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Jason Landry, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston’s Kenmore Square, is surrounded by students. In some ways, you could say he never left school. With a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art & Design, MFA from neighboring Lesley University College of Art & Design, and post-graduate training at the Photographic Resource Center just down the road, Landry is the youngest photography gallery owner in the city and mentor to many. In 2013, he became the inaugural Director of the low-residency MFA in Photography Program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and published a book, “Instant Connections”, aimed at helping students and emerging artists negotiate the world of fine art photography. I recently spoke with Jason about his curatorial ideas and plans for the future of Panopticon Gallery.
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I was born in Everett, Mass, which is close to Boston, but grew up in Greenland, NH. I moved back to Boston for my first try at college, and then back again when I was working in the corporate world.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
Well, first and foremost, it was out of my love for photography. Then I started collecting photography when I was in college and, around the same time, I started thinking about someday opening a gallery to help mentor artists. I was trying to find a way to meld my business background and my love for photography into one ideal scenario that I would enjoy doing every day. A gallery made the most sense. I wrote my first business plan to open a gallery 4 years before buying Panopticon Gallery.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
Mentoring emerging artists and students gives me the most satisfaction. That is the activity that I enjoy the most at the gallery. Someone said recently that I was like a guidance counselor for artists. That made me smile. I never went into this business looking to make money––I went into it to help people. Some people think and have expressed to me that running a gallery is really a glorified sales job. I’ve worked sales jobs, and they suck. The truth is, I made money in the business world and I invested well, but after ten years doing the nine to five thing, I realized that wearing a suit, participating in endless conference calls and letting someone else dictate my future wasn’t a path I wanted to follow any longer. None of it made me happy or motivated me. Helping others to succeed and being behind the scenes is what I am good at. I took all of the knowledge that I gained from the corporate world and decided to put it to good use in the art world. My outlook now is to do a good job and have fun. If I’m not having fun, I won’t do it.
To succeed, every gallery must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as Panopticon’s special role in the Boston photographic community?
Just to revert back to that last question, I spend most of my time mentoring artists. I am in a unique position to offer that to the community.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake as a curator and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
I’m not sure I can pinpoint one specific mistake. I make mistakes all the time. I am human and I don’t put myself on a pedestal above anyone. I learn by example and try to remember as much as possible so that I don’t create the same mistake twice. I practice a lot.
As for giving advice for future curators, I would seek out galleries or museum curators that you could work with or assist. I was lucky enough to work at the Photographic Resource Center for a few years before buying my gallery. I was watching every single thing that the former curator Leslie K. Brown was doing. She was a great curator––organized and extremely thorough––one of the best ones that I have had the honor of knowing. I’ll never be as good as she was, but I try hard every day. (Thanks Leslie)
How do you think the proliferation of electronic devices like the iPhone and the accompanying cultural inundation with snapshots like “selfies” is affecting fine art photography? Has it influenced the way you curate?
Seeing that I am doing an exhibition in the gallery right now called “Self-Portraits not #Selfies” should say a lot about how I feel. I’m a traditionalist at heart and a sucker for black and white prints made in a darkroom. There are people who think that they are photographers because they took a quick snap with their iPhones or digi-cams and someone told them that it was cool. I use Instagram and take photos with my iPhone, I don’t completely dismiss the technology. However, with more people than ever before now making photographs, it kind of dumbs-down what fine art photographers are producing today. The “I can do that” generation is really just clogging up the cloud.
With our current exhibition, I wanted to show people what a fine art self-portrait looked like. It’s much different than a #selfie. There is planning, there is set up, there is a lot of thought put into everything. Most of these images don’t just happen in a quick second––sometimes the artist has been ruminating over the idea for days, even weeks, before setting up the shot. Someone smarter than me said that we need fewer photographers and more curators. I concur.
What advice about representation in your gallery would you give to an emerging photographer today?
I decided recently that I am going to slow down on officially “representing” more artists. I would rather give exhibition opportunities to as many people as I can. I actually started to feel guilty when I would go and do portfolio reviews at all of these large events all over the world, but not have the opportunity to show the work that I liked in a timely fashion. Artists want shows, publicity, feedback and recognition. They don’t want false promises. So as we move forward, we’re planning to do more group shows and will focus on showcasing more artists.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring? What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
I actually haven’t seen any big trends recently that are blowing my hair back. I’m not a fan of trends. I never gravitated toward printing big, or on metal, or mounting prints to plexiglass––all trends from my point of view. But if we are talking “exciting things”, here are 4 things that I like right now:
1.) Helpful books, not just picture books: More people are writing books on photography in ways to help other people. I just received “The Photographer’s Playbook” and found that to be great resource for photographers and educators. Jennifer Schwartz’s “Crusade for Your Art” is another one, as well as my book, “Instant Connections: Essays and Interviews on Photography”. These books are about people helping people––it’s not critical theory––it’s education, and that is what photographers need most.
2.) Networking with your peers: Last year I started something new called the Photo Liquid Lunch Bunch. I try to get 10-12 people together every other month to have lunch and talk about things going on in the photography industry as well as come up with ideas that we could implement to help strengthen the Boston photography scene. I bring together gallery owners, printers, commercial photographers, fine art photographers, museum professionals and collectors to have hearty discussions at a nice restaurant. The secondary goal of this get-together is to help people grow their network and introduce them to new peers in the industry.
3.) I’m happy that Bruce Myren and a few other board members at the PRC have taken control and are trying to revive the place. It is important to have a photography organization like this in downtown Boston.
4.) Lastly, I’m excited that my 5-year anniversary owning Panopticon Gallery is right around the corner. I can’t believe it’s been 5 years. I still love what I do, which means I’m having fun. There’s no getting rid of me yet.
All images shown here are in “Self-Portraits not #Selfies”, currently on exhibit at Panopticon Gallery through March 8, 2015. For more information about the gallery, go to: http://www.panopticongallery.com/
To read my review of the show, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/self-portraits-not-selfies-at-panopticon-gallery-boston/
For information about Jason’s book, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Instant-Connections-Essays-Interviews-Photography/dp/0990013502/
Feature Image: “Wheelbarrow, 2014”, gelatin silver print by Jenna Stebbins (courtesy of the artist and Panopticon Gallery, Boston)