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FotoFest 2000 - N.P.R.'s All Things Considered
March 31, 2000

HOW: All Things Considered
DATE: March 31, 2000
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:


This is NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The city of Houston, Texas, is covered in photographs. Hundreds of photographers from around the world are showing their work in the lobbies of office buildings, restaurants, warehouses, department store windows, college campuses and, of course, galleries and museums, more than 100 venues in all The event is called FotoFest. It's been staged every two years since 1986, and it's become a place for unknown photographers to get noticed. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

At opening night at FotoFest, the streets of downtown Houston are filled with nearly 20,000 people.

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GOODWYN: Six bands play on outdoor stages, and massive projectors beam a montage of photographs six stories high on the walls of downtown buildings. Houstonians stroll in the cool, spring evening, maps in their hands, going from one show to another. The photographers they will see this year hail from Korea, Russia, the former East Germany, Brazil, every country in Scandinavia, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and the United States, more than 400 photographers in all.

Ten of them are from Korea. Thirty-seven-year-old Yung Kun Oh(ph) has brought a series of portraits of well-dressed, middle-aged Korean women. Each woman stands unsmiling on the streets of Seoul. Their faces and eyes are hard and angry. They seem almost to glare at the camera, but there is a sadness evident, too. Byong Chong Kiu(ph) is the co-curator of the Korean exhibition. Kiu says these women are called (foreign language spoken). They are the wives of the nation's salary men--corporate middle management--who work late and then go out afterwards.

Mr. BYONG CHONG KIU (Co-Curator, Korean Exhibition, Photo Fest): Many of Korea's salary men--most of men--middle-age men--they work very hard in the company. And they came late. They drink a lot. And they don't care of the housewives. So most of their faces portrays--it reflects their frustration and their not happy life.

GOODWYN: Kiu says Oh's portraits try to convey the feeling of being trapped in unhappiness. He uses the Korean word `han,'(ph) which he says means `a sadness so deep, no tears will come.'

This feeling of `han' is also present in the photographs of Byan Nieu Bi(ph) who at 50 is the oldest of the Korean photographers. Bi takes pictures of what is left of Korea's pine forest. Pine trees have a special place in Korean culture. To be compared to the evergreen tree is to be thought of as sincere. But Kiu says that during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, the Japanese army cut down almost all of Korea's pine forest for its war effort.

Mr. KIU: Many nice pine trees, which grow up very strong and straight, all were cut down around 1940s. So they left only the very bad pine trees. Really, that's true.

GOODWYN: What remained are the curvy, spindly trunks of the crippled trees. Bi photographs them early in the morning when they are often blanketed by a white fog. The trees are softened by the mist, the wavy trunks almost appear to be dancing with one another.

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GOODWYN: Half a world away from Leipzig in east Germany comes Hans Christian Schink. Schink takes an almost confrontational approach to his subjects. In the middle of one photograph sits a large mound. The oversized picture looks like an ancient burial mound, and at first glance one accords the photograph a certain amount of reverential respect. That's until you discover what you're really looking at; a big, round mound of top soil and trash left over from an autobahn construction that's simply been covered over in grass.

Then there's Schink's "Seahausen,"(ph) an enormous print. The picture is one huge wall of yellow with a very thin row of green grass at the bottom border. It's actually the side of a grocery store outside Leipzig. The way the garish, yellow wall dominates the pathetic strip of grass at the bottom makes for an amusing picture, but it's also as if Schink is saying that nature in East Germany never had a chance. Schink says his approach to photography is in some ways a reflection of the German spirit.

Mr. HANS CHRISTIAN SCHINK (Photographer): This is a direct, frontal approach--and when we say `frontal approach,' it also--also means a confrontational approach, which fits rights in the German psyche in many aspects. And since the Germans are not allowed any more to be aggressive any other way, so they sort of put it in their pictures.

GOODWYN: Schink's in your face style couldn't be more different from that of American Robin Hill. Hill's not really a photographer at all. She makes delicate, blue, photographic images by placing objects on light-sensitive paper. Hill describes the process she used to create "Flying Bag,"(ph) which looks like the outline of a blue butterfly photographed in the depths of a blue ocean.

Ms. ROBIN HILL (Photographer): In this piece that you're looking at here, those are shopping bags, translucent, white shopping bags. I did not take a picture of shopping bags. I took light-sensitized paper and placed shopping bags directly on the paper, exposed it to sunlight, took the bags away, washed the paper and got this imprint of the object.

GOODWYN: Hill is actually using an old photographic process called cyanotype. It was used by botanists in the 1800s to catalog their new specimens. Robin Hill has enjoyed critical acclaim in New York City, and had several showings of her work in galleries. She is hoping her exhibition at FotoFest will take her to the next level: a museum show.

Ms. HILL: Oh, I would love someone to come along and say, `Robin, I love your work and would really like you to do something in our museum for--and I would really like to commission you to do a new work.' I want another--it's a net. I feel like there's a big net here, and I hope I catch a fish.

GOODWYN: In addition to the exposure that Photo Fest offers the photographers whose work is being exhibited, there's also an opportunity for even less well-known to have their work seen. It's called the Meeting Place.

JAKE MOONEY (FotoFest Volunteer): : This session has ended. This session has ended. The 10:20 session will now begin, 10:20.

GOODWYN: Every 20 minutes, an airy auditorium on the campus of Rice University comes to life as photographers move from table to table to show their portfolios to reviewers who come from around the world.

Ms. MARY VIRGINIA SWANSON (Reviewer): Is your goal to be in galleries, in museums? So this work--is that the arena you make pictures for?

Ms. DEE DEE PETERS (Photographer): I think so. I would like to have representation, eventually.

GOODWYN: Twenty-nine-year-old Dee Dee Peters(ph) shoots the San Francisco Bay Area in black and white. She photographs abandoned train stations, housing projects about to be torn down, a graveyard of discarded city buses.

Ms. PETERS: I think there's a lot of loneliness in this. I don't consider myself a lonely person, but I may have lonely ideas, lonely thoughts and feelings that a lot of us have.

GOODWYN: Sitting at the table with Peters is reviewer Mary Virginia Swanson. Swanson markets photographs to publishers and magazines across the country. All of the reviewers at the Meeting Place are museum curators, gallery directors, publishers or collectors, each with the power to buy or exhibit the photographer's work.

Ms. SWANSON: So what interest you most is going to these spaces and seeing--I mean, is this story of what was left behind is interesting to you?

Ms. PETERS: Yeah. The--just--you know, the compression of time is the visitor's ability to see the difference, the layers of time in the photograph and the, you know, who left what where and to kind of--there's all these stories behind the picture.

Ms. SWANSON: Exactly. I mean, to me that--right away, they seemed like almost like illustrations of a piece of fiction. And there's a lot of ways you can market the pictures. Again, my--I think how I can best help you is not the gallery-museum arena, but how to possibly market these pictures that exist to new markets.

GOODWYN: The Meeting Place last for eight days, 12 sessions a day, more than 250 photographers being seen by 100 reviewers. Dee Dee Peters says that the reaction to her portfolio was encouraging. There were no firm offers, but she was told to expand her repertoire and keep taking pictures. Peters says that FotoFest opened her eyes to how much harder she's going to have to work if she's to make it. She seems determined.

Ms. PETERS: I can't see myself living and not making photographs. I have to make them. They make me feel good. I need to express what I feel inside.

GOODWYN: Peters saw 30 reviewers in all, and says she arrived back in San Francisco exhausted. She'll have plenty of time to recover. It will be another two years before the Meeting Place and the next FotoFest open their doors again. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Houston.

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