The SRO Photo Gallery is located in the sub-basement of the Texas Tech School of Art building in Lubbock. In fact, it’s in the hallway of the sub-basement of the Art building. This fact is not advertised, but it sheds light on the acronym: Standing Room Only.
I talked with Robin D. Germany, the Professor in Photography and current Interim Director of the School of Art at Texas Tech University (TTU), about the history of this unusual gallery space. According to her, Rick Dingus, photography professor at TTU until his retirement in 2016, started SRO back in the 1980s. “It’s always been in the hallway,” she says. “It’s a teaching gallery, but it has a great reputation nationally as a place for a solo show.”
With around 50-70 submissions coming in yearly, from all over the country and even internationally, SRO Photo Gallery has its pick when it comes to contemporary emerging photographers to feature. The portfolios they receive, Germany tells me, generally fall under two categories: recent MFA’s building their resumes, and artists in academia looking to rack up points for tenure and promotion. After a review process with faculty and students, projects for the year are chosen by a committee consisting of photo faculty, grad students and the TTU gallery director.
“The SRO Gallery is designed to provide support for the educational mission, and expose students to a variety of contemporary photography,” Germany says. “It also serves a dual purpose as a training ground for MFA students.” The grad students at TTU get the curatorial experience of issuing the call for submissions, reading and evaluating artist statements and portfolios, preparing a massive Powerpoint for the review process, ranking the work, scheduling the shows, doing PR, and hanging the shows. Grad students also attend the regional Society for Photographic Educators (SPE) conference each year in a curatorial capacity to look at portfolios and reach out directly to photographers of interest.
They look to feature work at SRO Gallery that is “technically or conceptually challenging,” Germany says, “to set a high bar for the students in their own work.” Each year’s programming presents a wide variety of photography practices, from traditional black-and-white silver gelatin prints to digital experimentation, with shows often consciously complementing the photography courses offered during the year.
Memorable past shows include Wait Watchers by Haley Morris-Cafiero, and Sur La Route, a series of photos shot in Burkina Faso by David Pace — both of which made the Glasstire Top Five at the time. Germany’s personal favorites include a show by Beth Yarnelle Edwards early on in her career, and Color Falls Down, a project exploring immigrant identity, by Priya Kambli. As for me, I distinctly remember the sumptuous colors of Meg Griffith’s series of Cuban interiors, Casa de fruta y pan, which was on view at SRO Photo Gallery when I first moved to Lubbock last year.
“The programming reflects what the students are doing, what faculty is doing, and what contemporary photography is doing,” Germany tells me. The arrival of a new faculty member at TTU this year (who happens to be my husband, Aaron Hegert) “brings a different view, new ideas and new challenges,” she says. Perhaps reflecting this new influence, the program for the coming year features several young artists who employ digital tools in innovative ways: including a fascinating meditation on the digital self by Boston-based recent BFA graduate Molly O’Donnell (Oct 24 – Nov 18, 2018; see top image); an investigation into the tension between photographic flatness and depth by Saint Louis art duo pwmd (Paal Williams and Marissa Dembkoski) (Nov 26 – Dec 20, 2018); layerings of GPS trackings and landscape photographs by Albuquerque-based artist Jess Peri (Jan 16 – Feb 10, 2019); and digitally manipulated, appropriated photographs by Virginia-based Michael Borowski (Feb 13 – Mar 3, 2019).
Though Germany says it’s not an intentional focus, SRO Gallery’s programming tends to have strong representation of regional artists. This year will feature a project by Amarillo-based René West, albeit of street art-splashed walls in New York City (Mar 20 – Apr 14, 2019); a touching, decade-long project focused on family life by Fort Worth-based photographer Chris Ireland (Aug 25 – Sept 23, 2018); and a photo series about motherhood and photographic history by Megan Jacobs, an artist from nearby New Mexico (Sept 26 – Oct 21, 2018).
But portfolio submissions also come from some far-flung places. This year, SRO Gallery features a project by an artist from Vilnius, Lithuania: a series of photographs of prison-cell-door spyholes found in former KGB prisons, by Valentyn Odnoviun (Apr 17 – May 15, 2019). This exhibition of circular peepholes will certainly look striking presented in SRO Gallery’s hallway setting.
SRO Gallery is like many university galleries in that it strives to expose students to a variety of high quality artwork, but it’s uniquely suited to the study of photography because of, rather than in spite of, its unusual dimensions. Located in the central hallway of the photography department, the students have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the work, analyzing it, and inspecting physical prints. “It’s in a passageway that the students use every day,” Germany says, “so they live with it every day.”