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FotoFest 2000 - The New York Times: April 30, 2000
April 30, 2000

Forum Join a Discussion on Artists and Exhibitions

The New York Times

HOUSTON -- While new media advance faster than the century, photography, a 19th-century product of the Industrial Revolution, continues to blanket the earth. Threatened repeatedly by newer discoveries like moving pictures, television, video and the Internet, it refuses to disappear. In March, Fotofest, the biennial photography festival in Houston, presented strong evidence that the still camera, and specifically a festival devoted to it, continue to play important roles on both local and international levels.

On the local level, Fotofest has contributed to both the increasingly lively Houston art scene and the revival of the city's downtown. Reinvigorated downtown areas are popping up all over America even as suburbs get bigger, and many of these renewals have been jump-started or furthered by artistic enterprises.

For several years, Fotofest concentrated its shows in a convention center; in 1996 it decided to move out into Houston's moribund downtown, not yet recovered from the oil crisis of the 70's. There were already some signs of life there. Performing arts groups, like the Houston Grand Opera and the Alley Theater, had long been in the heart of downtown, and a couple of enterprising artists and galleries, both nonprofit and commercial, had moved into fringe areas like the warehouse district in search of space at reasonable prices. Fotofest, working with the Houston Downtown Management District and the Downtown Historic District, took over some long-abandoned spaces, patched them up and mounted photography shows. Then the festival staged an evening round of openings, filling the streets of the city with lights, music, art and crowds.

Proof that people would come into the heart of Houston caught the attention of developers, who moved in. Fotofest, put out of business at some sites, looked for new territory. In March, the festival's directors persuaded Foley's Department Store, the last of its kind downtown, to give its windows to 17 local artists working in various media; shoppers, passers-by and people waiting for the bus got a dose of art instead of Capri pants or Cuisinarts.

Art swiftly proved itself more problematic than pants. A window by the photographer Bill Thomas, based on Foley's early and uneventful desegregation of its lunchroom, included a large photograph of a black man and a white man standing on a seesaw, each with a noose about his neck. The department store, saying that a handful of its black employees found this image offensive, covered it with a black cloth. Once again art became both a flash point and a target.

Yet art can potentially encourage not just commercial development and active city life but also real civic spaces, where citizens of all ages and many walks of life may rub shoulders. In Houston, this has been brilliantly realized by the Grand Opera's simulcasts to the plaza just outside the opera house, where families, singles and couples hang out, picnicking and enjoying the opera for free.

As to the international side of things, Fotofest has brought Houston international tidings ever since it began in 1986. Most photography festivals, though they may concentrate on their own nation's talent, pay some heed to the fact that photography has been an international enterprise from its inception and has widened its scope with every change in the medium. This year's Fotofest, which had a few exceptionally fine shows by Americans, including a survey of Photo League pictures from 1936 to 1951 and a moving photo essay on birth and death by Osamu James Nakagawa, continued to bring to light work from lands that are often ignored.

The biggest news was an exhibition of 10 contemporary Korean photographers. This is the first generation that could travel and study abroad relatively freely; it moved Korean photography beyond document into self-expression. Jungjin Lee's large, close-up images of natural forms like rocks and roots, printed on handmade rice paper, manage to be simultaneously strong, delicate and vaguely mysterious. Bohnchang Koo's oversize photographs appear to be immense skies and oceans printed on paper so flecked with age marks that the image and nature itself might be slowly succumbing to time. In fact, they are pictures of painted walls that age and weather have irreparably marked. Gabchul Lee's photographs of isolated individuals engaged in rituals speak of spiritual yearning, emptiness and sorrow.

Most of the photographers in this show had never been to America. Fotofest arranged for seven of them to travel here, where several both gave and received what amounted to photographic revelations. Mr. Koo was so encouraged by the response to his work that he is considering giving up teaching to put all his energies into his art.

