Quick Thoughts on NY Photo Festival

The New York Festival wrapped up on Sunday and there has been mixed feedback.

The New Yorker had a nice write up online of Fred Ritchin’s show, which I was very happy to be a part of. I thought Fred did an amazing job of curating a show that didn’t just present work but strengthened each body of work through how they played off one another. Seeing my own webcam images displayed next to Michael Wolf’s Google Street View series made me look at my work differently. Marc Garanger’s portraits of Algerian women in the early 1960’s who were forced to remove their veils by the French Army for identity card photos were very moving. Ritchin, quoted by the NY Times, explained “This work is very important because of the visual rape of the women who were forced to appear uncovered…You feel a distress, a defiance, an anger, a vulnerability because they’re not used to showing their face outside their immediate family.”

Vanity Fair had a positive write up of this year’s festival which has only been going on for three years:

…the guest-curated exhibitions at the first two iterations were largely of dubious quality and sloppy conception, marked by a frustrating randomness and a cast-off air. But as Wednesday night’s debut revealed, this year the highlights outweigh the lows, thanks to the incisive visions of four insightful curators: Vince Aletti, Erik Kessels, Fred Ritchin, and musician Lou Reed.

Erik Kessels’ “Use Me, Abuse Me” seemed to be the most controversial show at the festival. The work ranged from a 10-foot tall photo sculpture to home-made pottery decorated with humorous found images. I didn’t understand all of the work and I’m totally okay with that. What I appreciated was seeing other artists working with the still image in ways I hadn’t considered. It was also nice to see some humour.

PDN’s Holly Hughes notes:

The festival’s four main galleries – called “pavilions” – feature so much strong work and provocative imagery that it seems quibbling to note that some of the shows in which these images appear lack coherent themes…In the festival’s third year, it may be time to give up trying to glean any significance in the juxtaposition of the images. Maybe the best way to approach the festival is just to poke around and see what’s cool.

Over at A Photo Editor, most of the comments are negative: “…this year seemed overly conceptual, gimmicky even, with a lack of true beauty…”. “Academic photography has nothing to do with making good pictures.”

On her blog, Stella Kramer (a former editor at magazines like Sports Illustrated and People) writes:

I’ve always wondered why the festival seems so out of touch with the photo community that I exist in. I would love more photographers of all genres to have the chance to show their work, leaving some of the high brow academic art photography in the background…I always come looking for surprises and leave feeling strangely unmoved.

I happen to think there was a wide-range of photography represented and far more surprises than one would find in most publications. There are photo festivals that focus on much more traditional documentary work but that’s not what the New York Photo Festival is trying to do.

I do agree with Stella that outside projections would be great but from what I understand, doing things outside in public spaces in NYC requires more permits and money. I am surprised that the city isn’t more supportive of the festival – Rob Hornstra had a few posters wheat pasted on a construction scaffold and the city made him take those down. It would be great to have a nice outdoor bar/cafe at the end of Main Street or in the Tobacco Warehouse. I was very disappointed in the Lou Reed exhibit and while I like the work that Vince Aletti curated, I felt it wasn’t presented well (I wonder if it was Vince’s choice or a matter of $$$).

For me, this year’s highlights were higher than in past years and the low points were still pretty low. I wish there was more of an integration between Dumbo and the festival. It would be great if there was work on display in public spaces.

So, what do people want? Yeah, cheaper tickets and portfolio reviews and no tech problems. Obviously, things need to run smoother…The whole festival experience should be more welcoming…Press previews should start on time…Festival catalogues should be available from the start. But what about some suggestions that the organizers might not have thought of? Four years ago, there was no NY Photo Festival and while the current festival still needs work, I had a blast wandering around Dumbo, bumping into friends, seeing work I was unfamiliar with. Rencontres D’Arles has been around since 1970. Houston FotoFest started in 1986. This year is the 23rd year of Visa Pour l’Image. I wonder what the NY Photo Festival will be like 20 years from now. Some thoughtful, constructive feedback might help make next year’s festival better.

