,” many of whom are connected to Root’s employees.
Kip McQueen, the company’s 44-year-old director, explains that it has always gone the extra mile for the clients — including fashion designers and clothing companies — who use its facilities in Chelsea and near the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border. “Anybody can rent you the space or the equipment, but we wanted people to have a better experience. We wanted to be more helpful.” So turning their attention to Root’s employees and their friends felt like a natural next step. “We have all of these resources, and you’re working with people who could benefit from these resources. After a while, there’s an obligation to support the people and their art.”
Last night, the room was packed, and the palpable camaraderie had to do with more than free beer. When Max Dworkin, a photographer associated with Root, offered to scout some artists for the first Works in Progress, which took place this November, he pulled from his close friends. Things have pretty much stayed in the family this time around, too. Creative Assistant Peggy Gertner, 23, introduces me to Elena Montemurro. They attended Parson’s School of design together, and when it came time for Root’s second WIP gathering, Peggy encouraged Elena to submit her work. The carnival colors and aching teenage moments of Elena’s “Coming of Age” photographs draw in the buzzing crowd around us as we talk.
These photographers aren’t selected based on connection alone. Root opened its submissions process to outside artists for this round, and the work is chosen for its quality and originality. Roeg Cohen, turning 44 today, captures his almost ethereal subjects with an intimacy usually reserved for close personal friends. “It’s sort of like backdooring into fashion with models” – without the makeup and lighting that usually comes with it, he explains. He began by making art in order to get jobs, and when that didn’t work, shifted to creating the photography he wanted to make instead. Adventurist Dylan Johnston, 23, makes his work as he labors – be it fishing, crushing cars in a junkyard or hunting pythons in the Florida everglades. When I finally pin him down for a conversation at the end of the night, Andrew Williams, 26, reveals to me a passion for documenting moments with the singular objectivity that comes with seeing something for the first time. As he doesn’t approach with any particular aesthetic or message – his photographs end up uninhibited and lively.
This is ultimately a networking event. These artists want to be seen by the right people, which is why Root opens the show to its clients. At November’s WIP, one young photographer sold a piece to a woman from Nike. The idea behind Works in Progress is to carefully select and curate beautiful work that isn’t being seen by the bigger names in the world of photography – work good enough to get these emerging photographers the attention they deserve. “It’s just so to get a foot in the door,” McQueen emphasized. “You can have great ideas but you just don’t have the equipment or the space. We just felt this was a really good way to give these people a chance and venue.”
Root’s Work in Progress will be held every other month, to ensure proper curation and keep the project fresh. To check out March’s event, well, you’ll have to keep an ear to the ground. Or try to get yourself into the show by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The original version of this story was revised to correct the surname of Peggy Gertner.