FotoFest-The Agony of "Defeat"

Let me start my review of this years FotoFest by saying that I’ve been to FotoFest before. In years past, I typically go to Houston for a day trip, driving, actually car-pooling, getting an early start and reaching Houston about 10 or 11 am on a Saturday morning. From there it’s a full day of dashing through galleries and museums-typically starting at FotoFest headquarters and then making our way to the Houston Center of Photography and the Museum of Fine Arts, where we would stop for lunch, then onto Gallery row. No doubt, FotoFest was (and always has been) a full day or seeing lots of photography-“wear comfortable shoes” has always been a good motto for the activities of the day.

Not this year. This year, it was a full on war for my feet. There was so much quality work, spread out across so many galleries, museums, and spaces that my feet hurt just thinking about it. It was jam packed-essentially a must see for anyone serious about photography or contemporary photographic work being produced today.

We started out, as always, at the FotoFest headquarters with the first exhibition: Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs. There was a lot of quality work in this exhibition alone and it was here we encountered our first of many themes running through the work this year. (I’ll try to put the themes in bold so that those skimming along will have some idea of what they were.) Night photography was out in full force this year I saw many examples of many different types of night and long exposure photography. Some examples of this include Will Steacy’s work “These Mean Streets” which were Philly and Detroit showing us their deepest growls. That’s really the best way to describe Steacy’s work-it was mean urban work rising up a growl to meet you. RJ Shaughnessy’s night series was compelling as well-this was night work done harsh, with a lot of flash, usually something I would despise, but Shaughnessy really pulled this off, in part because of his beyond competent printing. The prints really had a wonderful glow about them, removing any notion of “snapshot aesthetic” and really planting him firmly into the fine art realm. Reading his statement, he said that he was attempting to garner the look of crime scene photography and I’d have to rate this work as a sweeping success-it was gritty and elegant at the same time, compelling and well-executed, with excellent choices made in printing the work-something we don’t always see very often these digital days. Next on the stop at headquarters was a perennial favorite, Todd Hido. The “king of suburban Hell” took no prisoners and was out in full force here, with two separate series this year: Foreclosed Homes and A Road Divided. Since I was already familiar with Hido’s work, you would expect no surprises here but that doesn’t lesson the draw of this work in any way. In fact, Foreclosed Homes was very delicately shot and printed and demonstrates a master at work-soft subtle shadows, rich textures, attention to small details, clean, crisp compositional choices, uncrowded use of visual space-it’s all here and, though you might expect to see this from a master, it was no less a treat for the eyes. Hido’s other series was his drive-by’s-those of you familiar with my own work know that I’m a sucker for a good “drive by” but, again, here Hido flexes the photographic “muscles” of a master, showing us drives that are poetic, painterly, dreamy, evocative, and well-edited. Since I’ve shot my own “drive by” series, I can tell you that a lot of the presentation in this type of work lies in the editing and here again Hido shows us his genius-the amount of work was just right for the space, well-selected, concisely edited, and came together to pull off a cohesive encompassing body of work that’s compelling and contemplative.

Greg Stimac’s video series “Peeling Out” was oddly compelling. Consisting of a simple video of various vehicles “peeling out” you might be tempted to walk by this type of installation without paying it any mind, but the video was interesting and there was something emotionally compelling about it-it really drew me in. There was a lot of video and 3-D type of work this year, more than in year’s past and it’s clear that some photographers are felling the “pull” of having a video camera attached to their head. The Canon 7D is now a fully-functional HD video camera as well as a state-of-the-art still film camera and, if not just technologically-wise, photographers are feeling the draw over to the video side now more than ever. We saw combination of video and stills, video being incorporated in odd and unusual ways, and the fine line between video and still photography being blurred all over the place.

Craig Mammano and Jane Tam’s work at FotoFest headquarters also served to pull in another big theme from this year: there was more multi-cultural based (and focused) work this year than ever before. Now, I might be allowing my suburban “vanilla” upbringing to show here although some of you might find this to be a statement of the obvious opinion rather than fact (forgive me for addressing the gorilla in the room) but photography, in a lot of ways, has always been a rich white man’s game. There I said it, and I’m not ashamed to put it out there-it’s a matter of quiet acceptance though a subtly accepted fact. And, I do mean, rich, white, and male-not just one, but all three wrapped up together in a pretty little singular cultural “bow” for all to see. Sure, the “rich white men” have always photographed the blacks, the women, the Latinos, the “dot dot dots” in their lives, but, let’s face it, the cameras have traditionally been in the hands of the rich white male, always and forever. As a working female photographer, now comes the point you should listen carefully before casting me aside as a racist, sexist, whatever “ist” you’d be tempted to write me off as: in order for fine art photography to grow, and not stifle itself, strangle itself under it’s own roots, it needs to expand to include the voices of others. Having said that, I almost feel as if I’ve let that dirty little secret (read: the rich white man’s game) out of the bag, but it’s true, at least it’s been true, historically accepted in the past, though this year’s FotoFest also served as a force to change that. The traditional under-representation of blacks, Hispanics, Latino’s, female photographers, Asian-Americans was not present here and though sometimes gritty and not as refined or elegant as the “rich white traditional male masters” of the genre, these fresh new voices represent a leap forward for the medium. I, for one, was very happy to see a less homogenized voice and enjoyed seeing this type of work, though here again, it cannot really be labeled as “type” since this is far from an “us against the world” (or singular) type of viewpoint. Mammano and Tam both featured work that addressed this-with Mammano working in a small urban environment, featuring gritty black and white images while Tam brought us the compelling series “Foreigners in Paradise” focusing on immigrants living in a brave new world.

