Grant gives images new lease on life

Checking her e-mail last summer, Christine Osinski, Ridgefield resident and professor of photography and color foundation at The Cooper Union’s School of Art in New York, was surprised to see something from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which provides financial assistance to established international visual artists. She had been recommended to apply for a foundation grant and she was being asked to indicate her interest.

“It came out of the blue,” Ms. Osinski recalled, “and I was thrilled to receive this. When Lee Krasner died in 1984, she left the money to start the foundation, which has given millions to the arts and art organizations — sculpture, paintings, drawings — but this year is the first year grants have been open to fine art photography.”

Established in 1985 by the estate of Lee Krasner, abstract expressionist artist and widow of Jackson Pollock, the foundation solicited photography curators and professionals to suggest people to invite to apply, and Ms. Osinski’s name was put forward. Her work can be found in the collections of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in numerous other museums. She became a Guggenheim Fellow in 2005.

The application deadline was in January and at the end of March Ms. Osinski learned that she had been awarded the foundation’s first Fine Art Still Photography grant.

“I have been trying to do a book on my Staten Island photographs for a long time,” Ms. Osinski said. “I had talked to many regarding sequencing; fine art books don’t tend to be money makers for publishers, so to get published, an artist often has to pay for a certain number of books. For me, while doing other work, this has been a piece of unfinished business… I felt I had to do right by the work, that it deserved to be out there the best way it could.

“I had done a Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago, which raised some money and Time magazine featured some of the pictures on its website; that propelled me to apply for the grant,” she said. One of the stipulations for the grant, however, was that it had to involve work that had been completed within the last five years — and the Staten Island photographs are from more than 30 years ago, when I first began teaching at The Cooper Union.

“In my grant application I proposed combining that work with new work — for the past couple of years I have been taking portraits of Cooper-Union art students — noting that while the Staten Island work has been exhibited, it has never been the subject of a monograph. I would use the grant money to continue the current project and to publish the book.”

Emily Ruth © Christine Osinski
Emily Ruth © Christine Osinski

She has been taking portraits of every Cooper Union art student (which is smallest of the three fields the school emphasizes, the others being architecture, with engineering comprising the bulk of the student body), for the last couple of years. Rather than the formal poses people tend to think of with the word portrait, Ms. Osinski describes them as “intentional. They show the students in ways that reflect who they are or areas of interest, they talk about being a young artist.”

Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Christine Osinski began her college education at the Art Institute of Chicago, “expecting to be a painter.” She took some photography classes, “but they didn’t seem too interesting.” In her last semester, however, she was feeling isolated “painting alone in the white studio all the time.” She had just moved to a new neighborhood and she decided to walk around and explore it. She took a 35mm camera with her.

“Walking around with the camera made me feel more adventurous,” she noted. “It gave me an excuse to approach people, and most people seemed willing to pose. It felt great to be out in the world and I decided this is what I wanted to do.”

With this change of direction, after completing her undergraduate degree, “I waitressed at night and photographed during the day. I applied to Yale [University School of Art] because I wanted to meet Walker Evans, who taught there at the time.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art calls Walker Evans “one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century,” adding, “His elegant, crystal-clear photographs and articulate publications have inspired several generations of artists.”)

“Once I was out here, I knew I wouldn’t go back to the Midwest; the East Coast is much more of a center for visual arts, fine art.” The experience at Yale was not a happy one, however. The faculty and most of the students were male, and most from affluent backgrounds. “They were not interested in the type of place I came from; my photos of middle-class people were mocked, the people called ugly. I stopped photographing people for a long time.”

Men Fixing House Near the Staten Island Mall © Christine Osinski
Men Fixing House Near the Staten Island Mall © Christine Osinski

When she bought a home on Staten Island in the early 1980s, she thought, “I can do what I want here; there is no art world.” She again started walking with her camera exploring the neighborhoods. “At first, any people included were little, from a distance; then I started getting closer, and began photographing people again; it was liberating. Staten Island was another version of the South Side of Chicago; the people, the settings were familiar, but also changed.

“I used a 4 x 5 camera, but an uncoated lens, which did things to the negatives, caused flares, and I couldn’t make good prints…

“These pictures have been on a long, strange trip,” she continued. “When we were leaving Staten Island in 1996 [to move to Ridgefield] and I was cleaning out my art studio, I held that uncoated lens in my hand, then threw it away. I had people interested in the photos, but I couldn’t make a proper print.

“With the advent of quality scanners, however, and the adjustments that can be made on a computer, I could correct the technical imbalances. I made press prints and was able to exhibit them and found interest. Separately, two people I respect immensely suggested that I make silver gelatin prints, which is how they should have originally been developed.

“Silver negatives, digital prints; tech from one era, prints from another… working with Sasha Wolf, a commercial printer, we made the silver gelatin prints; now it was what it was supposed do to be… I have 150-160 really good prints to work with; the book will be 96 pages with 80 pictures.”

In the meantime, Sasha Wolf Gallery has produced a limited edition artist’s book titled Sunburn — 32 pages, signed, edition of 175, for $40, and put many of the Staten Island photos online, The gallery at 20 Orchard Street in Manhattan will be hosting an exhibition of some of the photos Sept. 11 through Oct. 27.