Fotograf Magazine

History of FotoFest Houston: an interview with its founders

Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss are photographers, curators and, above all, the founders and directors of one of the most important festivals of photography and related arts in the world. I met them for the first time on a train, along with a group of other Czech photographers, when we were traveling together to the Plovdiv photo festival in Bulgaria. That was around 1988. Since then we have experienced together quite a lot of major changes in the international political situation and in the field of photography as well.

After the Arles Festival in the Seventies and Eighties, FotoFest in Houston became another new center for international photography, attracting photographers, curators, art critics, collectors and editors. The festival, which had its first edition in 1986, has maintained this level of importance up to the present time. During the last decade, festivals of photography have continued to emerge around the world, and “photography tourism“ has itself moved into a new dimension. In order to remain abreast of what is going on in the world of photography, artists must travel to places like Houston, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Barcelona, Birmingham, Bratislava, Krakow, Mexico City, Odense, Buenos Aires, and more lately also Łódź. Additionally, the Arles festival, which seemed to be fading at the end of the Nineties, has renewed its position and started to attract photographers again. There are festivals of other arts, but photography still seems to be the most popular medium among visual art festivals.

I have been thinking about the phenomenon of photography festivals being so popular, and wanted to interview this outstanding couple who created one of the most important photography festivals in the world. Since this is the gap year between editions of this biennale event, it seemed a good time to interview these two very busy people.


Pavel Baňka/PB: You are both photographers. Your careers were already quite developed when you started FotoFest. What was the major reason for you to start the festival in 1986, and what was the situation in photography then as compared to now?


Fred Baldwin/FB: For many years my motivation for doing magazine photojournalism and documentary photography was to effect the way people saw the world. It was also to satisfy my own curiosity about the way different kinds of people live. My work in the 1960s with very poor people in the rural southern USA addressed both of these needs. I was also an activist, using my photography to help the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, organizing support for a doctor trying to get medical help for the poor, and working as a Peace Corps director in Borneo.


Wendy Watriss/WW: I was always involved with international affairs, political ideas and creative expression. I began my career as a newspaper reporter working on city politics, then a reporter-producer of political documentaries on the Vietnam War, the history of socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe (including the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Warsaw Pact invasion), and then began to freelance as a photojournalist and writer in Africa and Europe. For my 1980s work on the use of the herbicide Agent Orange for LIFE magazine, I won the World Press Award for magazine features and Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award, among others. I was one of the first women to win these awards.


FB: The documentary work that Wendy and I did together in rural Texas, in the 1970s, combining photography with oral history and historical research, went deep into the lives of people and aspects of U.S. history that had often been overlooked. By the mid-1980s, it was becoming increasingly difficult to publish serious in-depth photo documentary work in magazines and daily newspapers. At the same time, museums and galleries did not seem to be good substitutes for the earlier documentary venues. The Rencontres d’Arles and le Mois de la Photographie in Paris showed us a new kind of format to show a broad range of photography to people. Moreover, much of the photographic work we saw abroad wasn’t being shown in the U.S. Work outside the U.S. and Western Europe were not being seen in the more established venues for photographic art.


WW: We decided we could create a new kind of platform in the U.S. for photography – emphasizing internationalism and discovery, broadening opportunities for talented artists little known outside their own countries of origin. It was about opening up the world, enlarging the playing field for art photography. It was also about ideas – looking at art beyond just the object or two-dimensional print, to ideas that could inform and shape its character and intent. It is our ongoing belief that art is integral to society – not a marginal form of expression but central to the issues that are important to the way we think as societies and political entities.


FB: We wanted to create the opportunity for hundreds of talented photographic artists to be exhibited in shows curated by FotoFest and independently participating spaces. We also wanted to create the possibility of hundreds of other photographers to meet and show their work to important decision-makers from the art, editorial and commercial photography worlds. Unlike the exhibitions, this event would not be pre-selected pre-juried. It would generate its own creative energy. Thus we created and developed an international portfolio review program for artist-photographers, called the Meeting Place. The portfolio review program has been part of FotoFest from the beginning. It has made it possible to bring both artists and curators and publishers together from many parts of the world. Over the years, FotoFest has forged connections between artists and leaders in the photography field from 60 countries.


WW: FotoFest’s exhibitions are the curated and selected part of FotoFest. The Meeting Place is open. By choosing serious themes for the exhibition program and selecting museum-quality artists who are not well-known in the mainstream art spaces, we have had an important impact, creating important recognition for many artists from Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Russia, Africa, Asia, Western Europe and the Middle East as well as African-American and Latino artists in the U.S..


