A sentimental keepsake hangs in the back of L. Parker Stephenson’s gallery on Madison Avenue: a single, framed page of text from Camera Work magazine, 1914, containing a breathless account of Annie Brigman’s visit to 291, Alfred Stieglitz’s now-legendary Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. “Then I saw the Flat Iron Building, in the morning light,” wrote Brigman, “breasting the winds of heaven like the Victory of Samothrace.”
It’s an apt piece of ephemera, reflecting excitement and serendipity, both of which Stephenson seems after in her shows. And at 16 by 14 feet, Stephenson’s space is no larger than 291, but she makes the most of it, mounting shows with strong thematic underpinnings. Last year’s Modernism in Advertising, for instance, re-sited works from the ‘20s and ‘30s by Margaret Bourke-White and Ralph Steiner back into their original commercial context. Or she mounts unusual solo shows, like undiscovered work by John Cohen. His 1960s portraits of a young Bob Dylan are now iconic, but Stephenson chose to show the street photos he took in the 1950s while still at Yale. “I’m interested in showing work that is a discovery for myself, as well as visitors,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s all about the strength of an image.”
Stephenson formed her appreciation for history early on, when she spent her formative years, from 7 to 11, abroad. The family took trips throughout Europe from a home base in Switzerland. “Before we went to England my mother would read us a book about King Arthur,” recalls Stephenson. “She read us Odysseus before we went to Greece, so she prepared our imaginations. As a child you make these really deep connections.”
Stephenson returned to the U.S. reluctantly, but made the most of high school. There, she met Tom Gitterman, who remains a good friend. She double-majored in French and art history at Tufts and landed a job in a French bank in New York. She stayed for three years, and then spent two more at a Japanese bank. She still had the art bug, though, so she turned to Gitterman. He gave her lots of good advice about the photo world, and her first copy of photograph, which she carried around dutifully to all the galleries, circling shows.
She proved a quick study. She did an internship at Christie’s with Rick Wester in 1995, when he was head of photographs. She apprenticed with Harry Lunn and was a personal assistant to Buzz Hartshorn, then director of the ICP. By 1999, when Howard Greenberg hired her to work at his 292 gallery in SoHo, Stephenson had found her bailiwick. “I was doing registrar work, mounting shows, sending out invitations; I learned then that it doesn’t matter how large a gallery is, it always takes a lot of work.” In 2003 Greenberg moved uptown, and Stephenson followed. But by 2006 she was ready to set out on her own. She worked as a private dealer out of her Upper West Side apartment and then in 2009, she opened a space at 764 Madison Avenue.
Over the next three years, though still officially private, Stephenson always felt it her mandate to do cohesive exhibitions, like the one last year of Nigerian women’s hairstyles by J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. “Finally,” says Stephenson, “six months ago, I took the ‘by appointment’ off my business card. I liked the flexibility. But I’d never turn anyone away.”