The Future of the Photo Festival in the Covid Age
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry – Emily Dickinson
As a photographer, editor, and publisher I have had the good fortune of seeing a lot of photography. I came to photography through an education in drawing, painting and theory of art. I have a bias for the kinds of photography some refer to as “lyrical documents” and work that sometimes carries around such notions as “post-photography”. Ms. Dickinson has expressed precisely what keeps me looking at pictures – I keep looking to find a repetition of that feeling as if ‘the top of my head were taken off’. You may have felt that too at some point in your practice or collecting — at least I hope you have. It is sometimes expressed as the difference between a photograph that is akin to illustration and a photograph that carries the impact of art.
I have written and talked some over the years about how art and photography is finding it’s way and doing its work in digital realms such as the web, Instagram, NFTs and in other digital pathways for sharing and what that means for the medium. I love and am so grateful for these alternative venues and paths for sharing. And as much as I love physical prints I’ve had many ‘head popping’ first encounters with pictures on screens. In fact, one of the most moving photographs I’ve seen in recent years came to me in the form of an unsolicited book proposal in an emailed pdf from photographer Rich-Joseph Facun. I didn’t know Rich or his work at the time, and while at Fall Line we eventually (please be patient) try consider all work that comes our way, I wasn’t expecting to be struck so viscerally via email. Rich’s image shown above grabbed me right through the screen. We went on to publish Rich’s book “Black Diamond’s” that included that image. Our decision to publish “Black Diamonds” was not based of course only on the strength of that one image. But, that image kicked the door open for us to carefully dig into the rest of the work. This is just one example of the power and value of our current digital pathways and social media communities. But, I want to write here about the power of an old-fashioned photo community ecosystem that is the ultimate tool for gathering, sharing and growing our work together – the ‘here I am physically’ in person with you at this photo festival kind of tool.
In late April I was happy to be invited to provide portfolio reviews and give a talk at one of my favorite photo festivals, Photolucida in Portland, Oregon. I love Photolucida. It is extraordinarily well organized and managed by the arts community and a professional team lead by Laura Moya. Photolucida’s vision and focus is always all about the quality of the experience for the participants. I encourage you to visit their website to see the full range of what they were able to offer during these Covid challenged times. The festival and review process is intense, in a good way, for all involved. In 3 very short/long days I conducted thirty plus portfolio reviews where I had the opportunity to be at the table in conversation with photographers (behind masks still) and see actual honest to God prints, maquettes, books and physical material of work in progress from from artists from all over the world. I am sharing with you here one image from each of the artists I reviewed. I want you to be as impressed as I was with the diversity and caliber of the work that was being shared out there these days. And it is a small way to give a shout out and show my love for these amazing creatives who gave so much of themselves to share their work with me and my fellow reviewers.
Why festivals and portfolio reviews? The formal reviews themselves are just the point of the spear. During the course of the festival there are talks and presentations along with the reviews. And most importantly there are the informal meals, drinks and coffee together where we are all able to connect, make new relationships and extend and deepen old ones. There is a profound growth and extension of the quality of an artist’s practice that is possible in this sort of experience that cannot be created in any other way. And here’s why I think the best photo festivals offer the most powerful sharing experience; and why I think it is important to acknowledge and lift that up right now more than ever. It would be a grave loss to our community if we allow our tradition of photo festivals to slip away. Now more than ever we should support them and participate as fully as possible.
The Japanese have a “high context” culture that values belly to belly exchanges. They have a beautiful expression for what they find inside of the physical meetings they prefer for business and social exchange: “kuuki wo yomu” it literally means “reading the air”. When physically in the presence of another you get to see how they sit, the way they listen, their manners and what they don’t say and how they don’t say it. In being with someone there is a possibility of expression that is much deeper than any other way of getting to know someone. It is frankly a prime reason why for me it is well worth the time, expense and Covid risk of flying from Atlanta to Portland to be with others in the real world. As an aside, despite masking and being fully vaxxed and boosted I did contract my first case of Covid during my Portland stay. I have wrestled with it for several weeks now and yet I don’t hesitate to say that in hindsight I would not change my decision to participate in Photolucida. I might wear two masks next time. Or maybe hang out at the bar a little less.
