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Filter photo interview: Michael Ensdorf on Gage Gallery

Posted: 07/28/2014

Posted July 24, 2014 by Filter Photo at

Interview by W. Tanner Young

W. Tanner Young: When did you found the Gage Gallery, what was your inspiration for doing so, and how did it come to fruition at Roosevelt University?

Michael Ensdorf: The Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University was founded in September, 2001. Our first opening was on September 13th, 2001. Needless to say, it was a somber affair. Everyone was reeling from the attacks. The gallery came about because I was able to convince the university that we needed one! I was on the space planning committee for the Gage building, so I was able to lobby for a gallery, and make it happen.

WTY: Tell me a little bit about your background, education and initial interest in the art of photography?

ME: I’ve always been interested in photography. I started photographing when I was nine years old and have never stopped! I received my undergraduate degree in photography from Columbia College, and my MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I exhibited my own work for over twenty years, and began curating in earnest about ten years ago.

WTY: As Founder and Director of the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University, you’ve brought in well known and respected names from around the country, and as your mission states, their work heavily deals with social issues and justice. Is there a particular reason Gage Gallery focuses on this genre of photography? Is this a subject that you photograph personally, as well?

ME: The mission of the Gage Gallery connects directly with the social justice mission of Roosevelt University. Documentary photography is able to tell stories and inform us about the world; it makes sense to show this type of work in an academic setting. My own work was far from documentary. I came of age, creatively, at the beginning of the shift to digital, and my work reflected the changing nature of the medium. It was experimental and conceptual, but my photographic heroes have all more or less been straight shooters – Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and so on.

WTY: Social activism has long been a hot subject for photography, and often has engaged and changed the communities they focus on. On this note, do you have any memories or a favorite story from an exhibition you’ve featured that had a direct impact on the local audience and community?

ME: I think that the Richard Ross Juvenile-in-Justice exhibition had a great deal of impact on the people who saw the work and were in the gallery for Richard’s talk. I received a lot of positive feedback about the show, and there were many people at the opening reception and lecture who stood up and recounted their own experiences with the juvenile justice system. As a result of the exhibition, Richard is coming back to Roosevelt University to help initiate a course devoted to the continuation of his project exposing the conditions of the juvenile justice system and the lives of affected individuals in the Chicago area.

WTY: The current show with Scott Strazzante is very Chicago-centric and has been well received in the community. Did you consciously plan this show to go up during the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park?

ME: Scott’s show was curated by Tyra Robertson, the gallery’s media coordinator. She’s really been advocating for summer shows to capitalize on the foot traffic we get on Michigan Avenue during the summer months. We thought it would be great to have a show during the Taste, so the Millennium Park anniversary is pretty much serendipitous. The gallery usually closes for the summer, partly due to a drained budget, as well as the fact that there are far fewer students around. A big part of our audience is the Roosevelt University community.

WTY: How do you go about choosing artists to exhibit and represent?

ME: Generally, we try to do thematic programming. Our 2014-15 season will focus on Chicago photojournalism with shows by John H. White, Chicago Tribune crime photography from the archives, as well as the present, and the Chicago Reader in Black and White. Next season’s shows are being curated by Tyra Robertson (Gage Gallery Media Coordinator) and Mike Zajakowski [2013 Filter Photo Festival reviewer], photo editor from the Chicago Tribune. As for choosing photographers to show, we sometimes develop a theme and look for work that fits, or choose photographers we want to show and develop a theme around them. There’s no shortage of great work to exhibit!

WTY: Do you have any advice for photographers who are considering having their portfolio reviewed by you? Any specific aesthetic or subject you particularly enjoy looking at?

ME: Passion is essential! I’m interested in talking to people who are excited about what they’re working on, no matter what the style. I’m also a fan of street photography of all types, which oftentimes falls outside of the social documentary work we exhibit at the Gage Gallery.

Last updated 09/18/2015