In January 2000, when Susan Aurinko resolved to open a gallery, she expected to spend the next year preparing a business plan and lining up artists. But when the right West Loop space presented itself a month later she grabbed it and hit the ground running, hosting Flatfile Photography Gallery’s first opening that April. “I had no idea about what I was doing,” she says. “I only knew I wanted to show emerging artists and students, and I wanted to have lots of flat files . . . so anyone who walked in the gallery could go on a treasure hunt for art that moves them or touches a nerve.”

The established Chicago galleries devoted to photography can be counted on one hand, even if that hand is missing a digit or two: Stephen Daiter, Catherine Edelman, Schneider. As a result Aurinko–herself a fine-art photographer, as well as a collector and charity auction organizer–didn’t have to look hard to find people who wanted her to show their work. Before Flatfile opened, she posted two calls for submissions: one at Columbia College, where she had taken art courses, and one at Lab One, where fellow photographer Mark DeBernardi had been printing her photographs since overexposure to darkroom chemicals in the late 90s damaged the nerves in her hands. (DeBernardi, who is my husband, now shows work at Flatfile.)

After that first bit of outreach, in most cases artists have approached her. Within a year internationally renowned photographers such as Ken Josephson and Dawoud Bey were stopping by to take a look, and about five artists a week were submitting their portfolios for consideration. By the second year Aurinko was getting as many as 20 submissions a week. Her declared commitment to providing gallery access to those who lacked it meant that when better-known photographers contacted her looking for Chicago representation, she wasn’t sure whether to take them on.

“I had to do some soul-searching,” she says. “Will this hurt my emerging artists? I decided no, it wouldn’t. And now I see that it’s really a help to have them hanging side by side.” She currently represents more than 65 artists, and a third of them are well established in their careers–like Barbara Crane, who has pieces in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but shows her contemporary digital work at Flatfile (her joint exhibit with John F. Miller runs through October 12). But Aurinko says she’ll always make sure that at least half the people she represents are relative unknowns. “As far as I’m concerned some of the best printing and the freshest eyes come from emerging photographers. They haven’t gotten to the point where someone’s said, ‘You can’t do that.’ They’re very fearless.”

Nonetheless, the gallery is changing. This past May Flatfile moved from its original 1,200-square-foot digs at 119 N. Peoria to a space almost twice as large in the building across the street, also home to such better-known galleries as Walsh, Aron Packer, and Rhona Hoffman. In the past the gallery has exclusively hosted group exhibits, but with the extra room Aurinko will be able to mount installations, group shows, and one- and two-person shows concurrently.

Aurinko says Flatfile can easily handle the increase in rent. Providing a salary to its director is another matter. “The gallery supports itself and my husband supports me,” she says. “I don’t draw a salary. But I haven’t had a moment of saying I wish I weren’t doing it. I’m completely surrounded by the things I love the most–the work and the people.”

For the past two years Aurinko has brought guest speakers in once a month or so to talk to the artists in her stable on topics chosen by the group. This season she’s taking advantage of her bigger space to open the gatherings to whoever wants to come. The subjects range from the highly practical to the philosophical–recent evenings have included workshops on digital photography and video, and on Tuesday, October 8, critic Michael Weinstein will discuss ways in which art can be used to further social consciousness and how to write meaningful artists’ statements. His free talk, “Message and Media,” runs from 6 to 9 PM at the gallery, 118 N. Peoria. Call 312-491-1190 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Fogleman.