FB: Because we have spent so much time visiting artists and scholars in countries around the world, we have been able to build a network of contacts in many places. In a sense, it replicates methods that we had to develop as international photojournalists. It grew out of the same curiosity about the world that propelled us in the first place. Our meeting with Pavel Baňka in Bulgaria, on the way to Plovdiv, is a good example. The trip not only resulted in our showing Bulgarian artists at FotoFest in 1990 but led to an important and ongoing relationship with artists from the former Czechoslovakia and events that would lead to the fall of the old Communist regimes.


PB: During the nineties and also during the last decade you divided your concentration between general human themes and themes dealing with different world regions. I myself experienced the round of 1990, when you had photography from the former Communist countries as one of the major subjects at FotoFest. Then I remember Latin American photography as a major subject in 1992. After this you had several major exhibitions concerning other regions, such as the South Korean show in 2000.


WW: When we began FotoFest, we thought that very little was known about the photography world outside the western capitals of Europe, the U.S. and about 20–30 famous “masters” from other parts of the world. Decisions about what was seen and shown were largely dictated by the interests of powerful museum and gallery curators and critics, especially in centers such as New York, London, Paris, Cologne, and sometimes also Berlin. Most of the decision-makers in the photographic art world were not out there exploring other parts of the world.


FB: It seems extraordinary now but there were no regular exhibitions of Japanese or Latin American photography shown in New York in the 1980s. Between1986 an 1990, FotoFest had 13 Japanese exhibitions during the first three biennials. In 1990, as you said, we had a very important show of 19 contemporary Czechoslovak artists and another one featuring four artists from Bulgaria, most of them previously unknown in the U.S. or Europe. South America and Mexico had been represented by a few classic artists but the range of photographic riches available there were unknown to important museums. In 1992, we not only focused on Latin America, showing over 50 important artists mostly unknown in the U.S., but we also showed important work from Europe – from the former Soviet Union and Poland; a Bauhaus show; one of the first post-1950s exhibits of the avant-garde Czechoslovak artist Karel Teige; a little-known World War II archive from Holland, The Illegal Camera; and contemporary Black British photographers and other shows.. These exhibits represented over a year of travel in 40 countries, visiting artists and artist studios.


WW: Collecting institutions that were not doing very much in Latin America before 1992 have since made great efforts to build major collections of Latin American photography. We have continued this approach of creating visibility for little-known work with many other shows – contemporary Cuban photography from the 1980s and early 1990s by Cuban photographers working on the island; Latino photographers in the U.S. (1994); South African artists in 1998, Korean artists in 2000. and many others. We are doing the same at FOTOFEST 2008 with Chinese photo-based art.


FB: FotoFest’s reputation for a place to “see something new” has created an unusual collaboration with Russian curators who were at first part of ROSIZO, a department of the Russian Ministry of Culture, and later we worked with the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. First we collaborated with them to bring an extraordinary collection and exhibition of Russian Pictorialism to the U.S. for the first time. It was work that had not had a major showing in Russia since 1928. The exhibition had a spectacular opening in Houston, prior to returning to Russia to open there. The Russian curators felt that the exhibit would be taken more seriously if it opened first at FotoFest. FotoFest collaborated with them again in 2004 to take four international FotoFest shows to Moscow and Samara.


PB: FotoFest has moved from general themes such as Latino Photography in the U.S., The Global Environment and Fashion in 1994, to New Technology in 2002, Water in 2004 and Violence and Earth in 2006. How is changing between these two approaches important for you?


