After the dirt road and the, “Drats! I brought my camera but we don’t have time to take any pictures” very cool industrial complex, complete with the very cool “The Road to Nowhere?” show, we headed straight into downtown Houston to go and see something called “Discoveries of the Meeting Place.” And, I do mean right into downtown Houston-we were literally sitting at the tallest buildings that dot the skyline, hoping we’d parked in a good spot and wondering if there was anything worth visiting inside the cold corporate office structures.
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with “the meeting place” a bit of an explanation is in order here. The meeting place is a part of FotoFest where photographers can sign-up for portfolio reviews. These aren’t ordinary portfolio reviews-no, these are the kind of reviews (with the kind of people) who can make a career. The meeting place is more than just your typical “vanilla” portfolio review. To quote from the book, “In 2008, 417 artists from twenty-eight countries participated in FotoFest’s portfolio reviews. Each curator, or “reviewer,” met and saw the work of more than fifty individual artists during his/her time at the Meeting Place. The ten artists exhibiting in 2010 Discoveries of the Meeting Place reflect the intersection of art and social ideas as well as the purely aesthetic concerns of artists working today.” That’s not a mistake-417 artists came from around the globe, all descending upon the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Houston, all sitting there with cohesive bodies of new, cutting edge, original work, in some cases representing years of professional development and personal investment on behalf of the photographer, all waiting patiently to become “the next big thing” in the photographic world. To give you an idea of how pivotal the Meeting Place is, I won’t even apply there-I won’t even think about applying there, and I have a cohesive body of work and have gotten a one-person show in a reputable gallery. It’s just too important and I feel I’m too “not quite ready yet.” To give you an idea of how esteemed it is, you don’t hear me say that very much (I’m typically a more “in your face” type of photographer, at least when it comes to putting my work out there-I’m one who tends to just shove it into consideration for opportunities and hope for the best-typically I enter shows I feel are out of reach just because I think that, well, somebody has to get in and I might get lucky, right? Not so with the Meeting Place-I don’t want to blow an opportunity and don’t want to waste anybody’s time until I feel good and ready.) Anyway, personal reflections (and egos) aside, the Meeting Place is sort of like ground zero for up-and-coming photographers. It follows too that the Discoveries of the Meeting Place would be just as dynamic, a virtual ground zero of “ground zero’s” so we headed there to have a look.
My first observation was that it was completely empty. Except for a few lone security guards, there was nobody there. A meeting place with nobody to meet? At first, we were a bit worried, since we had parked, gotten out, found the place, found the correct floor and all-approaching the gallery as we did we saw what appeared to be a few lone images hung up and nobody (minus the guard at the desk) in sight. A bit puzzled, but we decided to go and have a closer look anyway. Maybe it was all of the running around we did, or maybe it was the open architecture of the building, but, upon closer inspection, we found some really great work (and lots of it!) Of course, it was sort of around the corner and we didn’t see it as we first walked up. Shame on us, but we soldiered on and found the work (eventually) though we now are left wondering a bit why don’t they make hand-held GPS devices for lost/clueless idiots like us. A lonely and almost hidden (well, to us) Meeting Place aside, there was some really great work here, I’m very glad we found it (even if by almost-accident, though the nice folks at the headquarters did give us good directions and we even had a map. Go figure-must be the disorientation of the downtown buildings or the clueless and complete lack of direction of yours truly.)
The book, the FotoFest guide, of course, was right. The biggest thing about the Meeting Place overall was the diversity. There was work that cut across the spectrum of photography in so many different ways-everything from social documentary to pure art to, well, Jell-o (more on this later.) Seriously, Jell-O was represented here, I mean, how often do you find that?