Another reason to invest in participation in a photo festival is the way it shapes your practice before, during and after. As photographers we tend to work on multiple projects at a time and sometimes these drag on and hang around indefinitely. Perhaps, hopefully, we show them to our friends, collectors, local peers and supporters but we may not “get serious” about ‘killing our little darlings’ (choosing this and not that) until we are preparing to expend time, money and maybe a little ego in sharing time at a table with “an expert” who will hopefully bring a fresh, unbiased and professional eye to what we’ve been up to. As W. H. Auden famously said, how do I know what I think until I see what I’ve written. Likewise for a photographer in the midst of a project the ‘definitive’ expression only occurs fully when the project for review is selected and actually presented to someone out in the world. That choice of ‘this project and not that’ says something. That project choice along with the selection of 20 photographs from that project to be shared reveals what you really care most about. You have invested in the portfolio review process and now it is time to stand and deliver. Of all that I might share let it be this – and not that. That discipline is essential to an artist’s development. Without it we tend to drift along. I know I do.
At the portfolio reviews we are exposed to not just the reviewers responses to our selected work but we see our work in the greater context of all that our peers are bringing forward. We are sharing with those who are equally serious and dedicated to the possibility that their work can evolve, become a book, exhibition or find other ways to be expressed into and impact the world. The disciplined work undertaken to prepare for the review is matched during the reviews with the many one on ones that happen. And over the several days at the reviews a clearer picture emerges of where the project lands with many others. Hopefully some intentions are clearly seen and responded to by the reviewers and your peers and perhaps others less so. There is learning in that. Through this the participant gains deeper insight into possible paths forward for the work that can be acted on after the festival days are over. Many relationships made at such gatherings will continue. Some for many years or forever. Several of the books that we have published at Fall Line came from work I first encountered in portfolio reviews from Photolucida in Portland, to PhotoNOLA in New Orleans, to Atlanta Celebrates Photography in Atlanta to Les Rencontres in Arles, France and beyond. I love the chance encounter and go looking for it with grateful eyes wide open.
Finally, the most important reason for making room in your life for a photo festival is simply the fact that life is fleeting and it is important to seize it with as much gusto and as fully as you can. If you are serious about the work that you are creating and want it to have some purchase in the world it is vitally important that you do everything reasonably possible to steward the work and your practice into venues that are rich with opportunity for growth. In 2022 that of course includes online communities of the web2 and web3 variety — and now more than ever it includes physical gatherings with other creatives and industry players. Where better to do that than a good, old-fashioned photo festival! There’s an old saying that you get out of something what you put into it – lets put ourselves thoughtfully and carefully back out on the festival dance floor IRL – real soon.
Post Scriptum: I want to add that as a reviewer I’m highly motivated to meet and extend my friendship with my fellow reviewers. They are so generous and talented and I’ve learned so much from them. It isn’t fair to mention any without mentioning all. But, I want to close with this photo from fellow reviewer the Uruguayan artist and photographer Federico Estol. The photo below is from his project “Heroes del Brillo” which together with his lecture was presented at the Blue Sky gallery in Portland as part of the festival. It blew me away and was definitely an Emily Dickinson moment. It will keep me coming back for more!
Cody Bratt – codybratt.com
Tricia Cassels – www.triciacassels.com
Debe Arlook – www.debearlookphotography.com
Lynne Buchanan – www.lynnebuchanan.com
Kathy Fridstein – kathyfridstein.com
Andy Mattern – andymattern.com
Deb Achak – debachaphotography.com
Vaune Trachtman – vaune.net
Chrissy Lush – chrissylush.com
Diana Cheren Nygren – dianacherennygren.com
Bernard C. Meyers – bernardcmeyers.com
JK Lavin – jklavin.com
Adam Gerlach – adamgerlach.com
Carol Isaak – carolisaakphoto.com
David Johnson – davidjohnsonstudio.com
Jason Langer – jasonlanger.com
Julie Fowells – juliefowellsphotographs.com
Juliet Haas – juliethaas.studio
Edgar G Praus – highwayproject.org
William Boling is an artist, writer, and photographer. In 2012, Boling founded Fall Line Press, an independent publishing house for photo and art books based in Atlanta, Georgia. Boling lives with his family on a small farm near Milledgeville, Georgia where he specializes in near misses. Read more of his writing and connect with him @wboling, @patientletters and through www.falllinepress.com. For more in-depth writing on photography, please follow firstname.lastname@example.org
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