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Rhubarb Rhubarb - Birmingham, UK
July 20-August 13, 2005
Report by Fred Baldwin

FotoFest has had a long relationship with photography in Birmingham beginning with the dynamic picture magazine, TEN - 8.   TEN-8 featured important writing about photography and social issues, multi-racial/multi-cultural photography, and early articles about digital technology.   The editor of this progressive publication, Derek Bishton, was invited to FotoFest in 1990 and wrote about the FotoFest Biennial.   Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin visited Birmingham in 1991 to discuss development of an Afro-Caribbean-British exhibition for FotoFest 1992 and formation of a photography festival in Birmingham. Rhubarb Rhubarb founder Rhonda Wilson ran Poseurs Gallery in Birmingham at the time and also worked with TEN- 8. Derek and Rhonda introduced us to Sandy Taylor, Principal Officer of the Economic Development Unit of the Birmingham City Council.   We discussed FotoFest's experience with cultural tourism and the enhancement of Houston's image, something Birmingham was also perusing.   It was a time of massive changes that would transform a decaying industrial city into a modern brick and glass commercial center. Unfortunately, TEN -8 folded and Derek Bishton moved to London. But Rhonda remained in Birmingham and merged Rhubarb Rhubarb, with Seeing the Light , a training agency dedicated in part to developing new photographic talent. This history makes Birmingham and the rise of its photography and imaging festival of particular interest to us.   Fred and Wendy have attended a number of Rhubarb festivals, which grow stronger and more international with each edition.

 

Photographs made with Leica Digilux 2

 

Rhubarb Rhubarb's decision to concentrate on their three-day portfolio review has provided the festival with a fast growing reputation.   It's an important international photo opportunity for photographers as well as those who want to know what's going on in a rapidly expanding world of imaging.   Europe now has so many photography festivals - 17 in France alone - that some reviewers complained that it's now necessary to be very selective, deciding which are geared for a local audience and which have a broader reach and perhaps higher quality work available. It must be said that charm, comfort and accessibility to good food are also important criteria for attracting reviewers.

Rhubarb's portfolio review has been going for six years and from our point of view, is among the best. The 20 minute portfolio review, developed by FotoFest and now the standard, was well run and easy going.   It provided us with closer links to UK book publishers and other international professionals. As happened in 2003, this year we found several artists who are being considered for exhibition in the FotoFest Biennial, now FotoFest 2006.

Both photographers and reviewers seem relaxed at the Birmingham portfolio review.   Partly this is due to easy logistics. The site of the reviews is a well-lit ultra modern facility called The Orange Studio close to the hotel.   It's a five minute dash from the sumptuous hotel breakfast to work at the portfolio review. Breakfast, my favorite meal, was replete with everything the doctor has forbidden including that great British specialty, bangers. And for those allergic to British coffee, Starbucks provided relief next door. Life couldn't have been better.

The other relaxing part of reviewing a minimum of 12 photographers a day is the encouraging level of good photography, a few outstanding ones and a handful of beginners.   The photographers at Rhubarb generally tend to have good manners, and they are easy going. The payment for one day is £200 (US$252) for a day's session. Two days is £350, and three is £450.

Although each Rhubarb has provided more and better exhibitions, Birmingham suffers from the problem of not having enough exhibition sites.   Several exhibits were held in one of the city's landmark new spaces, The Mail Box. Of particular interest, was the collaboration between the architecture components of Seeing the Light and 120 children from diverse cultural backgrounds with 42 different languages between them. Their work was shown with the well-known, classical British photographer John Blakemore. This project, Growing Light Village, provided an effective vehicle that both reflected the pride of the children's' communities and delivered an original and beautiful instillation.  

Natural Mystic was an exhibit of images of Bob Marley, the Reggae Superstar, by Dennis Morris at SNAP Galleries in the Custard Factory complex. There were two other shows but we didn't get a chance to see them.
Growing Light Village with John Blakemore and the children's work.

An important feature of the compact four-day itinerary was evening meals. The logistics of feeding 43 portfolio reviewers and untold numbers of photographers was a miracle of organization.   Platoons of photo aficionados were navigated to places with names like Rooty Frooty at the Custard Factory and Lazeez at the Mailbox after which many would retreat to the bar at the Burlington Hotel, our home away from home.   Bar life was convivial and it was possible to catch up on interrupted conversations, meet new people, and circulate - something that was more difficult in crowded noisy restaurants.

The Rhubarb Rhubarb photo auction, held in the Birmingham Hippodrome , has come a long way since the first one we attended in 2000.   However, the festival still depends heavily on the portfolio reviewers to buy the donated prints.   The auctioneer was again Celina Lunsford from Fotografie Forum International in Germany. Celina did a wonderful job and managed to pull £12,000 from the audience.   Lots of wine was served to stimulate sales but, according to Rhubarb staff, an earlier pre-event reception given for 125 prominent citizens of Birmingham didn't have the result they hoped.   Many of the Birmingham people didn't show up for the auction.   It takes a long time to create collectors! The internationalism of the event, however, is evidenced by the fact that the biggest prices and most intense bidding involved works by an Argentine artist, Paula Luttringer, and a Korean artist Hyung Geun Park.     

Celina Linsford runs the auction

After the auction we were treated to a most spectacular party at the Electric Cinema.   The disco launched "senior" portfolio reviewers onto the dance floor, where flashing colored lights and clouds of smoke transformed all into gyrating dance demons. On another level Rhubarb's guests were treated to a relaxing afternoon trip down one of the canals that once served the industrial needs of Birmingham during the heyday of the 19 th Century Industrial Revolution.       

Wendy Watriss reviewing

 

Rhubarb Rhubarb has become a major center of international photo and imaging activity in the U.K.   The 43 reviewers represented 11 countries and there were a sprinkling of photographers who had come from as far as Dubai, USA (Los Angeles), France, and Sweden.   At this point, Birmingham is seen as the major photography portfolio review in the country. Curiously nothing like it has managed to come together and survive in other places in the UK.   This is entirely due to the hard work and tenacity of Rhonda Wilson and her enthusiastic staff, headed by Lorna Mary Webb and their ability to connect Rhubarb Rhubarb to the aspirations of the city of Birmingham.

Fred Baldwin

Photographs taken with Leica Digilux 2