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FotoWeek DC 2010: Local photographers wary of festival's development

November 11, 2010 - 01:25 PM
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Photographers socialize through the night at FotoWeek's NightVisions event. (Photo: Courtesy FotoWeek DC)

When he was helping organize last year’s FotoWeek DC, Theo Adamstein kept running into the same problem: The photography festival couldn’t count on having space to display photographs. Organizers wouldn’t learn which storefronts were vacant until six weeks before the festival, making planning ahead altogether impossible. But this year, Adamstein found a solution: Instead of printing and hanging work inside a building, he would simply project photographs on the facades of selected buildings.

Mollifying D.C.’s photographers, many of whom feel snubbed by this year’s festival, may prove trickier.

In the three years since FotoWeek DC was founded, it has won praise and funding, allowing it to expand rapidly. But the direction it’s growing in has become an annoyance for some local photographers who wonder what the D.C. in its title even means. Is FotoWeek of D.C., or merely in D.C.?

Four years ago, Adamstein was lamenting the fact that Washington did not have a photography competition when he got the idea for a festival. It wasn't just for galleries — photojournalism and documentary photography matched well with the city's numerous nonprofits and provided opportunities for temporary gallery space. Adamstein’s printing company, Chrome Inc. (now Dodge-Chrome), laid down the cash as a founding partner of Fotoweek.

Everyone involved in the festival, and everyone who submitted work for the contest was from Maryland, Virginia, or the District that first year. "We started off local because we had no idea how this would grow. We had humble beginnings," says Adamstein.

This year’s festival, Adamstein acknowledges, features more work from international than local photographers. For the first year, there were 3,500 photos from the D.C. area submitted to the contest, a number that has increased to over 6,500 from 35 countries. This year, FotoWeek will exhibit more than 1,200 images, twice what they showed in their first year, according to Adamstein.

To some local photographers, that number includes way too many works from out-of-towners.

"The first year, I was kind of gung-ho about it because it seemed like a good idea. it seemed like it was going to be focused on D.C., and it was hard to not get excited about it because nobody knew what it was going to be," says Max Cook, a local photographer, who has not participated in the last two years of FotoWeek. "Once I had a chance to digest it, it wasn't all that I had hoped it to be... I thought it was supposed to be highlighting D.C. photography, not world photography."

Many D.C. photographers are now calling on FotoWeek to explain what it wants to be. Adamstein unhesitatingly says he considers it an international festival — he thinks that to remain local would be a certain death for FotoWeek.

"We were cautioned — I won't go mentioning names — by a few art critics that the worst thing that could have happened is if it had remained provincial, if it was a small festival that celebrated local talent and that was it," says Adamstein, who has lived in D.C. since 1982. "It would be inconceivable to keep this local in an international city like Washington."

In fact, he feels strongly that having an international presence is more helpful than harmful to local photographers. International photographers and curators come to the city for the festival, where they have a chance to discover D.C. photographers' work. It also raises the profile of the awards ceremony and makes the prizes more meaningful for the winners.

But bringing curators to town for exposure doesn't mean as much when photo communities online already help them forge those ties, say photographers, several of whom declined to speak on the record because of their involvement in FotoWeek shows. And as for the awards, the locals argue that broadening the field to encourage more submissions — a moneymaker for the festival, at up to $30 per image — has only encouraged extremely established photographers from elsewhere to enter and easily dominate the competition. Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post’s art critic, agrees. He wrote in Tuesday's paper, "Overall, the FotoWeek awards are a terrible disappointment. You've seen almost all their pictures many times before, in almost any publication you could name."

But the submissions are anonymous to the judges, and the awards are based entirely on quality, says Adamstein.

Theo Adamstein
Theo Adamstein, FotoWeek's founder. (Photo: Courtesy FotoWeek)

"It really has to do with the power of the image — it's not about it being established or not established," he says. "In theory, every winner could be completely unknown. Yes, some work is recognizable, but we're not looking for well-known people to award. That would be a different kind of award. This is judged anonymously. Everyone has a fair chance of being a winner."

I noticed that something was amiss with FotoWeek when I looked back upon an article I wrote for the City Paper about last year's festival and realized that very few of the people in it were participating this year. Commercial galleries, especially, have dwindled. Hemphill Fine Arts, which participated for the first two years of the festival — and whose owner, George Hemphill was a founding director of FotoWeek — is not participating this year. Hemphill has also taken himself off of the organization's board.

"Some galleries saw great traffic results from it and some didn't. Non-profits understood more inherently that having traffic come through the door had more value to them, as opposed to commercial galleries having a buyer come in," says Hemphill. "If Honfleur triples its traffic during FotoWeek, they put that number into grant applications. But if a gallery like mine has 200 more people come through but no one buys anything, it's an expense to me. They take price lists, they mess up the floor. But if the times are really good and you're having great traffic to the gallery, it's not a burden."

Both sides of the FotoWeek debate acknowledge its chaotic nature. It encompasses both fine art photography and photojournalism, and it has spread through all four quadrants of the city and beyond. Galleries can officially partner with FotoWeek if they're willing to pay a small fee to be listed in their promotional materials, or they can just host a concurrent photography exhibit and claim that it is part of FotoWeek anyway, which many do.

Lucian Perkins, a Pulitzer-winning photographer for the Washington Post, curated four exhibits for last year's festival. Having previously organized a photography festival in Russia, InterFoto, he is sympathetic to FotoWeek's growing pains. But while he remains on the festival’s advisory board, he has dialed back his participation this year, in part because last year's shows were so much work.

