Photo Director Denise Sfraga Chats with Bushwick Gallerist Rafael Fuchs

March 31, 2016

By Denise Sfraga

© Denise Sfraga

Photographer/gallerist Rafael Fuchs by the secret door at his gallery in Bushwick.

Fuchs Projects is a contemporary art gallery which is located in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2012 and founded by photographer Rafael Fuchs. The gallery exhibits art of both emerging and mid-career artists from the New York area as well as international artists with a specialization in photography. Denise Sfraga is a Photo Editor who has worked at a variety of magazines including Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, People, Civilization, Entertainment Weekly, Health and is currently Director of Photography at This Old House Magazine. She recently sat down with photographer and gallerist Rafael Fuchs to discuss his photography and exhibition space in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

DS:We’ve known each other for many years and I’m most familiar with your work of celebrity portraits which have been published in various pop culture magazines dating back to the 1980’s. I would love to know more about your gallery in Bushwick Brooklyn – Fuchs Projects located at 56 Bogart Street. You have had a successful career as a photographer and have experience in all aspects of the business including advertising, video, music, magazines, books…Why did you decide to open a gallery?
RF: Personally, one of the main reasons for me to open my gallery was the fact that two local galleries that had hosted solo shows of my work in 2006 and 2010 (Ad Hoc and Eastern District) decided to close down the following year in 2011. Following the DIY spirit, I decided to create my own space, that also serves as a studio. It has a very unique character and beautiful daylight. I rent it at times for other photographers as well. The idea of opening a gallery comes from the DIY approach that I have noticed catching on in the neighborhood, where a fair amount of artists have opened galleries. This is not a new idea in the history of photography – the first internationally famous “291 art gallery” was located at 291 5th Ave in NYC from 1905 to 1917 and was created and managed by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz where he showed his own work as well as other artists.

DS: What type of work do you exhibit and how often do the exhibitions typically last?

RF: I exhibit mostly photography, but not exclusively. For example, In December of 2015 I exhibited a show by the cross-stitch artist Phil Davison from the UK and then a photography show called “Sauna” by Aapo Matilla who is an artist from Finland. The mission of the gallery is to show photography related works that are challenging issues as well as the medium of photography. The exhibitions could last from one week to a whole month or even more. It all depends whether it’s an artist that is represented (non-exclusively) by the gallery, or whether it’s a special event/pop-up style show.

DS: How far in advance do you plan the exhibition schedule?
RF: At times I’m working on a project with an artist (or my own project) one year or so in advance, and plan a time slot for the exhibition, although I start promoting it only when it’s getting close to the debut date.
Sometimes, as an immediate response to current affairs (particularly in the Bushwick area), I would create/curate/ work with someone on an show that would be installed within a couple of weeks from being discussed / conceived.

DS: How do you manage your own photography career and curating other photographers’ works?

RF: It’s a very complex and difficult task. Obviously it takes a toll on my own artwork in terms of the time I am able to dedicate to it. I took that into consideration when I opened the gallery, with the idea to develop something bigger than just my own work. Having a gallery space gives me the opportunity to show my work more frequently, as it develops in its early stages, a practice that some other photographers most likely won’t adopt. I believe that it enables me to grow as an artist, since I have the urge to share my work with others as I make it, it gives me the opportunity to view my work on the wall and to see the reaction of the visitors and engage with conversations, a practice that helps me define my own path.

DS: What are the benefits of curating and operating a gallery?
RF: There are a few benefits of having a gallery…. One benefit is the option to participate in art fairs , which in most cases, include galleries only and not individual artists (unless commissioned by the art fair organizers.). Also, having a gallery forces me to look closer at other artists work which not only keeps me on my toes, but enriches and educates me and opens a platform to discuss art and ideas with other artists. Since I opened my gallery ( 3 and a half years ago), I have exhibited other artists’ work in addition to my own, promote their work and give them an outlet to showcase it. It was a deliberate decision to create something bigger than just my own work, but to create an art hub for more than one artist and to amplify our voices together. At times, I recruit a curator to help an artist to edit their work and help make it ready for an exhibition. An example is photographer Augustin Doublet, who had a solo show of his street photography. He came with hundreds of images, and I introduced him to Casey Elsass, who was at the time the co-director of the Metropolitan Opera gallery, and was very kind to spend many hours and edit Augustin’s work to two sections that fit beautifully in the gallery. One room was color and the other was Black and White images (The art critic Jerry Saltz dropped in to view the show which he liked!).

