In Profile

Michael Foley

BY Sarah Schmerler, March 1, 2006

Throughout Michael Foley’s career, he’s been inclined to jump right into the middle of things, in a decidedly upbeat and positive way. He’s got the sort of humor and easygoing manner that put you so at ease, you feel like you’re in the middle of a conversation the moment you meet him. He likes to champion young and under-recognized mid-career artists, who, as he says, “have the best part of their careers ahead of them rather than behind them.” And of his own, nascent two-year career as the owner of a photography gallery, he’ll tell you that 41 is probably too old to be starting out on his own, but, he jokes, “It took me 40 years to grow up.”

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, and raised in upstate New York, Foley got out of Boston College with a degree in psychology and a plane ticket to San Francisco. The plan was to continue his interest in psychology on the West Coast in a unique M.S.W. program called “Drama Therapy,” but instead he decided to defer his studies for a year and take classes in photography at San Francisco State. “Making photographs gave me one way to dialogue and connect to the world around me,” he says. “At the time, for me, the medium held so much therapeutic potential.” By 1988 he was a full-fledged artist, and to support himself he worked at a string of galleries. For six years, he worked at the Fraenkel Gallery, with the benefit of being exposed to artists like Lee Friedlander, Richard Misrach, and Hank Wessel. “I was 24,” he recalls. “They’d walk through the elevator door, and I was just in awe.” Then he came to New York and worked at Howard Greenberg for two years and at Yancey Richardson for four, gaining more business acumen, and forging good relationships with collectors along the way. He still thought of himself as an artist first, but by his 39th birthday, he did some hard thinking. “The medium of photography really saved my life, in a way. It allowed me to express myself,” he says. “But I kind of worked through all that, and made a clean break. You might say I got what I wanted out of making photos. Now I know how to best foster others in their careers.”

Foley Gallery opened at 547 West 27th Street in Chelsea in September of 2004 with a small stable of two artists. Now it has ten (eight of them are photographers, two are artists who work on paper). Foley’s roots in psychology show, albeit subtly, in the sort of work he’s chosen to champion—most are images where you sense there’s a story behind the story. There is Caitlin Atkinson’s “Chapters” series—color C-prints in which the 27-year-old documents what Foley calls “mild failures in her life”—a burnt lasagna, a trip to a nude beach, a mournful moment of reflection over some pet graves in the backyard. West Coast artist William Laven makes lush black-and-white close-ups of children’s toy military airplanes. The twist: all these pristine B-52s and V2 bombers have been carefully researched as being models of aircraft that have been deployed in the war in Iraq. And Belgian-born artist Bart Michiels travels Europe revisiting sites of historic battles and photographs them. The resultant images are largely of what now appear to be bucolic vistas—Verdun, a field of wheat; Waterloo, an expanse of wildflowers in long grasses. Says Foley, “There’s a beauty and quiet these landscapes have in contrast to the information that they were very violent at one time.”

As he puts it: “That’s the power of a picture, to make you feel something you may not really want to.”