Photography festivals are themselves an international phenomenon of the last 20 years. Just about every day there seems to be a photo festival somewhere in the world -- in Japan, Switzerland, Mali, Ecuador. The establishment of such a festival signals that there is enough cultural, commercial or governmental interest in the medium to justify a large investment of time, space and money. In some places that level has been reached only recently. The FotoBiennale Rotterdam and the Odense Foto Triennale in Denmark are just beginning; the Xposeptember Stockholm Fotofestival and the Month of Photography in Moscow began in the second half of the 1990's.

In America, photography has been entrenched in art and cultural life since the mid- to late 1970's and has steadily enlarged its position since then. Photography in many other countries has been less recognized, less vital, less opportunistic. The Soviets clamped down on it as they did on the other arts, and it was not until Communism fell that citizens of the former Soviet Union began to see even their own historical photography. In 1989, the 150th anniversary of photography's discovery, there was only one photography magazine in all of Mexico; today there is not only a photographic museum but three festivals as well, in Mexico City, Xalapa and Guadalajara.

Sometimes a successful festival has galvanized and unified photographers or convinced the government that photography deserved support. Jean-Luc Monterosso, who founded Paris's Mois de la Photo, the world's first photo festival, in 1980, installed a branch of the Mois in Bratislava in 1991. This exhibition of French photographers was so successful that the Slovakians decided they could mount their own festival of their own photographers, and so they have ever since. Mexico City saw its first Fotoseptiembre in 1993; Mexico's first museum dedicated to photography, the Centro de la Imagen, opened the following year. Russia's experience was similar: the first Month of Photography occurred in 1996, the Moscow House of Photography opened two months later.

estival directors, naturally enough, keep up with one another. Fred Baldwin, president of Fotofest, suggested to 22 directors who had been collaborating informally since 1994 that if they got together on the Web their festivals would reach unlimited audiences, and the photography to which every director is heavily committed could pulsate through the ether without cease.

Thus was born the Festival of Light 2000 and its Web site,, which gathers together 22 festivals from 16 countries throughout the year, some already closed, some yet to come. The site is still in process; a few festival calendars are not yet posted, and a couple do not yet have up the 6 to 10 photographs that serve as a limited introduction to each festival's exhibitions. The site does have a list of other festivals and links to other art sites and soon will be able to translate all the information into Spanish. Fotofest put snapshots of Houston openings and events online each day, rather limited as vicarious experiences go, and will also post images taken during the Moscow festival and some others.

Marcel Bluin, who founded the Montreal Mois de la Photo and who has produced a CD-ROM that functions as a virtual museum of Quebec photography, is looking into the possibility of producing an international virtual museum of photography based on images shown in festivals. Authors' rights will be the biggest issue, here as elsewhere on the Internet. The Festival of Light Web designers are also trying to find a way to duplicate Fotofest's Meeting Place, where photographers submit portfolios for criticism by established photographers, curators and critics.

Photography has a lot in common with the Internet. Both are information systems, and both bridge distances and democratize access to data. In the 19th century, photography inaugurated or at least vastly augmented armchair travel, making it infinitely broader, cheaper, more varied and more credible than prints and drawings had. Mountains, forests and buildings sailed across the sea in miraculous numbers with miraculous ease.

Advances in photographic technology and related media have usually increased photography's capacity to provide or distribute information. The invention of photography democratized portraiture and visual data; the invention of the hand camera and the Kodak democratized image making; the invention of the half-tone democratized the visual communication of news and of art. The point-and-shoot camera has democratized technical competence, making in-focus pictures available even to know-nothings. Photography was already the most democratic of the arts, and now computers are democratizing it to a fare-thee-well, perhaps to the individual photographer's detriment, as images become a snap to alter and to steal.

Photography festivals are themselves information systems, their principal information being photography: information about information.

Now art of all varieties can traverse the globe on zeroes and ones. The Festival of Light 2000 is one of many current attempts to join the new with the newer.

The Net did not initially have much room for photography and as often as not still takes its time to welcome it to sites where words have already landed. Yet the Festival of Light Web site has had close to 14,000 visitors since it went online in December, some from China, Ecuador, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates. There are people out there still passionate about photography in an era that claims to be passing it by, and there are plenty of photographers just panting to rush to their embrace.