DS: Are you still actively photographing?

RF: Yes, I still devote time and effort to my own work mostly personal (rather than commissioned). My photography career changed in the past few years and is focused and appeals more to the art world, although it’s interesting that some of my work that is presented and sold as art was done initially as an editorial commission for different magazines. Actually, if we look at a lot of works by some of the biggest names in photography, many of their well-known works were commissioned for magazines such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger… just to name a few.

It is also interesting that my work as well as other artists that are shown in the gallery , are purchased and shown not only by individual collectors, but also by other patrons such as advertising agencies who display the work in their offices to inspire the art directors and their clients as in Ogilvy, NY.

DS: What photography projects are you currently working on?

RF: In the past three years I have been also exploring not only straight photography, but also manipulated photographs and photo collages, that I presented in a few shows such as “LandLords” (2014), “The New Religion” and “Change Of Seasons” (both 2015). Most recently, I have been busy editing my personal documentary photographs that I have been taking during the past 10 years of the Bushwick neighborhood I moved to in 2005. This series includes portraits of people who have lived in Bushwick and photos of the urban terrain that has been changing rapidly and also different events like art openings or parties, and much more…and it is a hard task to compile it all. I am planning on putting it together in a few books. You can see at bit of the Buswick project here. I also am working on a series called “Change Of Seasons” that started as an art commission last year, and in addition I was commissioned to re-work on images of super models that I took in the 90’s, as Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Tara Banks, Cindy Crawford, and more.

DS: Competition is so strong in New York City and it’s become very difficult for artists whether just starting out or even mid-career to get their work seen and exhibited – what advice can you give to someone who is seeking gallery representation?

RF: That’s interesting…coincidentally, a nice woman recently walked in the gallery and asked me the same question. I told her that it all depends on the personality of the artist..but my advice to her was that she has to visit the gallery a few times, become familiar with the work being shown, attend some openings and figure out whether it’s a good fit between her and the gallery she’s interested in. The relationship between the gallery and the artist has to be compatible, and both have to contribute to each other in different ways in order to grow together. I believe that before an artist has gained a name for themselves, the approach to the gallery curator should be in person, and maybe can start as a short conversation with leaving a card or a postcard with a image of the artwork..this can be a start. The day she walked in the gallery, she mentioned a couple of times to me that she had some works in her car, and I explained to her that maybe that wasn’t the right approach – to walk into a gallery without an appointment and assume that the gallery director will have the time to look at the work.

DS: Do you accept submissions from photographers? Since most galleries do not accept submissions, what is the best advice you can give someone who wants to get their work out there?

RF: At Fuchs Projects gallery, my co-director and I, which can vary at times, are open to look at submissions. We’re always interested in seeing what’s out there. It doesn’t guarantee that we could show much of what we see, but I can give my personal opinion or advice. Sometimes we have group shows which is an interesting way to present new artists’ works and gauge reactions (and sales). It also gives us a chance to get to know the artists better, which could lead to future collaborations and projects.

My advice to photographers is to submit their work to different competitions / portfolio reviews / call for entries and other opportunities that will expose their work. Obviously, a photographer has to be selective in what competition they submit to, because some of them are not worthy or not related to their work at all . The photographers need to stay true to themselves in regards to what they show and submit, without thinking of what can win, or what might please the judges…as long as it’s related to the theme of the show or competition. Sometimes the piece might grab the attention of one of the reviewers, that could lead to it being included in another event, or invite the artist to participate in another show. Also, I would suggest to photographers to make prints of their work and create an event like an open studio in order to showcase their work. Photographers should be proactive in getting their work seen. Something as simple as inviting their friends over to look at work is a a good (and entertaining) way to get feedback and sharpen ones vision. (and even offer some works for sale at a friendly price).

