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August opening slated for photography institute in Grand Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2013 - The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum (IPHF) collection has arrived in St. Louis, after carefully traveling 500 miles in five moving trucks, toward the goal of an August opening.

If the experience were tallied up in a MasterCard commercial, it might sound like this: Transporting 30,000 images and 6,000 cameras from Oklahoma City: $25,000. Having them on display year-round in Grand Center: Priceless.

St. Louisans and other visitors can visit roomfuls of transformative photographs at the new IPHF in Grand Center, including Edward Steichen’s “Garbo,” Margaret Bourke-White’s “Fort Peck Dam” and Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother.”

Lange’s haunting 1936 photo of a mother of seven whose family survived by eating birds killed by her children, was part of the federal government’s official documentation of struggling agricultural workers. Widely circulated in newspapers and magazines, it became -- and remains -- an iconic representation of the Great Depression.

“Photography changes lives,” says IPHF executive director John Nagel. “It’s the most pervasive medium you can think of.”

Struck by lightening, surrounded by support

Last April, the IPHF announced its intention to move from Oklahoma City to the second floor of St. Louis’ Moto Museum building, 3441 Olive St. Since then, it has secured $600,000 through auctions of donated photographs and private contributions.

That’s about half of what’s needed to customize the space, offered rent-free for 20 years by Steve Smith, president of The Lawrence Group.

Moving costs for the collection -- whose worth is estimated at between $1 million and $2 million -- were picked up by local UniGroup transport company. Maritz sales and marketing is temporarily storing the images and cameras, free of charge, in a climate-controlled space.

There’s been only one glitch. “Some of our database was lost in a lightening strike a while back,” Nagel says.

The strike created a voltage spike in the computer system. There was no physical damage, and no photographs or cameras were harmed.

You know what they say about lightening striking twice. It doesn’t happen. So organizers expect the process of renovating and moving into the 6,000 square-foot location to go smoothly from here on out.

The new spot, on Olive Street between Theresa and Compton Avenues in Grand Center shares the territory with dozens of other arts institutions. These include larger entities such as The Sheldon and the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), and smaller facilities such as Bruno David Gallery and Portfolio Gallery. Conversations have already begun about exhibition-sharing and cross-promotion.

“We’re unique in what we do, and if anything, we compliment the other galleries and programs,” Nagel says.

‘Jewel in the crown’

Opportunities for academic collaboration also abound for the IPHF, according to development director Lucy Morros. The St. Louis area has 14 accredited university photography programs, and more than 50 high school courses, all of which will benefit from IPHF’s extensive collection of historic cameras.

The assortment is a timeline of the evolution of the camera, from the daguerreotype, the wet-plate camera, view camera and box camera to the hand-held 35mm and the smart phone.

“Students can come down and see these incredible examples of antique cameras, which will put some ‘meat’ on their learning about how photography began,” Morros says.

The IPHF also plans to work with other local institutions, including the St. Louis Camera camera club -- the largest in the country -- and the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Friends of Photography.

More auctions and other events will be held in the coming months, with information to be posted on the IPHF website. Systems are being installed now in the new space and construction will begin in April. A soft opening is planned for sometime in August, followed by a more elaborate debut.

The finished space will become another asset in an already burgeoning arts community, Morros notes.

“The collection of photography and antique cameras will absolutely be a jewel in the crown of Grand Center,” Morros says.

Related development

The National Archives at St. Louis has opened “Through America’s Lens: Focusing on the Greatest Generation 1920-1945,” an exhibit of historic photographs by America photographers who served in a branch of the U.S. military or worked for the federal government.

The exhibit is open to the public from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (except for federal holidays) at 1 Archives Drive off Dunn Road, 63138 (next to Hazelwood East Middle School.

Lectures that will go with the exhibit begin at 6:30 p.m. March 20 with Saint Louis University History Professor Flannery Burke talking about Dorothea Lange.

More on IPHF and the value of photography

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.