"I think FotoWeek DC is still trying to find its mission," says Perkins. "If Theo can succeed at running something as big as this, with all these disciplines of photography, that can be a really interesting thing. But it's certainly big and seemingly unwieldy monster."

NightGalleries, Fotoweek’s name for the building projections, is one way to tame that beast. This year, if you exclude the partner shows, you can actually see more projected images than printed photographs. Perkins' only involvement this year is a NightGalleries show of his photographs of Sudan exhibited on the side of the Holocaust Museum, one of eight locations hosting the projections throughout the week.

"What [NightGalleries has] done is it's allowed us to show a lot more work and to put bodies of work together faster and more spontaneously," says Adamstein. "To print 1,200 images and mount them and find the space to exhibit is a huge undertaking."

But while the NightGalleries are good for promoting FotoWeek and impressing donors, they aren't really good for looking at photography, says Cook, who says no one wants to stand outside in the November cold for an hour.

"I'd rather see work on a wall, or even an indoor slideshow where it's one photographer or a group who can talk about their work, rather than seeing them splashed on a wall for 20 seconds," he says.

"I sell objects: Paintings, photos, DVDs. I think those objects are magical,” says Hemphill. “The projections, they're ephemeral.”

Perkins was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the NightGalleries show, and found the outdoor projections "stunning." Still, he feels that they lack the personal connections that he forged in his Georgetown shows last year, where people could more directly engage with the work.

"The comments we got in the [guestbook] were amazing," says Perkins. "I felt like I had done something that had touched people in 'Iraqi Voices.' Somebody walked in here, and it made a difference their life." He recalled one entry a guest wrote wrote, saying they were so angry when they saw the show that they began to cry. Perkins said that he considered his Sudan projections to be a success but recalled that when he went to one of the projections at the Corcoran, he noticed only about 15 people who stopped to watch.

It's possible that the complainers aren't looking hard enough for the events that suit their taste. There are many opportunities to see printed photographs on a wall, as well as indoor projections with talks, such as in the Slideluck Potshow on Friday. There are also numerous locals-only opportunities, Adamstein points out: The NightVisions all-night contest, the mobile phone competition (for which the theme is the Potomac River), and the portfolio review and lecture series that are designed to help local photographers improve their skills.

There's also a special category in the contest: "The Spirit of Washington," for the photo that best captures the essence of the city. In theory, an outsider could win it, but it's more likely to go to a local photographer. This year's "Spirit of Washington" winner is Flore de Préneuf — a current Washingtonian by way of France, South Korea Great Britain, Israel and Bosnia and Herzegovina — and it's an artfully composed photo of the Housing and Urban Development building. But without having seen the other entries, and with due respect to de Préneuf, I wonder: This is the spirit of Washington? A federal office building that's been here since 1968? It's a terribly bleak thought.

As for the competition, those on the side of FotoWeek think that local photographers just have to learn to play in the big leagues.

"I can understand how wanting to keep it local would protect local photographers from outside competition, but I think outside competition is very healthy," said Adamstein. "I feel like in anything in the world, if you're doing great work, that rises to the top."

"In this case, Theo's right: You've got to open these competitions up," says Perkins. "The chips fall where they fall."

Nevertheless, the divide between the Fotoweek establishment and the local photographers may already be too deep. Locals contrasted FotoWeek with another regional photography festival, Look3 in Charlottesville, which they say is an example of how to do a festival correctly: Making it all about photographers — not spectacle — and keeping it small, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

"[Look3] was all about community, meeting people and learning, whereas FotoWeek is this beast that's all over D.C.," says Cook.

Michael Pollack, the curator of last year's Portraiture 2.0 FotoWeek show at Pyramid Atlantic has not participated in this year's festival either, and he emphasized that, although he is wary of the turn it has taken, the festival can go in any direction it pleases.

"I still maintain that FotoweekDC has become big business — if that is their intention, I have no problem with that," he says in an e-mail. "It has changed dramatically from the first locally focused and massively disorganized fair to a better organized and internationally focused fair with lots and lots of fees — but if that was always their intention, is that so wrong?"

Pollack thinks that the disagreements over FotoWeek could bring out the best in local photographers if they innovate around it.

"Maybe what our area photographers should do is form their own fair that solely highlights those photographers working and living in the DC area," he says. "I think there is enough talent here to easily draw a crowd. I would love to take that on. I think the opportunity to showcase what we have right here in our own backyard is being missed."

But Adamstein doesn't disagree — in fact, he thinks that if more photographers organized local shows under the auspices of FotoWeek, it would make FotoWeek better, too. He encourages any photographers to come to him with ideas, and notes that MetroCollective, a photography group, organized their own event with Thievery Corporation for this year's festival.

"We need to support our local community, but an organization's sole mission doesn't need to be that," says Adamstein. "I was on the board of the Washington Project for the Arts for many years, and there were artists who felt that WPA had branched out, and they created their own show. It was confrontational; it created a dialogue."

Adamstein says he is sympathetic to the grumblings of photographers, but he has no plans to dial back FotoWeek in any way. Rather, he's planning to expand it to a year-round organization, FotoDC, with FotoWeek remaining as a weeklong festival each fall. He notes that perhaps one day, he'll be able to draw a salary from it, since he has run FotoWeek as a volunteer. He's looking for a permanent gallery space this year to house exhibitions and the FotoWeek library of almost a thousand photography books, which are available to the public. He sees the space as a place where lectures and slideshows can continue the FotoWeek experience all year round — but built to serve the local community. Adamstein hopes, in exchange, that they'll broaden their views.

"I think farmer's markets should be local. I think the nature of photography should be global," he says.

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