When the dust settles after this weekend’s kick-off of the first-ever Louisville Visual Arts Festival (LVAF), it’ll mark the first time that more than 35 local galleries and museums came together for a common cause — to celebrate and honor the work of C.J. Pressma, founder of the Center for Photographic Studies in Louisville in the 1970s.
“He created something really special,” says gallery owner and LVAF organizer Paul Paletti. “Back in the 1970s, he had the guts — or the insanity or something — to found a school to teach fine art photography. It was something outside of the normal flow of education. It was a brilliant idea. His passion fueled it, and that made it a reality.”
The Center attracted students from 35 states from 1970-1978, some of whom still remain as working artists in Louisville. Along with darkrooms and classroom instruction, the Center housed two galleries that exhibited works of local, regional and international photographers including Ansel Adams and Minor White. A majority of the exhibits during the festival will showcase work by former students, as well as memorabilia from the students, works of renowned artists who visited the Center and other photography from independent artists. Even fabric galleries like Mary Craik, the Embroiderers Guild and Garner-Furnish will have photos on display.
Pressma’s Center for Photographic Studies was a little less formal and offered a more hands-on, experiential approach to learning than standard colleges or universities. Pressma started the Center soon after receiving his MFA in photography from Indiana University. There were only about five openings for teaching photography as fine art in the country, and he wasn’t selected. “So I came back to my hometown, and with encouragement and financial support from my family, I started my own school,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As an undergraduate at Antioch College, I had always been interested in educational philosophy. I decided it was time to put some of these ideas to use.
“I signed a lease with the then-owner of the Brinkman Building on the northeast corner of Second and Main streets. Julius Friedman Images was the first tenant and the Center for Photographic Studies was the second.”
The philosophy of the school, he wrote, was to provide an intensive self-directed program of the study of photography as fine art. The school did not offer any grades or degrees. The full-time program was limited to a maximum of 30 students annually. The only prerequisite was a willingness to commit to an intensive program of study.
“The mix of these objectives created a very rich learning environment where every student, young or old, had something to contribute to the group,” Pressma wrote.
“Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the school was the lack of administrative bureaucracy,” he wrote. “We as teachers were also the administrators. Our program was always directed to enhance the learning experience for the individual student. We took field trips to make pictures — sometimes day trips, week trips, month trips. The faculty was always challenged to set the example of photographic artists engaged in their own creative work as well as mentoring the students.”
The Louisville Visual Arts Festival kicks off June 5 during the First Friday Trolley Hop. A number of events at more than 35 galleries throughout Louisville and Southern Indiana will continue through July 31 (see sidebar).
Paletti says the collaborative efforts of Louisville’s visual arts community made the LVAF possible. “We wanted to do something that shows an absolutely unprecedented cooperation between a number of organizations in the visual arts — that we have a common interest and that we can put on an incredible, national-quality show. Beyond that, we want to make this into an annual event that changes every year in terms of its focus.”