Kurt Simonson: The 2014 Medium Festival of Photography
It’s that time of year again in San Diego, when photographers descend upon the swanky Rat Pack-era Lafayette Hotel, and proceed to Instagram the hell out of the glistening palm-lined pool, as it beckons everyone to slow down, chill out, and settle in for a great weekend of photographic community-building.This was the third annual Medium Festival of Photography, the brainchild of photographer scott b. davis, and as was true in the past, this year’s festival continued to be a mellow-paced and good-natured gathering of photographers, reviewers, and local photo enthusiasts. Scott, along with Anna-Leigh Zinza and their team of volunteers, has worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order for the festival itself to flow smoothly and maintain it’s reputation as one of the friendliest and inviting of the photo review festivals. As scott likes to say, “Medium is small,” and while that’s true, there’s no shortage of significant reviewers to meet, insightful lectures to attend, and brilliant fellow photographers to befriend.
The festival unfolds over four days, split in half between the first two days featuring the Eye-to-Eye portfolio reviews, and the latter two days featuring the Present Tense lecture series. Smack in the middle of those events is the keynote lecture, this year featuring the legendary Duane Michals.
Listening to Duane, or “Dr. Duanus” as he was introduced, was perhaps a bit less like an artist lecture, and more like listening to your dirty uncle tell amazing stories littered with crass jokes for an hour… not that I am complaining one bit, because Duane was brilliant and captivating. At times inspirational, at times motivational, at times tragic, and most of the time hilarious… he never failed to entertain, provoke, and delight. Wonder and passion were key themes that he returned to often, as he lamented the state of education today by saying, “I wish schools today would teach amazement.” After his talk, Duane was a good enough sport to stick around for a long line of people waiting to take pictures with him and have their books signed… and as you’d expect with his personality, he made each person’s photo a unique treat. Below is my own little sequence with him:I took this year off when it came to the portfolio reviews, so one of the great pleasures for me was getting to see some of the amazing work of fellow photographers, and truly enjoy it without the stress or worry of having to talk about my own work.
Among many great bodies of work, a few really stood out to me and seemed to be creating some buzz around the festival as well, both during the reviews and at the portfolio walk that was open to the public: Claire Warden, someone I met at the first Medium Festival, brought a fascinatingly enigmatic new body of work featuring black and white abstractions. Another returning friend from last year’s festival, Brenda Biondo, brought her newly published book, “Once Upon a Playground,” in which she has captured a wonderful archive of vintage playgrounds from around the US. Then there was work from some people I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time: Martina Shenal’s hauntingly still landscapes, Dana Fritz’s stunningly minimal black and white prints, Michael Sakasegawa’s quiet and intimate views of family life… all of which definitely resonated with my own taste in quiet, still images. There were also some really delightful surprises: Rizzhel Javier brought mixed media sculptural work which was a wonderful break from the norm, giving the viewer a chance to physically interact with her work, in ways that were both playful and reminiscent of 19th century inventions like stereoscopes and zoopraxiscopes. And lastly, there was the person I kept hearing about as “the glitter guy”- John Brinton Hogan. Now, I don’t mean to reduce his work by referring to him that way, nor did the people who were saying it—quite the opposite, John has done something entirely unexpected by removing the human figures from his landscape images and replacing with unorthodox materials such as, yes, glitter (among other colorful methods).
In-between portfolio review sessions, there were other events, including standing-room only crowds to hear Mary Virginia Swanson talk about professional practices (on the first day) and Chantel Paul share about the museum curatorial process (on the second day). These were a foretaste of the lectures that were to follow in the second half of the festival, with the Present Tense lecture series. I had the honor and delight of kicking things off on Saturday by giving the “Second Sight” lecture, which is a unique and generous feature of the Medium Festival. Each year, the reviewers choose someone from among the reviewees who they would like to hear back from as a lecturer the following year. I was deeply grateful to have the opportunity to share my work with a really receptive and wonderful audience, who I had to Instagram, of course:Next up was a roundtable discussion called “Points of Entry” featuring Hamidah Glasgow (The Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins), Jolene Hanson (G2 Gallery, Venice), Rudy Hernandez (Fine Art Solutions, Los Angeles), and Bonny Taylor (The ICON, Los Angeles), during which the audience had a chance to have an interactive discussion with this diverse panel of experts about how to get your work out there, and what it takes to establish yourself in the world of art photography.
The afternoon featured lectures from two prominent Southern California artists. Virginia Beahan shared “Elegy for an Ancient Sea,” work done with an 8×10 view camera which sheds light on the complexity of issues surrounding the Salton Sea. Finally, Soo Kim shared her intricate, playful, and fascinating images created by a laborious process of cutting, subtraction, and layering.
The final day of the festival was a stellar lineup of lectures by photographers I’ve been eager to meet and hear from: Chris Engman shared his unique performance based photographs, complex works constructed over the course of days for a single moment to be captured by his camera. Jess T. Dugan shared her alluring and evocative portraits that give an intimate view of people within the queer and transgender communities, images that transcend ignorance and naiveté with a tender sense of humanity. Matt Black shared his haunting and challenging images of the difficult relationship between food, land, politics, and farming communities in Central California and Mexico. Lastly, and certainly not least, the effervescent and wonderfully joyful Joni Sternbach presented her Surfland project, documenting surfers through a tintype process, affording a great amount of intimacy and uniqueness for each subject.
All in all, I can’t say enough great things about this annual festival. Medium is one of the best ones out there, and if you get a chance, I strongly encourage you to come next year. Whether you participate in the portfolio reviews or just come to listen to the lecture series, it’s an invaluable time of community building. I overheard Aline offering a new reviewee a critical bit of wisdom: the twenty-minute review is hopefully just the beginning of a long relationship. And at Medium, there’s plenty of time to continue to develop these relationships during downtime in the lobby, conversations over meals, or trips to the local museums. All of this builds with each passing year, to the point that it feels like a reunion with old friends each time I show up. So much of this business comes down to community and relationships, which take time and generosity to build. Thankfully, Medium allows for this kind of time and offers this kind of space… and if nothing more, you can always just lay by the pool, or have a late night drink at the Red Fox, a classic piano bar joint, adjacent to the hotel, where I doubt anything has really changed since it opened in 1957… and that’s absolutely as it should be.
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