Rachael Papo had a “girls in the military” series that explored the life of the feminine soldier. Dona Schwartz had a fresh modern look at “domestications” called “On the Nest” which was a refreshing change from the typical “let’s bring baby home and take a picture” norm that one might expect. Emma Livingston had a series called NOA that featured large scale large format painterly images of the Argentine Northwest that were outstanding-very textural, lush, and painterly-a real treat for the eyes. Sara Terry had a series called “In My Life: the story of an ex-girl soldier” focused on the horrors of being a child soldier. Annotated with text, these images were very moving and thought provoking-really a glimpse into another world. Toby Morris had a series called “A Selection of Images from Recent Portrait Projects” that could best be described as fun and Ion Zupcu presented a series called “Painted Cubes.” This series marked another trend for me, one that would also pop up on our trip to Gallery Row, and that’s the “combination” of photography and art-or photography as art, was really big this year. There was a lot of drawing mixed with painting, a lot of painterly images, a lot of people doing sketches and then photographing them, a lot of mixed media, but more than just the usual “mixed media” it was as if artists were “spewing” into the world of photography. Gone are the days when photographers were barricaded into the back of the “art house” chamber, over are the days when, as I think it was Bill Jay who once so aptly said, “if the art world were a cafe, the photographers would be fighting for crumbs under the table.” No, FotoFest made it clear that artists are using cameras more than ever before or, at least, proudly admitting it in public these days-both Ion Zupcu’s and Emma Livingston’s work were a nod towards this, as they both featured unabashed painterly images-Zupcu’s images were derived directly from his sketches and, it’s clear to see, he’s got his feet planted firmly both in the world of the “traditional” artist (charcoal) and in the “brave new world” of photography. Sure, there’s always been fine art photography before, and there have always been visual artists sort of “moonlighting” as photographers, but it’s clear that this is a new trend emerging. Gone are the days when the visual art crowd would have to sort of “look photographic a bit,” out are the posers, the artists who sort of “dabble” with a camera-there’s a new “in your face” about this work-it’s almost like they are standing up and saying, “yeah. So. I’m an artist. What are you going to make of it?” I love that actually (probably because, well, as you could guess, “Yeah. So. I’m an artist too.”) We’re seeing a true blending of both worlds in ways I don’t think I’ve seen before and it’s kind of refreshing. It’s a true change of pace and a complete acceptance on the part of the artists for photography and the use of the camera that I’ve not seen much before.
Andy Freeberg had a clever series called “Sentry” about the front of galleries-literally the front of galleries-how cold, stark and industrial the gallery world can look to an outsider and Christopher Sims gave us “Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan” which was work focused on the staging of war drills.
Finally, I promised you Jell-o and, yes, Jell-o I’m going to deliver. Liz Hickok’s series called “Molds and Models” featured images that she created using molds and models, some out of actual Jell-o and then photographed. Perhaps taking the “photography/art what’s the difference?” trend a bit further down that right-brained path, Hickok actually made entire cities out of Jell-o and then photographed them. (Yes, entire cities. Yes, Jell-o. Yes photographed entire small scaled cities made of Jell-o. I know it’s a bit “wiggly” but it’s true!) It was amazing work-playful, interesting, creative, fun all rolled into one. This type of work builds somewhat upon The Architect’s Brother type of work, it’s staged photography at its best-staged to the point where the photographer is actually building something, creating something for the sole purpose of photographing it. In what can best be described as “you can keep your reality, I’ll take my own little world, thank you very much” type of work, the series Hidden Agendas and Unutterable from Judy Haberl was work along the same lines-she actually created purses (complete with contents) out of ice and then photographed them as they were melting. Looking almost encaustic-like, though completely 3-D, this type of work is actually moving beyond the staged and more into the “constructed” realm. Of course, it might just be a personal thing, but I really love this for so many reasons. For starters, it eliminates some of the “copy work” that can happen with photography-good luck trying to find tripod holes when you’ve set out to copy a city made of Jell-o or a melting purse carved from a block of ice-but it also opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Gone are the days when photographers are limited by the real-nope, we’re now just like painters-if we can dream it, we can make it happen, and this is, perhaps most importantly, a newly found freedom. It’s like the shackles of reality have been lifted from photography and we’re finally allowed to play on the big kids swing set. How cool is that, I mean, really, as a photographer, what’s not to love about that, right? Silly Putty, anyone?
So, to sum it up, the Meeting Place was not very, er, “meeterly” (since we were the only folks there) but it was a great find and a wonderful display of range, passion, expression, and creativity. Totally worth the stop on this year’s FotoFest and, I know it’s probably getting old, but FotoFest was totally worth a stop period.
Still to come, our trip to the Menil, Gallery Row, The Houston Center for Photography, and some wild 3-D work that was a true high point (in an already high-flying FotoFest) for me.
Until next time…