Where were you 40 years ago? Maybe, like a slew of up-and-comers in the photo world, you weren’t even born. Or perhaps you were reeling from the events of the year—Vietnam, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Sidney Monroe (who, with his wife, Michelle, runs a successful gallery in Santa Fe specializing in historic and contemporary photojournalism) was just a kid on the streets of Greenwich Village 40 years ago, playing stickball and forging dreams of one day being an ice hockey champion. On the outside, he wasn’t so very affected by cataclysmic world events, though they did go on to become his livelihood, in a sense.
Case in point is his current show, on view through September 28, entitled It was 40 Years Ago Today, full of era-defining shots from 1968, like the mortally wounded Kennedy in the arms of a busboy, and the street execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. Practitioners like Bill Eppridge and Eddie Adams have gone on to become part of Monroe’s stable of gallery artists, and his career has become defined by his close ties with photojournalism’s master practitioners, including Alfred Eisenstaedt. The Monroe Gallery of Photography’s first show, in 2002, featured the work of Eisenstaedt, and it was such a success with locals and the press that it took Monroe and his wife by surprise.
The fact that Monroe has been able to balance career and family from the relative calm of Santa Fe may sound idyllic. But over the decades, Monroe has had the presence of mind to take a few honest “snapshots,” if you will, of his own life’s junctures, and the decisions that brought him there. He was born in Palo Alto, California, but the family moved to New York City before Monroe could walk. Boarding school in Connecticut in his teens led to college in western New York, where Monroe finally scrapped his dreams of a sports career. A major in finance, and a few stabs at jobs on Wall Street were his next moves, but they still didn’t quite fit the bill. “I was doing something I thought I should do, rather than what I wanted to do,” says the physically fit, youthful 49-year-old dealer.
Instead, inspired by numerous friends who were aspiring performers or artists, Monroe decided to take a job as bookstore manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He stayed for three years, and then in 1984, he landed a choice job as director of Circle Gallery in SoHo, a post that found him face to face with Eisenstaedt in 1987, in preparation for an upcoming show. “I knew about photography,” says Monroe. “I knew about different movements, but here I was in the presence of somebody who was clearly among the most significant photographers of the 20th century. It was a one of those moments, when you find a spark.” Monroe met and married Michelle (then a practicing East Village artist) around this time, and together they opened a gallery in 1995 (with two other partners) called SoHo Triad. It focused largely on photojournalism, and it thrived.
September 11 was the cataclysmic event that, in the final analysis, most shaped Monroe’s path. As a business owner in lower SoHo with two young children, he saw it as an opportunity to seriously evaluate his quality of life. Michelle suggested they move to Santa Fe one day, and within 10 minutes, Monroe agreed. “It was almost shocking. We needed a place to live, to start from scratch. But here we are, and it’s fantastic. Years later we sort of exhale and say, ‘Hey, how did we do that?’ But life is short. If this can happen at any moment, let’s get on with our life, and our dreams.”