Also along these lines was Hank Willis Thomas’ work featuring ads from the last 40 years-ads that targeted African Americans. The series called Unbranded was an unabashed look at advertising over the years and was quite thought-provoking. Again here a large draw for me about this work was not only in its technical execution but that it was work done by African Americans for African Americans. We cannot deny the cultural significance of not just portraying African American heroes on film, but of also getting the camera out from the exclusivity of the rich white male aesthetic. To deny this type of work is to trivialize the matter of culture in our society-photography is at its best as a medium when all voices are heard-this cuts to the true strength of the medium-the accessibility of the camera and it’s ability to give voice to those traditionally silenced or underrepresented. You can call me a racist, so be it, but I personally feel the good of photography reaps extraordinary benefits by including voices that cut across the chasms that divide us-be it race, sex, culture, religion, class, or anything else. Another important footnote to this is that I did not feel this was strong “African American” work (though, technically, I guess you could say it is) but it’s strong photographic work that happens to portray an African American viewpoint. The distinction is subtle but I feel important enough to mention-the work at FotoFest was strong work and that plays into what I loved about seeing the diversity-the diversity of the work was not just included for diversity’s sake, the work was compelling and strong independent of it’s cultural perspective. To me, this was akin to “having your cake and eating it too” since it was not only a refreshing change but a solid foundation upon which we can build dynamic work for years to come in the future. It’s a sign that the medium is beginning to accept those outside of the “rich white male” norm and that, in future years, masters of the genre will not just come from the pool of “rich white and male” but be drawn in based upon ability and skill.

Also at FotoFest headquarters was Richard Mosse’s war-themed work. Another major theme of FotoFest this year was what I would have to call “look what I brought back from the war” as images from the front lines are slowly making their way back into the mainstream. This work was no exception-it features gritty war-based images, including a video called “Killcam” featuring night vision footage of missiles taking out targets. In general, I’m not as drawn to this type of work as the usual fine art type of work, possibly because I do not work within the scope, but the work here was technically well implemented and elegant in presentation. These are images that serve to make us pause and think and, again here, I’d have to say they were a success in that regard.

Photography and great images often ask questions-the work of Jason Lazarus is no exception, although probably a bit more literal than what you might expect. He posed the question, “Do you remember who introduced you to the band Nirvana?” and got an answer-the answer came in the form on his series at FotoFest. This work is the “snapshot aesthetic” taken to the extreme, as people sent him their answers, many in the form of Polaroids, instant snapshots, work that was never intended to be seen outside of a private viewing space, yet here collected and presented as a singular vision. Many of the images had annotations, marking another theme from FotoFest this year-there was much incorporation, and many photographers opting to incorporate words or some kind of text along with their images. While it might be easy to dismiss this type of work, as was the case of Hido’s work, it’s really all about the editing. Photo editing is almost like a “dirty little black art” in some ways-in this new era of digital imagery it’s almost fallen by the wayside-nobody pays attention to editing anymore, right? We all just put crap out on Flickr and let the masses pick from what they want-almost like letting sharks have their blood in the water. As with Hido’s work, again here, it was a refreshing change of pace to see editing brought front and center and, as a photographer, I can only hope that this trait, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, does not die along with the multitudes of magazines and traditional media that appears to be sinking fast in the new digital era. It’s a skill that, though often ignored, needs to survive if the medium is going to continue to grow.

Tema Stauffer presented a series called “American Stills” that featured some well executed night imagery coupled with some work reminiscent of traditional style Eggleston/Christenberry images.

Rounding out the ‘Whatever Was Splendid” show was the work of Michael Schmelling. In a series called “The Week of No Computer” the photographer descends into a wild, unabated journey into a dark abyss of not having a computer for a short period of time. This was one of those clever exhibits that, though you know how it’s going to end, you can’t help but watching (and enjoying) in the process. Not to mention, it’s good to include clever work like this-it shows us that, above all else, photographers still need to know how to think outside of the box, and that you can get rewarded for that.

The FotoFest Headquarters was only one of several places we visited along our long day’s journey into film-I’m going to break here and continue with my review in a future post.

Until next time…


  1. mythopolis
    April 19, 2010 / 11:22 am

    The fest sounds like a real feast for the eyes. I am glad to see 'de-centralization' of media as it becomes a tool for larger more diverse numbers of people!

  2. Carol
    April 20, 2010 / 6:43 pm

    Thanks, Mythopolis! Indeed it was a feast for the eyes-so much wonderful work gathered in one spot.

    I'm also really happy about the diversity of media-it's really great to see fresh voices, new faces, and such varied work.

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