Before 339 South 21st Street in Philadelphia became the contemporary photography gallery it is today, it was known to locals in the city’s Rittenhouse Square district as an old-style soda fountain, complete with the accoutrements of the 1950s-era drug store that it used to be—pill bottles and sundries sitting on the shelves, frozen in time. “Hundreds of people have walked into the gallery and said, ‘Do you know, this used to be an ice cream parlor?’” says Martin McNamara patiently, “and I say, yes, we do.” Now Gallery 339 is a sunwashed, modern, two-floor gallery—Philadelphia’s only space dedicated exclusively to photography—and McNamara, who lived next door for seven years before opening the gallery last May, has realized two different visions: one, to see the property, which had been on the market for a year or so after the soda fountain closed, take on a new life in the neighborhood; and the other, to make his own transition from collector to gallerist. “It became this confluence of ambitions,” he says.

McNamara, a youthful, approachable 42, was born and raised in the suburbs of Philly, and, as he tells it “just didn’t find a compelling reason to leave.” His career includes working in historic preservation, running a bakery, earning a masters degree in public policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and serving an eight-year stint in city government, where he pursued what he calls “a certain kind of missionary zeal about stabilizing urban neighborhoods.” He’d been collecting photographs and other media, along with his partner, Tom Callan, for seven years, but it was a visit to London’s HackelBury Fine Art in 2003, which he describes as a friendly, unintimidating concern, situated, like 339, in a cozy mixed residential/business neighborhood, that first gave him the idea: “Hey we could do this in Philadelphia—we should do this.”

Callan and McNamara had already acquired 339, but until their visit to London, they weren’t sure what would come of it. “While the building was under construction for almost two years,” says McNamara, “I had time to do this sort of careful study. I left my job [at an economic development agency] and said, this is going to be it.” Thus far he’s come up with a roster of 15 artists—10 of them solid stable artists—split down the middle between emerging and mid-career. McNamara discovered Drexel University graduate Doug Wolf, 31, at local coffee mecca La Colombe (where Wolf was a barrista), and gave his reductive, urban landscapes (which loosely recalls the work of Philadelphia native Ray Metzker) their first commercial show. Sarah Stolfa, 30, who makes color portraits of patrons at the old-time watering hole McGlinchey’s (where she also works as bartender), was included in the gallery’s summer show and looks like a good future bet, as does the work of underrepresented artist Don Camp, who is in his early 60s and makes portraits of African-American men using a printing process that incorporates earth pigments and milk binders.

But if McNamara will work to give local talent its due, he wants to work equally hard to expose Philadelphia to the wider world of contemporary photography—a decided programming gap in the city. When he opened the gallery, it was with the spare, poetic landscapes of Korean-born artist Bohnchang Koo (whom McNamara was introduced to by dealers Sarah Hasted and Bill Hunt in New York). A Philly first for the artist, the show hopefully sent an encouraging message to whatever budding client base McNamara will succeed in building in the city.