Bringing People Together
The diverse mix is important, even for major pros. “It’s rare to get a fashion photographer and war photographer in same room. They run in completely different worlds and have different values,” Kelbaugh says. “But when you put their work alongside one another onscreen you see the shared crosspollination and the same creative impulse that moves all of us.”
It’s part of the “community building” aspect of SLPS that he mentions frequently. But what does that actually mean?
As he fusses over lunch in his Lower East Side floor-through apartment (home to Kelbaugh and two roommates, it’s also SLPS’s office, filled weekdays with volunteers), it becomes clear that while he’s a working photographer in one of the world’s toughest cities, he hasn’t lost his idealism.
“Building community means bringing people together in a way that is both positive and supportive, and for something other than commercial gain,” Kelbaugh says. “In the professional photo community you do either fine art, advertising, or magazines—the hierarchies are so steep and there’s so little room for opportunity, people get a little hardened.”
His mission is to round off the hard edges of that creative world and “bring people together around art and photography for the sake of its beauty, or power to inspire or move, or call to action,” he adds.
Kelbaugh puts his money where his mouth is. In nearly 10 years of exponential growth since the first event, SLPS “has done nothing but lose a good bit of money.” He’s even had to jump subway turnstiles to get home from the airport after events, he says. (He emphasizes the crucial role of Alys Kenny, 30, SLPS co-director from 2004–09, who founded the nonprofit and improved production values, among other things.)
Those 750 or so $10 admissions in New York last fall were an anomaly—there’d never been a straight admission fee before. “Your raspberry couscous and your bottle of Pinot Grigio, that was your admission,” he says. In Santa Fe, the $5 “Suggested Donation” jar was having a quiet night. Future events will likely carry $15 submission and $5 to $10 admission fees. And SLPS is seeking major sponsorship.
In the meantime, Kelbaugh spends at least 70 percent of his time on SLPS, and turns down paying photo jobs several times a year because of it.
But running a decade-old and increasingly visible event frequented by art directors and photo editors must bring highprofile assignments? Not so, he insists. “There’s no direct correlation between running SLPS and my getting photo jobs. I may get interviews, I get to know people, but I’ve never gotten a job from running Slideluck.”
It’s a labor of love: He’s bringing photography to life, straight to the people, mixing it all up. “You can look at photographs in a gallery or online, but experiencing it with a roomful of people, and building a narrative with its own peaks and valleys, is so much more satisfying,” he says. “It gives photography almost a performance element. It’s the collective experience of seeing photos together.”
Adds Kelbaugh, “Someone in New Orleans just said Slideluck felt like a primal thing that goes back to cave drawings—sitting around a fire together, looking at pictures on the wall.”