JPEG: nurturing the next generation of photographers in Camden

7 mins read
Photographer, Erik James Montgomery, stands outside his recently opened Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG (Charles Curtis III/Black In Jersey)

The mechanics of camera operation, though complex, essentially involve the lens, shutter, and other components working in unison to transform light into lasting images. 

Erik James Montgomery, an accomplished photographer in Camden, NJ, recognizes this power and harnesses it to mentor a new generation of photographers. His guidance helps them capture thought-provoking images that challenge and encourage audiences to explore the depth of the world around them. 

This month marked the grand opening of Montgomery’s Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG, a new space in Downtown Camden that platforms and promotes the work of emerging and established photographers of color.

Reflecting on his start in photography over three decades ago, Montgomery notes the absence of welcoming spaces for artists like him.

“There are various arts organizations here, but there was nothing solely based on photography,”  Montgomery says.

Photographer. Erik James Montgomery, at his newly opened Jersey Photography Education Center (Charles Curtis/ Black In Jersey)

Montgomery envisions JPEG as a supportive and fair environment for photographers. The gallery will retain only 25% of profits from showcased works, fostering a sustainable path for professional photographers.

 “Whether you’re a high schooler, a college student, or a working artist, as an adult, this is a place where you could showcase your work, where you could learn how to promote your work, where you could learn how to hang your items, like everything from soup to nuts as far as how to become an established photographer,” Montgomery says. 

JPEG is a crystallization of his life’s work since starting his professional photography career in 1990. 

Born and raised in East Orange, Montgomery’s early years involved exploring various forms of expression, creating stories through graffiti art, and even using his own body as an avid dancer. 

Photos from inside the Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG (Charles Curtis III/Black In Jersey)

When Montgomery discovered photography his passion ignited differently. For Montgomery, photography is an art style that allowed him to see past the veil of hopelessness and violence that often encapsulated some of the cities where he applied his craft.

“I always knew back then, in the late eighties and early nineties, that I wanted to have a location to give people a springboard, a launching pad, to learn how to exhibit their work without getting robbed,” Montgomery said. There are a lot of galleries that will take 50%, 60% of your profits, and how can you grow like that?” 

After moving to Camden in 1999, Montgomery found a deep visual connection with the city, which, he says, mirrors his childhood community in some ways.

Photos from inside the Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG (Charles Curtis III/Black In Jersey)

In 2011, his dream of running a Camden-based non-profit began to take shape when he founded The Erik James Montgomery Foundation. According to its website, the foundation aims to use photographic public art to enlighten the world about the reality of its subjects and to guide young photographers.

Many of Camden’s public photo displays can be directly attributed to Montgomery. 

His work includes the Camden Is Project, which showcases residents’ portraits as symbols of Camden’s pride and dignity. 

Photos from inside the Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG (Charles Curtis III/Black In Jersey)

“Those images are portraits that I took during the pandemic of people from Camden who are exemplifying what Camden stands for,” Montgomery said. “When I look at any of these images, it instills in me a sense of hope because it’s the complete opposite of what a lot of the negative media has been saying about Camden, drug addicts, crime, desolation, things of that nature.”

His workshops extend beyond photography, including self-development aspects like overcoming low self-esteem. 

Montgomery’s partnerships with local organizations, such as the IDEA Center, have furthered his impact. 

“I’ve known Erik for more than a decade, and many times we’ve hired him to teach our kids – he’s one of the best!” says Cynthia Primas, IDEA President and CEO.

His work touches on the uniqueness and capabilities of the people! His chronicling of the people adds depth and humanity to the community,” Primas added. 

Photos from inside the Jersey Photography Education Gallery, or JPEG (Charles Curtis III/Black In Jersey)

Montgomery’s plans for JPEG are ambitious. Upcoming exhibitions include an all-female showcase for Women’s History Month and a display highlighting Camden’s Cooper family and their historical ties to slavery. Montgomery aims to use art as a conversation starter about historical issues and their relevance today.

“I believe that when you can, or when one can promote images that inspire, that is true to oneself and one city, and for some of us who create art forms that glorify God, it will only germinate and bring forth hope in other people’s hearts,” Montgomery said.