Form and Passion

The Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition celebrates its 10th year.

By: Daniel Shearer
   Several generations of artists have come to view Phillips’ Mill with a reverence usually reserved for religious shrines. Perched at a tricky bend on Route 32 in Solebury, Pa., the quaint stone structure started life as a water-powered gristmill in 1756, then took on new significance when painter William Lathrop took up residence on the adjoining farm in the late 1890s.
   Over the next few decades, Mr. Lathrop, along with numerous contemporaries, among them Daniel Garber, Edward Redfield, Fern Coppedge and Walter Baum, established the painting style eventually known as New Hope Impressionism — a legacy celebrated annually with a juried art show hosted by the Phillips’ Mill Community Association.
   Considering the locale’s rich heritage, it seemed appropriate to two Solebury natives, Peter Redman and Spencer Saunders, that the mill’s art show should celebrate fine-art photography as well. They approached the community association with the idea in the early ’90s and were politely informed that the fall art show simply did not have enough room for photography. However, the board members offered to let them use the building in the spring.
   Today, the Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition has nearly two dozen committee members and a long list of former jurors. The exhibition’s 10th anniversary show, on view at the mill through June 2, displays more than 130 images selected by three jurors from a field of 731 submissions entered by a mix of hobbyists, students and full-blown professionals. The exhibit also has a separate high school show with entries from 10 schools, including Council Rock High School, George School, Solebury School, Stuart Country Day School and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School.
   "There’s definitely a buzz around it, sort of a little mystique," Mr. Saunders says. "The word on the street is that it’s very difficult to get accepted, and that’s somewhat true. Roughly 80 percent of the work that gets submitted to the show does not get accepted."
   For a $25 fee, each artist submits up to four works, which are evaluated by three judges looking for evidence of strong personal vision. The exhibition’s guidelines fall in a broad category: photography as art.
   "It seemed that there were no shows that said ‘Bring us what you’re working on. Show us what you’re passionate about,’" Mr. Saunders says. "That’s our premise. The subject has nothing to do with getting accepted or not. This show tries to respect people who are making images, really working from the heart, and trying to say something."
   That philosophy occasionally yields unusual results, as with this year’s "Best of Show" winner, submitted by Belle Mead resident D.F. Connors. His subject is unremarkable, perhaps even mundane — a chain-link fence in the mist — a flat, gray image by any measure. But Mr. Connors’ execution struck jurors as original.
   "All four of his images were chain-link fences in the fog," Mr. Saunders says, "but the jurors felt strongly that this artist was really achieving the goals set forth as the parameters for the show.
   "We really pride ourselves on the jurying process. Every year, we try to get someone who has been an award winner, we get someone from the teaching world, and we also get someone who knows galleries. From that meeting of the minds, we guarantee that all three jurors will see each artist’s images together as a body of work, and those three jurors will make decisions as a team."
   Once the images have been selected, the photographers then provide framed prints offered for sale at the show, ranging in price from $30-$1,400. If the piece sells, the exhibition, recently registered as a non-profit organization, takes 30 percent.
   "We sell between 20 and 40 pieces each year," says Peter Redman, exhibit co-founder and one of the committee chairmen. "But a lot of these images have little chance of selling, because that’s not what they’re about.
   "Take this carousel picture, for example," he says, motioning to a picture hanging on a nearby wall. "This has a higher chance of selling because everyone can identify with it. But over here, we have these portraits of a famous poet, C.K. Williams, a beautiful photograph. The man who submitted this, Peter Cook, sent us portraits of four different people, all somewhat prominent. Not as likely to sell, but it still has a place in the show."
   Yardley, Pa., resident Barbara Warren also submitted four images, all winter scenes. Two of them secured a place in the show.
   "It has to be viewed as a body of work," Mr. Saunders says. "This woman submitted four images, all of them the same technique. Winter scenes in Yellowstone. The jury was smitten by it. They’re very soft, very tender. Great images."
   Doylestown, Pa., resident Judith Heep took a more unorthodox approach, entering a mixed-media work.
   "These look like antique photos," Mr. Saunders says, "all linked together. Look how each one of these panels is sewn on with thread, the handmade paper. This is a piece of art, but it involves a photographic process. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s here."
   Some of the works involve obviously pre-arranged settings, such as Huntingdon Valley, Pa., resident Linda Griffith’s effort, "Asunder," with a woman wearing a wedding dress lying in front of a car. Two works by Media, Pa., resident Keith Sharp create humor with dyptic images: "Stripes" accomplishes this by pairing a roadkill skunk with an old sweater; "Forms" compares the motif shared by a plated waffle and a manhole cover.
   Langhorne, Pa., resident Tim Shuda landed two images in the show, both detailed crocodile photographs, while Ewing resident Nili Chernikoff impressed jurors with a portrait series of young Israeli soldiers. Dealing with a strikingly different subject, Pittsburgh resident John Flatz produced a stark industrial portrait, "Storage Tanks."
   "To me, this is a black-and-white piece of artwork," Mr. Saunders says, walking toward Mr. Flatz’s work. "This has true blacks, some true whites, a real tonal range. The person could be working with the zone system. The sky has some real interest in it. The staircases are graphic. There’s something really going on. It’s a world of tanks."
   Although the vast majority of show participants hail from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, advertising with several prominent art and photography magazines has recently drawn international submissions.
   "After 10 years, it really has developed quite a following," Mr. Saunders says. "I had no idea the photographic community in this area was as large as it is. It’s an open show, any subject. It’s always exciting to see the diversity."
The Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition, 2619 River Road (Route 32), Solebury, Pa., runs through June 2. Hours: Daily 1-5 p.m. and by appointment. Admission costs $3; seniors/students $2. For information, call (215) 396-7040. On the Web: