When I arrived in San Francisco in January 1975, my Ford Maverick filled with boxes containing what my twenty-four-year-old self considered valuable, I had fairly typical aspirations for a photographer entering graduate school: I wanted to make photographs, get them shown, and find a teaching position after graduation. What I didn’t anticipate was becoming an art critic or making the images that would come to define my work.
Three months after I arrived, the instructor of my museum studies seminar at San Francisco State University suggested I contact Joan Murray, photo editor at Artweek, to see if I might write a few reviews for the weekly tabloid to fulfill the seminar’s project requirement. Oakland-based Artweek covered exhibitions on the West Coast at a time when the New York art magazines ignored pretty much anything that happened west of the Hudson River. Although writers only received five dollars per published review — paltry even by 1975 standards — aspiring critics and artists were eager to sign on because of the visibility it afforded. With my first piece accepted for publication, I was on my way, without realizing it, to being a critic and ultimately to being more writer than photographer.
Artweek was my introduction to Lew Thomas. Joan Murray sent me out to review Bracketing, an installation of seven of Lew’s pieces at the Darkroom Workshop in Berkeley. Having me write about the show was probably an act of self-preservation on Joan’s part, as a response from him to any review of his work was pretty much a given. After my review came out, he sent me a letter that began with him disputing one of my assertions, but ended with the statement, “When a critic [meaning me, in this case] makes a thoughtful and articulate statement it ought not to go unnoticed.” A follow-up note a few months later referenced a conversation we had had that Lew found “delightful and informative.” In his postscript, he mentioned that he had seen some of my work in a graduate exhibition and that we should discuss it the next time we met.
Lew managed the bookshop at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. From his small office just off the steps leading to the museum’s lower level, he received visitors. He had many artist friends, among them Howard Hack and Toby Klayman, but having no formal training in photography, he was not part of any of the cliques that loosely formed around academic affiliation. He was, however, passionate about grounding photographic practice in ideas, which he did through his work and as a mentor. He shared his knowledge freely and recommended books on theory and contemporary art practice that most photographers had never heard of, much less read. Here were the books we needed, which Lew sold to us at a deep discount. My solo exhibition the next year, twenty-four photographs that Lew titled Gay Semiotics, would demonstrate the full impact of his mentorship.
Between the Bay Area’s museums, university galleries, and art galleries, there was a steady stream of opening events to attend. Venues that focused on contemporary work, particularly by younger or emerging local photographers, were an especially big draw in this tightly knit community. It was common for openings at the University of California Extension photography gallery or Camerawork Gallery to draw upward of a hundred people or more. Strongly stated opinions or just general disagreement were par for the course, and restraint was not a prevailing attribute. Perhaps the lack of money or commercial opportunity gave people license to speak their minds. My Artweek reviews ensured that I would be in the fray. I totally enjoyed any chance to defend my opinion or engage in a good argument. This would change with the commercialism of the 1980s, when openings turned into career networking events. The ideas exchanged were all about business, and I lost interest.
John Lamkin relocated Camerawork gallery from Marin County to San Francisco in January 1976. This was its third incarnation, in a live-in warehouse loft space on Folsom Street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. John’s stated mission was to exhibit work that wasn’t making it into galleries or museums. The program consisted of a monthly discussion group, workshops, a newsletter, and exhibitions. It attracted mostly young photographers, predominantly with no local academic affiliation and no shared ideology, who made up its community and volunteer base. Membership dues, application fees generated by large thematic exhibitions, and sales of donated prints kept the gallery afloat. Photography and Language, an exhibition that Lew proposed to John, was presented at both Camerawork and La Mamelle, a 7,500-square-foot space devoted to nontraditional art that Carl Loeffler had opened nearby a year earlier. Photography and Language brought in new volunteers, including Lew and Donna-Lee Phillips. It was clear from the start that the new volunteers brought a very different kind of photographic vision to Camerawork.
My volunteer involvement in Camerawork began in 1976, when John asked Donna-Lee and me to jury the Photoerotica exhibition. After we made the initial selections, John was forced to vacate the Folsom Street loft and decided to rent a portion of La Mamelle for a new and larger Camerawork. A year earlier, Lew had joined forces with Donna-Lee, who was already contributing her graphic design skills to Camerawork’s newsletter, to create Camerawork Press, with Photography and Language as their first book. The second book under the imprint was to be Eros and Photography, which would feature work shown in Photoerotica.
Photoerotica was to open in January 1977, the inaugural exhibition in the new space. Just before the move, John had met with the informal board of volunteers and announced that he was taking an immediate sabbatical. I didn’t know he had left, and a week before the exhibition was to open, I came to the new space and discovered that the walls hadn’t been finished and the electricity was incomplete. No one knew who was in charge. An hour before the opening, we were still hanging prints. I made the decision to only hang the bigger works for the time being. We opened the doors to a large crowd that included a number of photographers who were about to discover that their work was not on view. Donna-Lee and I, both outspoken people with strong personalities, already had a rather tempestuous relationship, and it was about to get a lot worse, as she showed up at the opening and accused me of re-curating the exhibition.
All of the work eventually made it onto the walls, and Donna-Lee and I continued on, despite the altercation. Regarding the now-leaderless Camerawork, I came up with the idea of getting about twenty people together to form a board and asking each to contribute one hundred dollars, which would see things through the next six months. John reappeared, and in an effort to get some clarity, I got him to sell the gallery — equipment, books, glass, and benefit sale photographic prints — to the new board for one dollar. Later that year, those photographs formed the nucleus of Camerawork’s first auction, for which I served as auctioneer. A bit more was added to the coffers as a result, and Camerawork, despite its shaky finances, managed to forge ahead, and continues to this day.
The schism had grown between the original volunteers and those of us who came on with Photography and Language. The new organization did not have the resources to fulfill the agreements that John had made with Lew and Donna-Lee to fund Camerawork Press. As a compromise, Eros and Photography would become the sole book published by Camerawork/NFS Press. From then on, NFS Press would be an independent entity.
Soon after, Lew, Donna-Lee and I all moved on from Camerawork. The two of them would funnel their energies into NFS Press, and I left the board so that I could continue to review Camerawork exhibitions. Donna-Lee and I remained mutually supportive and strong advocates of each other’s work, and no less abrasive or argumentative for it. As Lew’s principal acolytes, we were unquestionably linked by an abiding appreciation for what we had learned from him.
Looking back, I am amazed at what I was able to accomplish and experience in just six years, from my first review for Artweek in 1975 to the inclusion of my work in the Photographs and Words exhibition that Lew organized at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1981. It was an exciting time, one that I could never have imagined when I set out for San Francisco in my Ford Maverick.
Text from 'Into the Fray' by Hal Fischer in Thought Pieces: 1970s Photographs by Lew Thomas, Donna-Lee Phillips, and Hal Fischer, edited by Erin O'Toole, published April 2020.