Photo of a table surrounded by red chairs in the Kim Steele Portfolio Center at the Newhouse School

Kim Steele '71 says gift to establish Portfolio Center at Newhouse was his chance to leave a legacy

By Emily Kulkus

June 30, 2016

Photographer Kim Steele spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s working in New York City. It was a vibrant time of culture, art and photography. Steele ‘71 recalls being at the heart of it all—clubbing with Malcolm Forbes and Andy Warhol, attending art and photo exhibit openings, building a studio from scratch and expanding his photography business and portfolio.

His love for New York changed when an ongoing dispute with a landlord resulted in the theft of Steele’s photography negatives. In a moment, his life’s work was gone.

“That’s why I left New York,” he says. “I thought, I just can’t take this anymore.”

Photo of Kim Steele.
Kim Steele '71 Photo by Bob Adler

So he moved across the country to San Francisco, where he has lived and worked for more than 15 years. Then one day a few years ago, Steele’s phone rang. On the other end was a woman asking if she had reached “Kim Steele the photographer.” That grumpy landlord was her uncle and she had Steele’s negatives.

“She was in Florida,” he says. “I said to her ‘I’ll come there tomorrow and get those negatives. Tell me where you are.’ ”  

Steele’s eagerness spooked the woman and she hung up. A few months later, a package from Florida arrived at Steele’s home. His original “ratty, torn-up boxes” of hundreds of negatives were inside.

“They were all back. They weren’t even damaged. And it’s easy to damage a negative,” he says. “I thought for sure he’d just thrown them in the trash.”

Instead, his life’s work from nearly two decades in New York City was back in his possession. A legacy lost had been found and returned.

Steele believes in the power of legacy. It’s what compelled him to make a $50,000 gift to the Newhouse School to create the Kim Steele Portfolio Center, which opened in late 2013. The center is a fully renovated, three-room space primarily for multimedia, photography and design students at Newhouse. The facility is a multi-function workspace that features high-end computers and digital inkjet photo printers.

Steele was involved in many of the design decisions, from the gallery-like overhead lighting to the white countertops flecked with shards of blue glass. He enjoyed the process and was thrilled with the outcome, he says.

“I don't have children so I wanted to create some kind of legacy, partially for my parents as well, Bette and Don Steele, and partially for myself,” he says.

Steele’s father wanted him to be a lawyer. He attended Syracuse University to earn his undergraduate degree and a law degree, all in six years. But he was drawn to photography while at SU and took photo classes at Newhouse.

“I found Newhouse to be a really nurturing environment for learning photography,” he says. “It was a really good experience for me.”

A graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences, Steele went on to a successful career as a commercial freelance photographer and an instructor at the University of the Arts in San Francisco. His work is included in many major collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Minnesota Institute of Art and most recently, the Los Angeles Count Museum of Art acquired one of his pieces.

“I think people have a natural urge to create some kind of legacy and being artist you have a special chance to do that,” Steele says. “I feel some of my photographs will live on beyond me.”

And now the Steele Center will as well.

Emily Kulkus '02 is the web content manager at the Newhouse School. Reach her at eakulkus@syr.edu.

 

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