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FotoFest 2000 - The Washington Post: Tuesday, March 21, 2000 "Optical Profusion"
March 21, 2000

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2000; Page C01

HOUSTON FotoFest's photographers set the tone. They wear a lot of black, in the Hamlet style of '50s hipsters--a preoccupied and tentative bunch, like people listening to sample tracks in a music store. They have a way of staring at you as if to say: "Nothing personal, I was just interested in the light moving across your glasses."


They're hustling through a month of 100 exhibits. They're the shock troops of the bohemian armies that photography draws to dozens of festivals around the world nowadays--Paris, Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, Montreal. And the support brigades are the thousands of gallery owners, curators, collectors, professors, journalists.

This being Houston, there's no cozy, Old World ambling from gallery to atelier. Instead, tens of thousands of people drive cars or take FotoFest charter buses to venues scattered across miles of ex-swamp and prairie brightened just now by occasional azaleas: galleries, museums, restaurants, store windows, universities and office-building lobbies. They study portfolios spread out in bars, cafeterias, student lounges and hotel lobbies day and night.

How strange: Nothing picks the world apart like contemporary photography--its grim and lurid shapes and colors floating in time, lost in space, like souvenirs of a place you've never been. On the other hand, nothing gets together like the world of contemporary photography, at festivals like FotoFest here in a sprawl of depopulated streets--a city that looks not so much bombed out as bombed in, as if vast aircraft had dropped glass skyscrapers at random amid the tattoo parlors and weedy parking lots.

It's floating in time and lost in space, come to think of it. It looks like the photography it exhibits. Maybe this is why it keeps happening, despite an absence of the charm found at the sites of other festivals. It's been happening every two years since 1984--nothing else like it in America.

On FotoFest's opening night, you can sit downtown outside the Travis Cafe, eat great pizza and watch the Media Dance ballet troupe improvise to jazz on the sidewalk while a huge projector upstairs in the Old Cotton Exchange building flings pictures on a wall half a block away: Mauricio Alejo's "Tenedores/Forks," a sumptuous black-and-white study of a glass jar full of forks; or Chema Madoz's old-time surrealism in an untitled picture showing a stairwell with a cane for a railing; or the perfect, tiny pink dolls of Liliana Porter lost in glossy space.

The point of FotoFest is artists, and the work they're doing right now. In the Right Now of 2000, you see a lot of self-obsession, victimology and images that involve: masks, blurred trees, insect dreamscape creepiness, bruised women, ominous children, amputees, rocks, people crouching in corners, transsexuals recovering from elective surgeries, self-portraits of naked fat women--

A lot of contemporary work draws on the inherent morbidity of photography, which for 150 years has shown us casualties of lost time, Snow Whites sleeping in glass coffins built in 1/60 of a second and sealed forever.

When the morbid work at FotoFest is bad, you see a cliche. What the hell: This is a festival, not a museum show--a gathering of energy and Zeitgeist as much as pictures.

When it's good you forget the stereotype. You see, for instance, not a confused or abused child, but the erotic ambiguities of Sally Mann's pre-pubescent daughter pausing on a deck, wearing only a pair of white roller skates. O, thou still unravished bride of lassitude, thou foster child of silence and the decisive moment.

Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, the organizers of FotoFest, sit at sidewalk tables, eating, meeting and greeting.

"Photo festivals started in Europe," Baldwin says, stating that FotoFest is a blow against the control of photography in America by institutions--museums, universities, establishment galleries. "With all these shows, how could anybody control them all?" he asks. "What we discovered was that we're in the energy business. Creative energy. We learned that you find that energy by making things more democratic, more broad-based. The next step is the Internet."

FotoFest is already affiliated with 20 other festivals. A lot of the Internet sites show the work they've been putting up for years--the Paris Web site is particularly well stocked (, and festivals have become a year-round phenomenon, a global gallery walk, an intercontinental salon, a constructive anarchy. Such is the power of photography, whose mystery remains after the billionth art picture and trillionth snapshot.

Here in Houston, you find great stuff in the oddest places. The Korean exhibit in the vast, and coolly economic, lobby of the Williams Tower, for instance, shows the work of artists who have taken American irony and self-absorption and sent it back to us cleaned up and simplified in angry flash-lit portraits and foggy forest landscapes, a terrific show if you can find the way into the parking lot behind the building.

FotoFest makes no effort to gather stars. There are those who have the gift of fame, however. Local hero Keith Carter has it, to judge from the way he flings handshakes and smiles around like confetti at his opening at McMurtrey Gallery, on Colquitt Street. With that fame, he can photograph in a variety of genres and still be recognized for hanging a coherent body of work: dogs and horses, a European cityscape, a cloaked figure on a pediment, chrome balls on a floor, hard focus, soft focus, whatever.

So many of the photographers here would like to have this privilege. The art-photography market pushes artists to find one recognizable subject. William Wegman has achieved a national reputation with his dogs, and Diane Arbus did it decades ago with her freaks.

