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It takes a combination of vision and guts to open an art gallery, but Susan Nalband has both in spades. Just about a year ago, she inaugurated 555 Gallery, Boston’s newest photography venue, in the blossoming arts district of South Boston. Educated in art and art history, Nalband received her undergraduate degree in photojournalism and, not surprisingly, documentary photography has remained one of her abiding passions for nearly 40 years. Her entrepreneurial experience came firsthand, through heading her own printing business and a retail store on Boston’s South Shore. Discover why 555 Gallery seems a natural culmination of her related endeavors and meet Susan Nalband, Boston’s latest champion of photography.
What brought you to Boston and how did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
Minneapolis is my hometown, where there is a long-standing tradition of encouraging the arts, publicly and privately. That attitude has been the greatest influence on my decision to open a gallery. Frequent visits to the Walker Art Center as a teenager and young adult probably molded my appreciation for and understanding of Modern Art and artists. I think it’s what inspires me to want be informed about Contemporary Art and artists as well as having influenced my curatorial style.
My husband and I moved to Boston in 2008, after living on the South Shore for 20 years. It’s important to me to know the community where I live and to participate in what it has to offer. After selling a business in the printing industry, and tossing around for a reinvention of myself, I came across the space that is now 555 Gallery. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with it. We live close to the gallery, in burgeoning South Boston, filled with new homes, new restaurants, several arts organizations and close enough to everything else in Boston that I felt it was time to put everything together that I had done and been to that point.
Curating photography in one way or another is something I’ve always done. I sorted family photographs constantly as a kid, and still today hold the family archives hostage. I promise I’ll scan them all for my siblings…any day now.
As a photography student I was most fond of critique days….they couldn’t shut me up! Not only did I love hearing what the professor and the other students had to say, I loved to talk about all of the work. People seemed to listen, and seek my opinion.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
As my gallery assistant, Hannah Smith, says, “We just have to keep all the plates spinning in the air.” There is never ending variety to my days. I would describe what I do at this point as creating a space to share enthusiasm for and information about worthy photography with a following of people who are interested in experiencing the work, the story.
555 Gallery is a year old now, or maybe I should say only a year old now. It has been a pleasure and an education to work closely with the photographers whose work we carry.
To succeed, every institution must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as your special role in the Boston photographic community?
I’m a bit on the frontier geographically here, experimenting with my own creative vision of what gives good voice to contemporary photography. I package the work in a welcoming atmosphere….no attitude or art speak required here. Is that enough to create a niche? For now I think it is. Give me a few more years and I will have better molded our identity and we’ll see how it fits in or stands out of the mix.
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?
What we do as curators is dig and research, listen and guide as we endeavor to open doors for artists, and for people interested in seeing work that is more than they have experienced before. This is a new era of contemporary photography. Who doesn’t make pictures everyday? We’re drowning in fleeting electronic images. If the content, the intelligence and the craftsmanship are there I will consider the work.
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’ve learned that photography, as art on walls to be taken home and cherished is still a stretch for many people. Showing contemporary work requires lots of explanation. The rewards of gaining and sharing knowledge are exhilarating, but the job gets bigger everyday. I need to work diligently to keep everyone happy. Luckily I’ve owned businesses before and I don’t loose any sleep now over having more to do than is humanly possible.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring?
The revival of really perfect black and white prints always puts a smile on my face. I had an incredible evening looking at Louie Palu’s gorgeous prints of the Marines in Afganistan recently. They were sharp and crisp and lean. Just the way I like my photographs.
To what do you attribute the resurgence of interest in photography books?
Without digital photography and the technology associated with it this wouldn’t be happening. On demand printing has made it possible for many to even consider making a fine art photography book. You can send out a test and get it back in the mail for $40. or so. Remember when you first heard about spending $40 on a single book? It happens all day everyday now.
To create a really beautifully produced book distributed through a publisher, a dummy for discussion purposes is a necessity. For photographers with the skills to sequence their work, it is a starting point for discussion with designers, writers and publishers. Now that these new beautiful books are available, the appetite to have and hold them is enormous.
What advice about representation in your gallery would you give to an emerging photographer today?
I’m surprised when a photographer who has never been to the gallery emails to ask if I would consider representing their work. They may live in the area, and have not been in to get a feel for the place, how it looks, how we interact with people. I recommend visiting many galleries in Boston, New York, in any other city or community to do some research. Find a place where a relationship seems possible.
And when you become part of a gallery try to understand the situation. Plan to bring as much to it as you hope to get out of it. It’s important to work closely, trust that everyone is working respectfully toward common goals.
What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
It’s a large vibrant community and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. There are many wonderful galleries representing fine art photography. The MFA has a terrific staff bringing wonderful work to the public. Many institutions have great collections that they’re sharing. And people are graciously attending and supporting all of these venues.
To learn more about 555 Gallery, go to: http://www.555gallery.com/
Feature Image: From the series “Gentle Punks” by Cassandra Giraldo (courtesy of the artist and 555 Gallery, Boston)