Good Neighbors: Gwen Lafage of Gallery Carte Blanche

Gwen Lafage has one of those mesmerizing transatlantic accents, the kind (like Audrey Hepburn‘s) that’s hard to place—but man does it sound great.

But Lafage is actually from somewhere rather specific. She spent most of her life in France until, overcome by wanderlust, she and her husband set out on an around-the-world adventure. They finally settled in San Francisco, where Lafage decided to open a photography gallery in the Mission.

Opened in November 2011, Carte Blanche has the same transatlantic quality as its proprietor’s accent—the bookstore and art gallery gives “carte blanche” to photographers from around the world, and it’s approachable, varied, and oh-so-cool. We recently got the chance to visit Lafage at the gallery and ask her a couple of questions.

oSF: Why did you choose San Francisco, and specifically the Mission, as the location for your gallery?

Gwen Lafage: I arrived in San Francisco in 2010. Before that, I was living in Paris with my French-American husband. He grew up in San Jose, and I think he always wanted to come back to the states, so we finally made the move. We ended up opening the gallery in the Mission because I fell in love with this space. I was looking in various neighborhoods, but when I saw this place, I knew it was perfect, and I was lucky I could get it.

oSF: It’s definitely a great place to be. How about the name then? Tell us a little bit about what that signifies for you.

GL: Sure! When I was brainstorming with my husband and friends, I came up with “Carte Blanche.” When you give carte blanche to someone, you give them the freedom to do what they want. So it’s about giving an opportunity, or “white space,” to someone to do what they want with it.

And I thought it was a great concept to go with what I wanted to do, namely to give carte blanche to emerging artists from around the world. Part of the idea was to show a group that had never been shown in the U.S. before. And I wanted to give that group the freedom to do what they want, in a new space.

oSF: The gallery has another mission too, right?

GL: Yes! I wanted to to make photography more accessible to everyone, to make more people aware of what photography is about today.

These days, everyone seems to be a photographer. The art is very accessible to anyone who has a camera. But I want to show people that photography is not just about the pictures they take on vacation. There are wonderful artists who are using the medium to create amazing work, and making that art photography accessible (and affordable) to everyone is really important to me.

When I started to get passionate about photography, I wanted to own some nice pieces of artwork, but it was so expensive that I really couldn’t afford any. So my goal with the gallery was to get new audiences into the spirit of patronizing artists. Offering sizes and prices for every budget is my way of showing that you don’t have to be rich to support (or collect) art.

oSF: And that accessible pricing is for works exclusive to this gallery?

GL: Some of the works are exclusive to the gallery, but only in the United States. A lot of the artists have representation in their own countries, and I don’t want to block artists from showing their work at home, so exclusivity really depends on the photographer. But for most part, the work in the gallery is exclusively sold here.

oSF: We’ve gotten to look around a bit, and it seems you have an amazing roster of photographers here. How do you select what’s going to show in the gallery?

GL: The initial idea was to make this project multicultural, so I started searching for photographers from all over the world. I started by reading a lot of blogs and magazines, and mostly going online to look at everything that was going on right now in the photography world.

I also looked at a lot of competitions and awards and festivals. For example, this Polish photographer Lukasz Biederman won a big competition in Poland and was part of a festival there, and his work was also shown at a festival in London, where I discovered it.

oSF: Final question, a little more personal. You’re passionate about both photography and travel, two things we love at offMetro SF. What is the subject that inspires your travel photography the most?

GL: I like street photography and I like photographing people in different situations. When visiting a new country, it’s much easier to detach from the subject in a way, so you’re more confident about getting in front of people with a camera.

When I moved here [to San Francisco], it was the same feeling. Now it’s becoming my home, so I feel less confident. But at first I would go out in the street and take pictures of people on public transportation. It always gives you a way to look around you and forces you to just look at people in a different way.

Gallery Carte Blanche
973 Valencia Street
San Francisco, California 94110
Open 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day

photo credits: gwen lafage, kaitlyn ellison, lucasz biederman