It was a muggy mid-Atlantic June afternoon when I first peered into the wide plate glass windows of Candela Books + Gallery. Located in the heart of the Broad Street Arts District right next to Lift Coffee Shop, Candela is the only gallery in Richmond completely dedicated to photographic art. The picture windows facing the sidewalk provide a clear view of the clean white walls of its high-ceilinged gallery space. Full of old city charm, the main exhibition room is outfitted with points of eccentric flair—a green-gray church pew adjoins a sales cabinet, perfectly complementing the Victorian red velvet loveseat and light hardwood floor.
Gordon Stettinius and Ashby Nickerson, Director and Associate Director respectively, stood with me in the center of the room as I self-consciously held my camera. As we discussed how to approach portraits for the interview, the two immediately jumped in with ideas: “Let’s go back to back,” said Ashby, striking a mock-serious Charlie’s Angels pose. “Maybe move the couch to the middle of the room?” Gordon gestured, leaping to push the couch across the center of the gallery floor.
The atmosphere of the gallery, and the camaraderie of this team, is jovial, pointed, and a touch strange. That’s fitting, as their entire endeavor is designed to champion experimenters, students, and underdog artists of all sorts. Gordon, a seasoned photographer himself, founded an organization called Candela Books back in 2010 in order to publish the work of then little-known photographer Gita Lenz. A year later, after gaining notoriety for the publication of that monograph, he decided to expand Candela’s scope to include a gallery space. “I put together a studio and thought we’d maybe put some work up in the front and see how we did,” he explained nonchalantly. Since then, they have published several other fine art photography books and hosted numerous photo exhibitions.
Their flagship show UnBound! is exemplary of that fascination with the fringe. Now in its fifth year, the 2016 event will feature both an opening exhibition on Friday, July 1, plus a gala to be held on Saturday, July 23. The exhibition highlights both new and established photographers, over forty in all. Proceeds from the event will be put toward purchasing select artworks to be included in Candela’s growing permanent collection, something Gordon and Ashby hope to one day donate to a notable institution or museum.
It’s the one time of year where we really don’t care who you are. If we like the image or the work, we’ll put it on the wall.
When I asked Ashby what the theme of this year’s gala will be, she smiled as if sharing a secret. “Loosely? Kung fu.” Highlights will include Jackie Chan-cakes (think Mickey Mouse pancakes, but depicting Jackie Chan’s face instead), an aerialist, kung fu movies screening on Super 8 film, a martial arts themed cocktail, adult snow cones, and a Chuck Norris look-alike contest. About that last one, Ashby said, “If you come, you’re automatically entered.” As if that weren’t enough, Richmond’s favorite musical performance artist Gull will be doing his signature experimental drum-and-guitar routine. Refreshments will include Terry Brown’s “Famous Back Alley Fried Chicken.” Terry, a Richmond-based photographer, is Gordon’s good friend, artistic collaborator, and Candela studio mate. Her fried chicken, cooked in the alleyway behind Candela during the event, has been a gala highlight for many years. Gordon admitted that there are still some last minute surprises to sort out, but putting on his best carnival barker voice, he promised “many more tawdry confections and unexpected pleasures!”
The exhibition itself is juried by Gordon and Ashby. “We do some horse trading,” Gordon confided with a smirk, but ultimately the two make curatorial decisions together. “It’s the one time of year where we really don’t care who you are. If we like the image or the work, we’ll put it on the wall,” Ashby explained. “A high school student or a college student trying to get their work out there has the potential to be shown next to somebody who is established and pretty well known.” Affording these up-and-coming artists the opportunity to have their work featured this way and potentially acquired is a driving impetuous behind the event.
The gallery itself, while highlighting these emerging artists, also hopes to widen the scope of what it means to be a part of the photography community. “We try to bring notable people to town and we have given moments to some Richmond photographers, but we don’t feel like we’re here to share Richmond with Richmond,” Gordon explained. “We’re trying to elevate the discourse around photography in the city.” In the coming year, Gordon and Ashby want to, as they say, “take the show on the road” by stepping up exhibition programming and bringing some of their artist partners to art fairs in larger cities.
Throughout the interview, Gordon and Ashby’s energy is contagious, equal parts contemplative and off-the-cuff. The unique atmosphere of Candela Gallery, a layering of the strange, the exciting, and the arresting, stays afloat in large part due to the palpable joy that the pair derives from elevating this medium. “I feel like we’re living in a time when photography is finally being seen and appreciated as a fine art medium. We’re watching it grow historically right now,” Ashby concluded, “it’s having a big moment.”
UnBound5! hosts its opening reception at Candela Books + Gallery on Friday, July 1 from 5–9 PM. Exhibit runs through July 30. A gala event will be also be held on Saturday, July 23 from 7–11 PM. Admission is $50 per person, $90 per couple, tickets available at candelabooks.com.
Photography by Nicki Stein