DS: With the current struggling economy, are people investing in photography and what style are they most drawn to and/or do you have a artist represented by your gallery who sells work regularly?

RF: People are still investing in photography. From my experience, people are more interested these days in seeing (and purchasing) works that are different than straight photography. People have been interested in photo-collages, alternative process, digital manipulation, a mix of a print and painting, photo installations, works printed on different materials, photographs that don’t look like photographs, etc. Although, a strong straight photograph or a group of straight photographs edited concisely will always grab attention and very likely to sell. One of the more successful artists in terms of sales during the consignment agreement was Petros Chrisostomou.

DS: What is a typical agreement between the gallery and artist/photographer?
RF: The way that the gallery works is to represent someone non-exclusively for a limited period of time (usually 6 months) with a specific body of work (about 20 works), that is promoted in various ways. We sell works of artists during an exhibition, a pre-show sale event, art fair, etc. and also during the period of the consignment. We give the artists a platform to show their work without binding them to our gallery. We are allowing them to develop relationships with other galleries that might want to invest in them for longer periods later on. The commission of the gallery varies depending on the different shows, but usually it’s 70% to the artist and 30% to the gallery (after the framing cost is deducted, when a framed work is sold).

DS: Can you give an example of one the gallery artists and how you discovered their work?
RF: It could be from artists’ solicitations and/or sometimes we reach out to an artists whose work we have seen previously. Also, sometimes we would have a curator that is putting a show together that brings in artists from his own circles and initiations. An example: Ruben Natal San Miguel (who is a prolific photographer as well as a curator, who put this show together) or a collaboration with The Big Lean.

DS: In a similar way artists need to promote themselves and their work, how do you promote your gallery and encourage people from other boroughs to come out to Brooklyn to see your exhibitions?
RF: We promote the gallery by announcing our opening receptions via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and mostly through our private mailing list that consists of about 2,500 names of people that subscribe.
Out of these there are about 300 people that are either active collectors (that bought from our gallery), as well as art and photography critics, bloggers and curators. We also distribute postcards and flyers and sometimes we sponsor special events like an artist talk, book signing, etc. Artfairs (such Fountain, Scope Miami, Art Martkt Hamptons, Scope NY, Cutlog, Sluice NY, YES: Selects (NY) that we have been participating in for the past three years are also a great tool to promote the gallery and introduce works to broader crowds.

DS: You’ve lived in Bushwick for over ten years…with the explosion of the art scene there with more and more galleries opening, how do you see the neighborhood changing – for better or worse?

RF: The neighborhood has been changing a lot. When I first moved out here in February 2005, there were about seven galleries, and now there are over 70! And there wasn’t as many bars and restaurants back then.
Bushwick soon became a destination for artists, then real estate developers of restaurants and bars. Obviously, the downside of this change and gentrification is the rise of prices (rentals are double now) and the displacement of lower income residents. These issues need to be addressed as Bushwick continues to rise as the new alternative art center is booming.

DS: What are your plans for this year? What exhibitions are coming up we can look for?
RF: This is the year for me to finally put together books of images I have been taking here in Bushwick for the past 10 years. See a glimpse of it here. The exhibitions that are coming up will be related to this, but there will be other exhibitions as well that fit the mission of the gallery to present innovation and challenging photography works. For instance, in April we will feature the artist Chris Kienke whose work is “post-analog.” He paints over photographs of pixelated TV screens that he prints on canvas. And obviously, we’ll insert to our schedule other shows that will come along as we continue with our art adventures.

See more of Rafael Fuchs at his site, for his early works, projects, commissions, videos and books.