WW: Many of the biennials that featured work from different countries or regions addressed the idea of “building bridges” to important artists whom we thought were being left out of the picture for various reasons. But we also think that there are important world issues that have not had sufficient attention and that artists had important things to say about them – and have used art in important ways to do so. We have varied the geographic focus with themes from the beginning of FotoFest, commissioning special exhibitions and new works. We have collaborated with artists and other curators as well – Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence (2006); Mike and Doug Starn, Absorption + Transmission (2006); Susan Meiselas’ Chile: Seen From Within (1990) and Kurdistan, In the Shadow of History (1996); Georges Rousse, Memory of Space and History (2002); Jose Antonio Rodríguez, Mexican Landscapes, 1858–1910 (1996); Lucia Benicka, Altered Worlds, Contemporary Staged Slovak Photography; the four Mexican curators Osvaldo Sánchez, Jose Antonio Rodríguez, Miguel Fematt and Ana Casas, Four Views of Current Mexican Photography. With the groundbreaking exhibition we initiated of Latino photography in the U.S. (American Voices, 1994), we worked with four Latino artist-curators in organizing the exhibition, and it traveled to the Smithsonian Institution. We have also worked with museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Musée Europeenne de la Photographie and Museum of Czech Literature (Památník Národního Písemnictví) as well as non-profit art spaces, photo agencies and commercial galleries such as the Goodman Gallery and Linda Givon in Johannesburg, South Africa (Five South African Artists, 1998), and Staley Wise Gallery in New York, (Fashion, Evolution/Revolution, 1994).


FB: With global issues such as Water, we presented the subject not only through art but also via science, human rights and public policy with the organization of a four-day International Conference on Water in collaboration with Rice University, the Menil Collection and the James A. Baker III Institute for International Policy. We invited 25 international experts on Water to Houston. This conference was aimed at local community and government leaders and not only the art photography public, and the results of the Water Conference are archived on our website

It is important to note that we have been doing year-round programming since 2000 at FotoFest’s Vine Street Headquarters, in order to showcase important international and regional work. In spring 2005, we brought the first major exhibition of Arab photography to the U.S. (a collaboration with the organizer, the Noorderlicht Photofestival in the Netherlands, and the Aperture Foundation in New York). We inaugurated a series of shows with younger local and regional photographers, NEW TEXAS TALENT, and international shows such as Danish Contemporary Artists, The Studio of the Vargas Brothers work from 1920s–30s from Peru; and The Photographic Eye featuring three Central European photographers.

In spring 2007, we inaugurated the showing of work about detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo in connection with the “war on terrorism.” Organized by by artist Margot Herster with photography and video taken by habeas corpus defense lawyers for detainees, the powerful exhibition was accompanied by a talks on human rights, detention policies and the “war on terrorism.” For all its exhibitions, FotoFest organizes tours for both high school and university students.


PB: Following on from the previous question, why did you decide on China as a general subject of the upcoming FotoFest 2008?


FB: Chinese art photography is very popular now and there have been several big projects since the end of the 1990s. Our involvement extends back several years and along with it came the realization that only a small percentage of talented artists have been able to get their work to important parts of the art world outside China. This situation became very clear when we were asked by two Chinese colleagues to help them organize a portfolio review for Chinese artists in Beijing in October 2006. Over 1000 Chinese photographers signed up, out of which we had to select 300. They came from every province in China. FotoFest brought 30 reviewers from Europe, North America, and Australia. The results were fantastic. Many photographers were offered museum exhibits, sales to museums, gallery representation and publications. In addition, 34 photographers picked by the reviewers are being featured on One important Chinese blog described the Beijing program as: “the most important event in Chinese photographic history.”


WW: By exhibiting and bringing over 30 Chinese artists and curators to FotoFest 2008, we hope we will continue to build on the enormous energy of the Beijing Meeting Place and what our Chinese colleagues GAO Lei, Jimmy Chu and Rebecca Li did to make that event such a success. We want to create more opportunities for many talented Chinese artists and scholars. Unlike most current presentations of Chinese photographic art, we are juxtaposing historical and contemporary photographic works as well as documentary and conceptual work in FOTOFEST 2008, Photography from China, 1934–2008.


FB: If there is anything that we have learned over more than 20 years, it is that when you put opportunity in the path of talent the road opens up.


PB: Your FotoFest Meeting Place, which gives photographers a chance to meet editors, publishers and gallery directors, has become so popular that a young photographer who is successful in Meeting Place has a chance to get exposure right away. We always discover several photographers at Meeting Place and publish them in our magazine. I guess other reviewers have a similar experience. Most of the others festivals are trying to follow your Meeting Placesystem, but they do not seem to be as successful as you. Why you think FotoFest Meeting Place is so popular?


WW: If this is true, there are several possible reasons for the popularity of the FOTOFEST Meeting Place: the scale and internationalism of the event, and the very careful selection and rotation of reviewers, so that there are always new and responsible reviewers coming to represent different institutions.


