Fotograf Magazine

Ninth FotoFest in Houston

Fred Baldwin and his wife Wendy Watriss, the founders and directors of the Houston FotoFest, the first and still the largest photography festival on the American continent, never tried to attract vast numbers of visitors by including exhibitions of the most popular stars of the photography heaven. It was always much more important for them to give space to young, talented artists from regions with which the American public was not very familiar. That is why they have so often shown expositions from Latin America; that is why they have tried to present Chinese, Korean and South African photographic work; that is why, for example, as early as 1990 they brought an exhibition of the work of nineteen Czech photographers, Assortment, to the largest city in Texas, and four years ago a large overview of Slovak arranged photographs. In the 9th year of the festival, they decided, together with their co-workers from the FotoFest International organisation, to give an extensive presentation for the first time of work made with the help of the new technologies, in addition to classical photographs. This meant, of course, mainly pictures made or altered with digital technology, although the range also included, for example, a giant multimedia installation, made in an abandoned building by the famous French artist George Rousse at the invitation of the organisers. For the entire duration of the festival, trucks and vans with projection surfaces built in to their back walls drove through the streets of Houston, drawing attention to the fact that this year’s FotoFest was highlighting digital technology and the new media. Photographs and short videos were projected onto the screens. Among the photographs altered by computer, the fascinating portraits by George Kraus, for example, were particularly interesting, as were Charles Cohen’s inventive manipulations of pornographic pictures downloaded from the internet, and the cycle Interfaces by the German photographer, theorist and publisher Andreas Müller-Pohle.

The Czech multimedia artist Markéta Baňková was also represented at one of the main FotoFest exhibitions. Her NYC Map, a combination of digital photography, animation, sound and text on the theme of an interactive walk  through New York, was included by the curator of the international exhibition Remedia – Net Art Pieces among seven projects that represented net art. This was one of the most recent art forms represented at this prestigious festival. In addition to Baňková, Europe was represented by the Russian Olja Ljalina and the Englishman Heath Bunting; the other works were by artists living in the USA. The projects were chosen by Christiane Paul, the curator of new media at the Whitney Museum in New York, who also prepared an exposition of net art this year as part of the exhibition of contemporary American art, Whitney Bienale.

As far as the digitally manipulated photographs, exhibited on such a scale for the first time at FotoFest, are concerned, I am convinced that a number of Czech artists working in this field would have held their own in Houston. I could imagine there, for example, the imaginary landscapes of Štěpánka Šimlová, composed with the help of a computer, the fragments of anatomical atlases implanted in portraits and nudes by Veronika Bromlová, or the portraits of weeping politicians by Jiří David. I believe that these works would definitely compare favourably in comparison with most of the artists exhibiting in Houston. Even at FotoFest, too many of the exhibits were hardly teeming with invention or profound ideas. Rather, they only documented once again that the use of the newest computer technology often leads to superficial formal effects bordering on, or going beyond, kitsch. It is, however, certain that in many areas digital technology is supplanting classical photography.

Most of the roughly 170 festival exhibitions, of course, were devoted to traditional photography. Not all of the expositions were of the highest standard, by a long shot – sometimes these were small expositions of local artists in various restaurants and shops. In Houston, as in photography festivals, for example, in Barcelona, Cologne, Herten and Moscow, they are almost too benevolent when it comes to standards of selection for the official programme. None the less, there were many high-quality expositions this year as well. The organisers of the festival seemed to value most highly the exhibition Russian Pictorialism. Selected by Evgeny Berezner and Irina Tchmyreva, it presented in the USA for the first time the romantic landscapes, genre scenes and portraits by Sergei Lobovikov, Aleksander Grinberg, Nikolai Petrov and other photographers from the private collection of Mikhail Golosovsky. The Russian Pictorialists had exceptionally bad luck. They were not in favour after the Bolshevik Revolution, which looked on their work as a bourgeois relic, nor do they enjoy the favour of the present era, which prefers the Russian avant-garde. For many of the visitors, the largest retrospective of one of the foremost pioneers of the American subjective documentary, Louis Faurer, was a discovery. An esteemed historian and theoretician of photography, Faurer is practically unknown to the wider public. The exposition in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts was meticulously assembled by the curator there, Anne Wilkes Tucker, showing 137 of Faurer’s documentary and fashion photographs. She clearly demonstrated that as early as the late 1930s and in the following decades, Faurer’s strongly expressive shots of people lost in big-city crowds prefigured many features of the much more famous works by Robert Frank and William Klein. This can be seen in the emphasis on the subtext and the visual symbols, and in the use of untraditional cuts, reduced tonal scales and out-of-focus motion. The progressiveness of Faurer’s shots also stood out in comparison with the exhibition of the much more lyrical photographs from New York from the years 1947–1959, by another almost forgotten photographer, the German Clemens Kalischer.

The large exposition of visually powerful photographs of traditional life in Greece, by John Demos, was superb. Also excellent was the exhibition of photographs from the legendary Tulsa cycle, in which at the beginning of the 1970s Larry Clark depicted the then shocking lifestyle of young addicts, indulging in drugs, violence and sex. The exhibition of Italian photographs from the period after World War II was also outstanding, dominated by stylised documentary shots that looked almost like calligraphy and landscape shots by the recently deceased Mario Giacomelli. This exhibition, along with the Faurer retrospective and the exposition of new acquisitions, offered a view of the rich photography collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, which will soon become even larger and more important. That is, it was promised the opportunity to purchase the private collection of Manfred Heiting, with more than 3,600 photographs, including numerous originals by Czech avant-garde artists.

The Houston FotoFest, however, is more than just exhibitions. Traditionally it is accompanied by lectures, creative workshops, charity auctions of photographs and meticulously organised evaluations of the portfolios of hundreds of young photographers from the USA and other countries. They are drawn by the opportunity to get advice and possibly also exhibition and publication opportunities from the many important photographers, theoreticians, curators and directors of photography galleries who are present. This year, Czechs were also represented among the latter, by the photographer and teacher Pavel Baňka and the director of the Prague House of Photography, Eva Hodek. The organisers have already announced that in two years’ time, the main theme of the jubilee FotoFest will be WATER.

Vladimír Birgus