Fotograf Magazine

Fotofest 2006 in Houston

This year’s FotoFest, which took place in dozens of museums, galleries, banks, and coffee houses, as well as refurbished former factories and warehouses in both Houston and nearby Galveston, revolved around two main themes – Artists Responding To Violence and The Earth. Both were conceived rather politically, as is the custom at this largest US photography festival. The co-founders and directors of FotoFest, Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, make a point of always providing ample room for exhibitions that are part of the struggle for the rights of various minorities, particularly of Hispanic and African-Americans. They also raise a voice against globalization and ecological disasters, highlight the contrast between rich and poor, and protest against the atrocities of war in various parts of the world. While they do not avoid featuring the same world-renowned artists who dominate the festivals in Paris, Moscow or Madrid, they also traditionally accentuate less well-known photographers, presenting photography also from regions marginalized at many other festivals. FotoFest has helped to pave the road to the international acceptance for instance for Latin American, Chinese, Korean, South African, Arabic, Russian, Czech and Slovak photography. Baldwin and Watriss envision the festival above all as a platform for new discoveries and opportunities.

The Earth theme was presented chiefly with precisely executed photographs of man’s insensitive interference with the landscape, following the work of Robert Adams, Edward Burtynsky, or the Di_isseldorf School. John Ganis showed images of American scenery, idyllic at first glance, but ravaged by pipelines, railway tracks, or surface mining. With a cold descriptiveness, the photography of Noel Jabbour documented the desert landscapes of the West Bank of Jordan and the eight-meter high concrete wall separating Israeli and Palestinian territories. The Bulgarian Vesselina Nikolajeva ventured along on the formerly closely watched border between Bulgaria and Turkey, depicting dilapidated barbed wire fences, deserted watch-towers still adorned with portraits of Lenin and Dimitrov, and forests that only border guards had previously been allowed to enter. The descriptive photographs of seven authors portraying landscapes from around El Llano Estacado without any noticeable individual mark were rather stereotypical. Standing out among the monotony of this and a number of similar exhibits was the compelling installation of giant enlargements in which the Japanese artist Masaki Hirano showed the ruthless tree-felling industry of Tasmania, the series of photographs capturing the kitschy landscape backdrops used in photo-studios in Sri Lanka by Amy Robinson (USA], or the visually powerful black and white images of the hard life of the nomads of the northernmost territories of Siberia by her countrywoman Heidi Bradner. Among the disappointments of the season, on the other hand, was an exhibition of rather decorative images of leaves and trees from the until-recently very popular and commercially successful brothers Doug and Mike Stern. It seems that their work went stale rather quickly.

The Artists Responding To Violence theme presented mostly not superficial dramatic images of war, but rather works conceived on a more general or symbolic level. Among the most powerful of those were the subjectively seen fragments of reality by the Argentine Paula Luttringer, in which she responded on a symbolic level to her experience of being abducted and held in a secret prison for five months under the rule of the military junta. Similarly expressive were the confrontations of the worlds of Buddhists and anarchists in Joakim Eneroth’s cycle Reactive (Sweden). The blunt photographs depicting homeless children in St Petersburg, who often prostitute themselves in order to earn money for drugs by Wolfgang Muller [Germany), on the other hand, represented the classical trend in contemporary documentary photography. Among the exhibitions that drew the most viewers were the compelling digitally adjusted images by Moscow’s AES+F, from the cycle Action Half Life, capturing cherubic, innocent infants armed with state-of the art firearms. These, however, had already been presented at major photo festivals in Moscow, Arles and Paris, as well as having been repeatedly published in photography periodicals, so they failed to surprise anyone who follows photography in greater depth, The same could also be said of the iconographic portraits of Russian soldiers presented by the Ukrainian Sergei Bratkov. In some exhibitions, politics got the better of art. This was perhaps most marked with the primitive, superficial photomontages in which Lisdebertus, aka Luis Delgado Qualtrough, combined portraits of various political and religious leaders with the portrayals of inquisition trials, concentration camps, executions and torturers.