FB: We bring 130 reviewers from all over the world. The FotoFest founders are photographers. We think we understand what photographers need and we care about what happens to other photographers/ artists. The FotoFest portfolio review is big. We have been sponsoring three sessions of portfolio reviews for the past several Biennials. In 2008, we are adding a fourth 4-day session because of demand by artists. Hewlett Packard is a major sponsor of the 2008 Meeting Place.

The Meeting Place is also under constant adjustment to make it more valuable to photographers. The FotoFest Meeting Place has a New York-style pace and it is very hard work for both reviewers and photographers. Bountiful Texas hospitality is available to reviewers, but private homes can’t accommodate all the registrants as well. We are not even close to perfect, but we keep trying to treat all participants the way we would like to be treated. The FotoFest staff is very conscious of trying to help artists and photographers, and perhaps that is one of the main attractions.


PB: I have a question about the future. How do you see the future of photographic festivals, regarding the globalization of the world culture, namely photography and related media?


FB: Photography festivals are growing like mushrooms, nourished by a number of different situations. Festivals will continue to multiply, and there will be highs and lows as money, energy and politics change, and festival leaders come and go. There are institutional differences as well. Festivals are at different stages of development. Some of the older festivals are no longer compelled to defend photography as art. The EU has provided cultural funding in different forms, and this has stimulated the growth of festivals. There is the top down type led by Paris, where mayors and bureaucrats have discovered that festivals can promote cultural tourism and raise prestige for their cities. Months of Photography in Berlin, Luxemburg, Rome, Leipzig, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, Lianzhou (China), Brasilia, Lima, and Portland (Oregon), among other places, have suddenly evolved in the last few years. Among the older festivals, PhotoEspana (Madrid), Bratislava, Moscow and Birmingham (Rhubarb) represent events started by individuals and private initiatives rather than governments.

There is also a new crop of festivals that are much more grass- roots in orientation, organized by artists and curators, many of whom are young and stimulated by a desire to get their work out to each other and the larger public. There are over twenty of these little festivals in the Baltic region alone. Some of them are showing very sophisticated work and producing impressive catalogues. The festivals in Krakow and Łódź and Baltic Triennial are good examples.


WW: Growing urban wealth, the globalization of information about photography through the Internet, and the ease of reproducing photography digitally are all helping to fuel the growth of photography festivals. But it is important to note that globalization has always existed. Art and communication have always drawn from multiple sources and cultures simultaneously and cyclically. It is just happening faster today.


FB: It’s not just about money. One of the most interesting and dynamic festivals in the world is in crisis-ridden Bangladesh. New festivals are popping up all over the globe, organized by brave individuals who seem to exist by sheer determination, such as the one in Aleppo, Syria. Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines are struggling as well. As the intrepid Singapore organizer wrote me: “To date, there is no photofestival in Southeast Asia available for regional photographers to showcase their work. In the west of the region, we have Shahidul’s Chobi Mela (Bangladesh). To the east, we have Lianzhou and Pingyao in China. But there is no such event in the Southeast Asian region. Meanwhile, I look with envy to the recent FotoFest Meeting Place portfolio review session that has taken place in Beijing. Such opportunities for Southeast Asian photographers are few and far between.”

It would seem that with the festivals‚ core growth comes from the realization among creative people that one way, and perhaps the best way today, to have their work recognized is through the festival format. The conditions for this growth vary depending on circumstances and have their own mysterious logic.


FB: Wendy and I have created an engine that reflects many of the goals that we have as individual photojournalists and documentary photographers. We described these earlier. However, it would be very satisfying to find that we had created a model that other creative people would find useful in reaching out to achieve something that is bigger than a festival. FotoFest has been fueled by our hard work, passion and curiosity.


WW: And a strong commitment to political and social values that are about creating opportunity for others, about opening up the world for talented people and individuals who have not had a level playing field. We would like to hope that our sense of adventure and belief in generosity, social justice and the importance of creativity have lasting reverberations.


FB: To put it another way, if we were musicians, I would want people to learn to make the instrument, to play the instrument well, and then to create something with their music that was enduring because it created sounds that are relevant to how people want to live and what they aspire to be. Part of the reason that FotoFest has been possible, is that we ourselves are artists. Everything we have done has been an effort to protect ourselves from the encroachment of circumstances that would restrict creative freedom. This experience, or battle, if you will, has given us a strong insight into what other people of the same mindset need and want. It follows, of course, that we have to become involved with those things that can deliver what creative people need, and then delivered under favorable circumstances. This means we have to organize, curate, and direct…and raise a hell of a lot of money.

Pavel Baňka