At the Barbara Davis Gallery, Suzanne Paul is represented by nothing but legs and feet. Tina Barney's family dramas ache with lonely color--you can see more of them in the archives at the Rotterdam FotoBiennale Web site,

The passion and excellence of the pictures throughout FotoFest is startling, even the portfolios of hobbyists and amateurs.

At a gallery called 708 Main at Capitol, in a group show called "Floral Visions," Stephen Meyers, a radiologist, presents flights of natural architecture in black-and-white prints of flowers, where the stems and veins look like plans for some new world-class dome or arena. The pictures turn out to be X-rays.

Walter Chappell runs electricity through plants, then photographs the sparks and glow. Carol Henry never takes a photograph of her flowers--she puts them in the enlarger and drives light through them to the printing paper, a one-of-a-kind process that destroys the plant but leaves a picture with a verisimilitude whose delicacy makes it all the more powerful. Marie Cosindas, an old-time pioneer in the Polaroid process, makes a rare gallery appearance with dye-transfer prints of roses-- the colors are so saturated they have a liquid and virgin quality, like freshly opened cans of perfect paint.

At the Houston Center for Photography, which shares a little strip mall (a major Houston architecture motif) with a dry cleaner, Valdir Cruz documents the Yanimamo and Yanomami people of the Amazon rain forest, with their painted faces transfixed by sticks, their sores and their poisoning by pollution. He avoids the tacky ennobling that has turned so many photographs of tribal peoples into propaganda. Instead he shows them with a look you see on tired street corners, a sullen knowingness that predicts cultural collapse: A boy leans against a pole while wearing rubber boots and a bathing suit. Cruz's honesty is daring and beautiful in itself.

Pavel Banka's "Whisperings" show two of the miracles of America as seen by Czech eyes: endless forests and endless ocean beaches. Didier Ben Loulou, a French Israeli, is master of every square micrometer of his red, brown, yellow and orange prints--faces, arms, walls, graves and fires touched sometimes with a little sky blue. His visions rise through the rubbish of contemporary photo cliches to make images with both heft and transcendence.

For sheer eye-joy and ice cream for the mind, I couldn't stay away from the digital pictures--not pictures colored or lightly altered with a computer in lieu of other tools, but digital pictures that couldn't be made with anything but computers, scanners and inkjet or laser printers.

They look like cartoons about thinking. They look like explanations of the meaning of red or edge. Surrealism and technology join to make an airless light and a jolly timelessness. They're funny. They look like sight gags about Heaven, alive with infinite possibility, with forests that have two sources of sunlight. You want three? Nine? Color has the confectionary heft you sensed as a little kid watching old Disney cartoons. Anything is possible with the computer, which simulates not just color but the quality of watercolor, oil paint, whatever you want. It also simulates paper surfaces, rough or smooth, glossy or matte.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom do their digital work together under the name of MANUAL. They're fond of puns and allegories about man and nature--a picture of an iris made with an Iris printer, for instance.

In "The Story of Water," at Moody Gallery, they use part of a Poussin painting of a scene at a well as background for a table bearing a transparent 20-sided geometrical figure called an icosahedron, which is the Pythagorean symbol for water. Inside is a colored model of a water molecule, H2O. Nearby is a glass of water. Why does it cast two shadows when the icosahedron casts only one?

How disquieting but how pleasant. You sense that you're not seeing reality through another lens, in the modern tradition, but seeing another reality through the same old lens.

At the Lawndale Art Center, a show by past and present students at the University of Houston has a couple of pictures by Claire Chauvin, one of them of something that isn't quite a twisted vine or a magnified thread or electrical cable, but something that seems more erotic. It has a feeling akin to the huge snake entwined with a nude Nastassja Kinski in the most popular dorm room poster of some years back. Some kind of animal here? No, it's stamped with "LF 642." The colors are mild earth tones but it jumps across the room at you with all its contradictions or odd light or who knows what.

"I don't take a photograph," Chauvin says. "I scan things right into the computer."

In other words, instead of scanning a photograph and storing it in a hard drive, she scans objects. The eros of LF 642 began with the scanning of a pink hair curler. With the computer, she changed the color from pink to brown.

Then she scanned the white of an egg, and overlaid the now-brown curler with it to get texture, shine and depth.

Computer software can simulate a huge range of hues in a variety of media--watercolor, oil, photography--applied to simulated textures, such as glossy paper, rough paper, canvas and so on.

Most important, though, new technology will create a new way of seeing things.

"When I first started scanning things, I didn't realize how beautiful the scanner light would be," Chauvin says.

This is the history of photography. Who realized how beautiful Kodachrome light would be? Or the strange flat light of Mathew Brady's world of colorless skies? Or the light trapped like a unicorn in the first miraculous daguerreotypes?

The mystery continues. So does the allure--digital, optical, hand-tinted, X-rayed, morbid, goofy, exhilarating. Ultimately, there's no more talking to be done.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard adds to our vocabulary with a pertinent statement found on the Paris festival Web site: "Let us replace the triumphant Epiphany of meaning with the silent Apophony of the object and its appearances."

Or as they say in Houston: What you see is what you get.

2000 The Washington Post Company