There are over 250 galleries in Chelsea, observes 37-year-old art dealer Dan Cooney. So how do you distinguish your gallery from all the rest? “You stick to your personal vision,” he says. Cooney’s small, light-filled gallery on West 25th Street is a one-man, one-room operation. Aside from the art on the walls (contemporary photographs and art on paper), there’s little else to clutter the space. Just two large flat files, a glass-topped desk, and, well, Cooney. “Having a gallery is my own kind of performance piece,” he goes on. “It keeps evolving and changing. But you really have to think about the order of the shows. It all has to make sense.”

Cooney’s stable of ten artists is made up mainly of emerging artists, primarily in their 20s or 30s, who had never had a solo New York gallery show. The work tends to be conceptually based, visually polished, and (most of all) promising; not the stuff of newly minted art school grads still getting their sea legs, but bodies of work in the first flush of professionalism. Twenty-seven-year-old Carrie Levy first came to Cooney’s attention in 2003 with a body of work she made while still an undergraduate at the School of Visual Arts in New York—large-scale C-prints that alluded to the story of the incarceration of the artist’s father when she was 15 years old. Her output was undeniably compelling (in fact, a book of Levy’s earlier work, made during her teen years, was published by Trolley Press in 2005), but Cooney waited, and Levy’s next body of work—nudes in domestic settings, their faces averted from the camera—made up his last spring show. The later work may seem more conceptually taut, but themes of shame and imprisonment are clearly still in play. Julia Peirone, whose work is on view through June 17, is an accomplished Argentinean-born artist who lives in Sweden, and is having her New York debut. Her long, scroll-like photographs isolate passersby (unwittingly photographed on urban streets) into vast, Photoshopped fields of solid color. Cooney has also shown Sarah Pickering’s lush color prints of explosions made on military test sites in the English countryside and South African–born artist Stuart O’Sullivan’s evocative and compelling family portraits. “I didn’t intend for my roster to be so international,” says the dealer. “But it just seemed to happen that way.”

Cooney began his career in photography as an artist—studying at SUNY, New Paltz, for his B.F.A. (1990) and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his M.F.A. (1996). Later, he became an art preparator, working for the James Danziger Gallery. When Danziger closed up shop, Cooney went to the Julie Saul Gallery and spent three years “doing everything from hanging shows to registrarial work.” A stint in 2002 with Sothebys.com—overseeing the auction house’s online photography sales—proved short-lived (the whole dot-com program folded), but it did lead to a gig with iGavel, an online art and antiques auction site started by Sothebys.com colleague Lark Mason, that Cooney still utilizes. The secondary-market work Cooney sells through iGavel supports his first love—emerging art. And the shows of work consigned to iGavel that Cooney mounts at his gallery twice a year help bring in new clients. In short, Cooney’s vision of how to run a gallery dedicated to distinctive, new photography includes a well-founded reality check. “It’s like what I tell my students, in the class I teach on gallery management at FIT,” he says. “To successfully start a new art business, you have to have something else you do.”