In Profile

Sarah Stolfa

BY Jean Dykstra, January 1, 2015

Photo Philly Day, organized by thePhiladelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC), encapsulates the democratic, community-oriented spirit of the organization and its founder, Sarah Stolfa. Each year PPAC invites everyone and anyone to take a photograph in Philadelphia on a specific day and send it in. PPAC displays each picture in a month-long exhibition – 1,903 photographs were on view this year. There were also community workshops and after-school programs. “The arts are the way we first learn about the world,” says Stolfa, “and we want people to not just be viewers, but to be taking pictures as well, and not just for social media.”

Stolfa grew up outside of Chicago but moved to Philadelphia when she played keyboard in a punk rock band, The Delta 72. “When that dissolved,” she says, “I stumbled on to photography, and I fell in love. It changed the course of my life.” While attending Drexel University and bartending at the Center City bar McGlinchey’s, she began taking photographs of the people sitting across the bar from her. The series, which garnered well-deserved accolades, became a book, The Regulars. The last few years have been busy: she graduated from Yale, and in short order, started PPAC, got married and had two children (she has a 4 year old and a 1½ year old)

The idea for PPAC developed when Stolfa was finishing her MFA in photography at Yale. She graduated in 2008, and founded the center in 2009 in the Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia’s South Kensington neighborhood. “At the time,” she says, “the digital technology had reached the point where many artists were using it. But in Philadelphia, if you weren’t part of a university system, you had no access to the equipment. So the idea was to create an accessible lab and a workspace where artists could come and create their work affordably.”

From that seed, the idea blossomed to include an education component, a free after-school program for 30 teenagers from the public-school system, and an extensive exhibition program. In addition, PPAC offers fine-art printing services. “We work with artists to help them produce prints that match their vision and aesthetic,” says Stolfa. PPAC printed Jessica Todd Harper’s show on view at Rick Wester Fine Art through January 10, for example, as well as Zoe Strauss’s show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012.

Local support was strong from the start. Peter Barberie, Curator of Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was an early supporter and serves on its advisory committee. “Philadelphia is a small town in a big city,” says Stolfa, “and the community was excited about it from the onset.” PPAC has grown from her and one other full-time person to four full-time staff, three part-time staff, and 400 members.

In February the exhibition On the Surface: Image as Object goes on view, with cross-disciplinary, sculptural work characteristic of the center’s flexible, expansive view of the medium. “We see photography as an ever-changing medium,” says Stolfa. “Who knows what it will be like in 20 years?”