By Molly Parker
Published Sept. 25, 2009
Seven years ago, local photographer Jack Alterman started what became the Charleston Center for Photography. Today, under new ownership, the center is on the brink of closure.
Inside a 5,000-square-foot converted warehouse on upper King Street, the center offers classes for amateurs and professionals looking to learn, for instance, the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, or the craft of sports photography.
Former war photographer Stacy Pearsall, who purchased the facility from Alterman in April, is pleading with patrons to sign up for a class or to join the center as member. A trip to the bank on Thursday revealed troubling news, Pearsall said. The center is struggling to make ends meet, and without a surge in interest, may not make it to year’s end.
A rough patch
“It’s awful really seeing all the doors close on King Street, so I’m trying very hard to reach out to anybody who’s ever been a patron of the center to get us through this rough part,” said Pearsall, who spent 12 years as a combat photographer for the Air Force.
The Center for Photography offers Charleston residents a rare glimpse at some of the artists behind the most iconic images of our time. Exhibits offered at the center have included the works of National Geographic photographers Joe McNally, Vincent Musi and Sam Abell; Time Magazine photographer Callie Shell; and celebrity photographer Brownie Harris.
An upcoming exhibit on Oct. 16 will feature Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Frakes. Even if the center must close, Pearsall said she has made a personal commitment to keep the doors open at least until then.
“I know that it’s nothing reflecting the center,” Pearsall said. “What we offer is unlike anything else. It’s so unique. If we can weather the storm, we will make a great comeback. We just have to get through this hard part.”
How it started
Alterman started the Center for Photography in 2002 more by accident than anything else. It was spun out of Friday afternoon jam sessions that Alterman shared with three other photographers: David Russin, a retired surgeon; J.D. Cummings, who taught at the Gibbes Museum of Art; and Roy Moss, a retired two-star Marine general, who has since passed away.
“We would sit down on Fridays and say, ‘Why don’t we teach a class?’ Then one day we said, ‘Let’s just do it,’” Alterman recalled. The center started small but grew quickly, he said, mostly catering to professionals such as doctors and lawyers with the resources to fund the expensive hobby.
“Younger people today may or may not have that luxury,” Alterman said.
Around January, Alterman said it became obvious that people were not signing up for the specialty workshops that generally cost about $1,000. He explored the option of turning the center into a nonprofit organization, but that was by no means an easy out. It is expensive to obtain 501(c)3 status, and raising funds in this environment can be difficult.
In April, Pearsall — who Alterman hired in August 2008 to manage the center — decided to buy it. Alterman said he was ready to “pass the torch” and moved his personal studio to George Street.
“It’s kind of sad if it happens this way. But it’s one of those things. The center has to be supported by the community itself,” he said. Pearsall said she is also studying the nonprofit option to determine whether that might make sense.
If anybody can make it work, Alterman said, Pearsall has the wherewithal to do it.
“She’s a young charismatic woman, with a lot of passion for what she is doing,” he said.
As a combat photographer, Pearsall was stationed at the Charleston Air Force Base. She traveled to 40 different countries during her dozen years of service documenting combat and humanitarian operations. She has claimed national and international awards for her work.
Molly Parker can be reached at 843-849-3144.