In the late 1950s, the Limelight gallery and coffeehouse was the intellectual hangout of Greenwich Village, if not New York. It drew patrons and critics with ten shows per year, featuring the work of such figures as Minor White, Arnold Newman, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Brassaï, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Robert Frank. When Limelight opened in 1954, it was the first commercial gallery in the US devoted exclusively to photography; along with the Museum of Modern Art, it became the most important venue for serious photography in the city. Helen Gee: Limelight, a Greenwich Village Photography Gallery and Coffeehouse in the Fifties is the humorous and at times heartbreaking memoir of founder Helen Gee, who had the vision and perseverance to operate the pioneering gallery. Aperture is pleased to reissue this book, making it newly available as an e-book, so that Gee’s life story can continue to influence the field.
From the time Limelight opened to when it closed seven years later, Gee struggled to keep it afloat, as photography as an art form was still coming into its own. Her friendships and exploits from this time involve a who’s who of photography—Edward Steichen, Lisette Model, and Berenice Abbott, to name a few—and cover landmark events, including The Family of Man at MoMA and Robert Frank’s The Americans. Seamlessly intertwined are Gee’s personal stories, including raising her Chinese American daughter alone, at a time when mixed-race families were relatively rare; dealing with a landlord with underworld ties; and coping with unwelcome advances and quixotic employees. The story of Gee’s life and Limelight’s seven-year tenure is full of adventure.
Helen Gee (née Wimmer, born in Jersey City, New Jersey, 1919; died in New York, 2004) left home at the age of sixteen to live in Greenwich Village with Yun Gee (pronounced with a soft “g”), a modernist painter. After their marriage ended, and as a single mother, Gee managed to grow a successful photo-retouching business, working for leading ad agencies and magazines. At the same time, she took classes with Lisette Model, Alexey Brodovitch, and Sid Grossman, before founding Limelight in 1954. After it closed in 1961, Gee worked as an art consultant and freelance curator.
Denise Bethel (introduction), formerly Chairman, Photographs, Americas, Sotheby’s New York, began her auctioneering career in 1980 at Manhattan’s Swann Galleries, where she met Helen Gee for the first time. She joined Sotheby’s in 1990, and in her long tenure there set world auction records for a number of photographers whose work had been shown at Limelight: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, László Moholy-Nagy, Aaron Siskind, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Minor White, among many others. The memorable collection sales she orchestrated at Sotheby’s included ones from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and Joy of Giving Something, Inc., which, in 2014, broke all records for any photographs auction worldwide at $21.3 million. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Bethel holds a BA from Hollins College and an MA from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. She is now an independent advisor, a writer, and a lecturer based in New York City
Cover image: Arthur Lavine, Helen Gee on the way to the opening of Limelight, May 13, 1954
18 black-and-white images