Wynwood galleries have long been keen on showcasing the works of young, emerging talent. Bucking the trend is Dina Mitrani Gallery, which is showcasing the work of Peggy Levison Nolan, a self-proclaimed “badass grandma” who has emerged as one of Miami’s most talented photographers.
Nolan, 69, says she’s always been a creative person. She majored in creative writing at Syracuse University before dropping out, and wrote often until raising a family consumed most of her free time. With seven children, her family struggled to make ends meet, and they lived in public housing for a time. Nolan had a creative breakthrough in her 40s when her father gave her a camera as a gift and she fell in love with the medium.
“I guess when I picked up a camera, [my passion] just kicked in like a vengeance,” she says.
Nolan’s pursuit of photography was as much a way to earn income as it was her personal passion. She first began shooting weddings, but not in the traditional sense: She told couples that as an artist, she would have creative freedom and final say in which photos she thought were best. From there, she worked part-time in the photography department for several public magnet schools. Now, she is an adjunct professor and slide librarian at Florida International University, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in 1990 and her master’s degree in 2001.
Her photography captures small moments that often go unnoticed by people — and most photographers. She says a friend best described her work as “the things you see when you’re talking on the phone.”
“If it doesn’t have a relationship to that ordinary life I’m leading, [a life] that I’m pretty happy with, then I’m not too interested,” she says.
Martin Margulies, a prominent local art collector who has a number of Nolan’s photographs, says her work “captures the human condition” and that she is extraordinarily dedicated to her craft.
“She’s a pistol. She’s a person who has no fear. ... She’ll go anywhere and do anything [for her art].”
While Nolan is inspired by photographers like Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, she says she receives more direct influence from the students in the color photography class she teaches.
“A class of beginners really keeps me humble because every one of them makes pictures as good as I do every once in awhile,” she says.
Despite having a late start in her art career, she has managed to attract considerable attention and acclaim. Her work has been featured at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the MOMA in New York and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. Despite being a recognized artist, she had been reluctant to work with a gallery out of fear her work would be “commercialized.”
Gallery owner Dina Mitrani, who now represents Nolan and has showcased three solo exhibitions of her work, says she became familiar with her work when she was working at the Art Museum at FIU (the former, smaller art museum before it became the Frost).
“I jokingly mentioned to Peggy that one day I would have a photography gallery and she would be one of my artists. And years later, it was reality. ... The first work that I sold was one of her images.”