As always, a number of outstanding exhibitions went beyond the declared areas of the themes. Among those were the inventive portraits of various celebrities by Mark Seliger (USA), and a retrospective of key works from the evolution of photojournalism, presented by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Another exhibition was comprised of classic works by Andre Kertesz, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Ruben Smith, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dmitri Baiter­mants and a number of other masters, drawn from the collection of Manfred Heiting, which the museum recently purchased for a reputed price several dozen millions of dollars. Still, those who expected the museum which has owned one of the most essential collections of photography throughout its history to present some revealing and groundbreaking exhibition during the FotoFest, such as was for instance the case four years ago with the retrospective of the still-overlooked pioneer of subjective documentary, Louis Faurer, were disappointed. The museum main exhibition this year, Two Women Look West presented second-rate romanticizing photographs by Helen C. Kleberg and Toni Frissell, who in a very traditional way photographed life at a sand ranch in the south of Texas between the 1930s and 1960s. Of the numbers of other exhibitions held by various institutions and in various venues -galleries, cultural centers, restaurants, shops, coffee houses or artists’ studios, one noticed for instance the melancholy subjective documen­tary photographs of Keith Carter, from his series Only a Little Planet, or Lelia Essaydi’s conceptual exhibition in which she photographed Arab women whose robes bore inscriptions of fragments of their lives and memories. Otherwise, the collaborating institutions this year presented far too many exhibitions that were of amateurish, or completely average photojournalism, which should not feature in the official program of a prestigious festival.

Still, what has in the last several years been most important at FotoFest are not the exhibitions, but the flawlessly organized portfolio evaluation in the festival’s so-called Meeting Place, the model of which has been gradually adopted by festivals in Madrid, Bratislava, Berlin, Odense, Krakow, and, most recently also Arles. Whereas in the festival’s early years there was no participation fee, nowadays anyone wishing to win the opportunity to present their photographs during the four days in the plush Doubletree Hotel to some of the 122 invited critics, curators or directors of photo galleries, as well as the heads of the photo festivals held in Arles, Shanghai, Birmingham, Lodz, Odense, and Bratislava, or the editors-in-chief of magazines such as Aperture, Photonews, Leica World, Kwartalnik Fotografia, Imago and Fotograf, had to pay a fee of 700 US dollars, not to speak of the not insignificant costs of travel and accommodation. In spite of this, those who were interested abounded, and the slots were sold out months in advance. This was not the first time I had been invited to be among the assessors (this year together with the director of the Prague House of Photography, Eva Hodek, and the head of the department of photography at the J. E. Purkpe University in Usti nad Labem and editor-in-chief of Fotograf, Pavel Barika), so I can say that over several years the level of the participants has improved radically. If formerly there were many beginners who actually sought advice as to improving their photographs, bluntly prevalent this year were experienced artists, many of whom had already had exhibitions in major museums, or serious books published, or had worked for leading magazines – what they looked for at FotoFest were above all new opportunities for exhibition and publishing. Many succeeded, among them also some of the Czech photographers who came to Houston. That the contacts forged here may actually be the start of the road to stardom was amply illustrated not only by the sums of thousands of dollars at which works by young artists who had presented their work in Houston in previous years, or had their portfolios assessed here, were sold at a charity auction, but above all by the subsequent careers of some of the participants in the exhibition Successes of the Meeting Place, which was among the most fascinating in the entire festival. This included a number of outstanding photographs, such as the phantasmagoric and locally sharp photographs by Esteban Pastorino Diaz (Argentina), taken from children’s kites and showing cities, railroads or airports from a bird’s-eye perspective as though they were but downscale models; or the eerie panoramas of urban cityscapes of Dresden by Fredrik Marsch, the expressively blurred images of Frank Rodik evoking feverish visions, or the naturalist portraits in color of child dancers with toothpaste smiles and thick layers of make-up by Morten Nilsson, offering an ironic view of the camp world of competition dancing. The faultlessly organized Meeting Place is really setting an outstanding level today, and has already helped launch many an illustrious career in international photography. It is above all thanks to it that Houston’s FotoFest holds such an important place among the world’s contemporary photography festivals.

Vladimír Birgus