Report from Fred and Wendy on Bulgaria and Russia
In Russia we worked every day on selecting and shaping the Russian Pictorialism exhibit with the Deputy Director of the Visual Arts Department of the Russian Ministry of Culture, Evgeny Berezner, and his assistant Irina Tchymerva, who is on her way to being a remarkably talented photohistorian.
We spent three days reviewing an extraordinary private collection of vintage work from late 19th century and early 20th century of Russian Pictorialism. It is been put together over the past 20-30 years by one man. It is a collection that has never been in Western Europe or the US, and only slightly in Russia and East/Central Europe. It is beautiful and rare work, definitely museum quality. The work is about a strong but unknown period of photographic and visual arts in Russia before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. It was labeled 'bourgeois, decadent, and useless' by the Soviet government. The Communists banned the publication or exhibition of this photography, and its last, and best known practitioner, Alexander Grinberg thrown in prison for six years.
It is because of FotoFest's reputation and the importance of this kind of cultural exchange between the U.S. and Russia that this exhibit will happen. It is an outgrowth of the trip we made to Russia in May 2000 (hosted by Olga Siblova's Month of Photography) and many years of contacts with East/Central Europe and Russia. It will come at an important time in U.S.-Russia cultural relations. (We did have two breaks: a private tour of the Kremlin treasures with the chief curator who, incidentally, had brought the Kremlin gold exhibit to Houston and a recently re-opened Russian Orthodox monastery near Moscow.)
We were taken to have an interview with the very sophisticated Editor-in-Chief of the most important cultural newspaper in Russia, KULTURA. There will be an article about FotoFest and FotoFest 2002 in this newspaper.
The Russian Pictorialist exhibit is scheduled to go to Williams Tower gallery during FotoFest 2002.
We went to Bulgaria because there is an extraordinary new technology and photography center in Sofia set up by a group of young artists and, it turns out, an older generation of artists with whom we had worked in the past.
In the late 1980's Fred was contacted about FotoFest. Bulgarian artists and cultural organizations invited us to go to Bulgaria to look at work by younger artists and present an exhibit of Wendy's photography about the Vietnam War. At FotoFest 1990, we did an exhibit of five Bulgarian photographers and were able, with the help of New York foundations and USIA, to get travel money for all the artists and three other cultural leaders.
For most of them, it was their first time to the U.S. or outside the Soviet sphere of influence. With the help of Fulbright money, we sent two around the U.S. to universities and schools of photojournalism. As a result, National Geographic and the Missouri School of Journalism did a workshop there in 1993 with Reuters and a photojournalism course was set up at the Soros' funded new American University in Sofia.
We were told that the new center was an outgrowth of the opportunity that FotoFest had given these artists and cultural figures. Through contacts and the 'intellectual/artistic' opening that FotoFest provided, these people contacted European support systems and have started a very important and innovative center (KEVA) to encourage multi-media and photography work in Bulgaria.
They have made a cafe, meeting place, gallery, and technology support center for young artists in Bulgaria. They work with other artistic groups in Central and Western Europe as well as Russia.
We did two long days of portfolio reviews at the KEVA center in Sofia and met several writers and magazine editors. We saw some very good work. Most importantly, we discussed ways of showing what KEVA is doing with very little money (but a lot of talent) in using photography/video/and new technology as a way of stimulating creative work and thinking among young Bulgarians and providing a point of energy for the emerging capitalist society in Bulgaria. They do a monthly TV show as well as standing exhibits.
The two artists who are managing the center are proposing to create a 'virtual environment' for FotoFest 2002 to show what they are doing - a room with video and digital projections and sound. All our contacts said over and over again how influential FotoFest has been, and how many people's worlds had expanded because of FotoFest. Several of our earlier contacts are quite close to the new government and the new Prime Minister.
We have seen hundreds of people in the past nine months on three continents. One of the themes we have heard over and over again from curators, artists, patrons, critics in Buenos Aires to New York, London-Moscow, etc. is how important FotoFest has been: to international/national cultural exchange, to the lives of artists, and the expansion of the horizons of the visual art world.
People have referred to the values that they think FotoFest represents - integrity, respect for quality and creative energy, humanism and concern for people, a commitment to openness and social justice. Frankly, this is the kind of feedback that keeps our spirits alive and makes it all worth the struggle.