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Description

Pioneer Works is pleased to announce “The First Light from Darkness,” an exhibition that centers on the seven-decade practice of Alex Harsley. The artist first purchased a 35mm camera while in his 20s, and has since cast New York City’s unique medley of characters and neighborhoods as the subject of his work. In the 1950s, he joined Manhattan’s district attorney office as the first Black photographer to be hired by the city, and taught himself the inner workings of a darkroom. This became a formative period within his life, as it provided an opportunity to spend his days travelling throughout the city to document moments that defined daily life in a turbulent city. Of his work at that time, Harsley says, “I took pictures of people who would never have had their pictures taken.”  Although he left the district attorney in 1961, the artist never ceased creating tender portraits of the people, streets, and social upheavals that he came across. He amassed thousands of images—some vibrant and playful, others shadowy and laden with meaning—throughout the decades, up until the present day. In the 1970s, Harsley’s artistic practice became intertwined with a community-oriented role of his own creation. By then a resident of the Lower East Side, he started a non-profit organization called Minority Photographers, Inc. in 1971 to provide professional mentorship to others who were marginalized, which included fellow Black artists alongside a host  of others that crossed racial and generational lines. Two years later, he moved into a dusty storefront space in the East Village and opened the 4th Street Photo Gallery, which hosted experimental exhibitions and quickly became an incubator for creative exchange within a community that included to-be heavyweights such as Dawoud Bey, Robert Frank, David Hammons,  Cynthia MacAdams and Eli Reed. Remarkably, the gallery has resisted the tides of gentrification, and remains a lively space where Harsley works every day.  The First Light from Darkness—co-curated by Harsley’s daughter Kendra Krueger and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Minority Photographers, Inc.—pairs a wide-ranging selection of the  octogenarian’s photographs with a roving video work titled The First Light (2000-2020), an experimental endeavor which has culminated from a laborious process of shooting, layering and  editing over the past twenty years. A complex montage of flickering images and symbols set to a cacophonous score, the video takes viewers on a nonlinear journey across parallel dimensions, and metaphorically alludes to the cosmological origins of time and energy. These works will also be accompanied by historical materials culled from Minority Photographers, Inc. and the 4th Street Photo Gallery’s archives, to further contextualize Harsley’s lifelong dedication to his artistic and  physical surroundings. As a whole, the exhibition pays tribute to an unsung hero within the  creative landscape of New York City.