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12 Responses to Quick Thoughts on NY Photo Festival

  1. JD says:

    I think the sad reality is just that the NYPF is not well respected visa vi other photography festivals, ala Fotofest, Photolucida or even the just as new Fotoweek in Wash. DC. Obviously there are so many different variables it’s hard to pin down, but if I had to pick just one thing, it would be authenticity. I would say the vibe I get is that the folks who run it – their heart’s are just not really in it. ie, I dont get the feeling that this is all being done for the love of the actual work there. The whole enterprise feels like one big exercise in publicizing Powerhouse and/or the DUMBO scene, it feels like it wants to be on “The City” or those parties the Sex and the City girls goto. It is about the couturiers in that world, and all the priorities are to promote something or part you from your money – their “concierge” service for their portfolio reviews being the epitome of their real priorities -something every other one does as a basic matter of course, but here you have to pay extra for “special” treatment in NY.

    Now I dont know if its necessarily the worst photo festival in the country, but just ask the real diehards who goto all the reviews/festivals around the country, and they’ll tell you the NYPF sure comes to mind. Last year’s debacle with printing out thumbnail photos of people’s work like Amy Steins is proof positive they don’t even take care of their “base” LOL. What’s that joke? There is no such thing as bad press? – That’s the mentality here.

  2. I like Burn too, but it’s a different experience looking at images on a computer monitor and at the end of the day, there is still someone deciding which photos run on the site and which don’t. There are “gatekeepers” at photo festivals, Burn, museums, magazines, galleries…I guess it’s just finding one who is into what you do. It was easy, free and painless getting work in the NY Photo Festival and I didn’t have to go near a tuchus!

  3. JB says:

    I dunno James, haven’t really been to many of them. I think technology has become a new way to democratize photography in that we can all share our work, create communities, form discussions. Any photographer with a strong voice can express it through their own blog or other such individual effort with a little motivation and gumption. We can publish our own books, even raise money on kickstarter to create funding for projects.

    On the physical side, you and I live in NYC and can go to dozens of museums and galleries. If we get up the nerve we can even call up some photographers we admire, possibly share work in person, become friends. This is something I plan to work on.

    Something like Burn magazine stands out as a good example of the intersection of community, creativity and technology: no cost of entry, democratic and very high in quality.

  4. Hi JB,
    Are there any festivals that are okay or are they all awful things in your opinion? Which photo festivals do you approve of and what makes them ok?
    I don’t think having work in NYPH means the artist was seeking validation. Personally, I want the work I make to be seen because then there can be a conversation about the issues I am trying to consider in my work. It’s hard to have that conversation if nobody has seen the work.
    Which work did you like at the festival this year?

  5. JB says:

    I mean to say that I’m sure some of the photographers represented in the festival are doing some good work. I remember seeing a couple good presentations last year. But good photographers do not really NEED a NYPH for validation, they will go and do what they do by force of will and their own creativity.

    ‘laps’ and ‘lap dogs’ – I mean the ‘laps’ being the editors / taste makers / gate keepers who love to be catered to, courted and praised and the ‘lap dogs’ being the photographers who focus more on ingratiating themselves to these people, entering contests, tuchas-kissing, fawning over, etc. to get a foot in the door.

    To me the NYPH seems like an orgy of this cycle. (one that takes place in Mr. Power’s eponymous ‘Arena’, which smacks of something erected by the Roman Emperor)

    I know from my personal experience that turning my energy away from this dynamic towards learning, shooting, passion for my subjects and self-understanding has been far more productive.

  6. Hey JB
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I’m a bit confused by your 3rd paragraph. Who do you mean by “individual photographers” and the “laps and the lap dogs”?

  7. JB says:

    I am not surprised by Mr. Power’s tin-eared response above. Are you implying that all the people who found the festival fundamentally “underwhelming” (to quote Stella Kramer) just didn’t ‘get it’ because it wasn’t the same ‘ol photo-j / Ansel Adams stuff?

    why is there no public acknowledgment of the many, many problems of NYPH despite 3 years of tinkering already?

    With the exception of the individual photographers and their work, the photo world as represented here appears to be nothing but the ‘laps’ and the ‘lap dogs’ and does more to stifle creativity and expression than nurture it.

    Personally, my ‘goal posts’ are far, far away from this scene.

  8. Rob Hann says:

    Some of the “mostly negative” comments on APE were mine. I did try to balance them with a little positivity. It is good that the festival exists (no mean feat) and DUMBO is a great location for it. I guess my optimistic anticipation was always likely to be somewhat dashed. In previous years there were at least 2 or 3 things that excited me. This year’s offerings were mostly not my thing but no doubt moved other attendees. I hope the organizers take note of the complaints (disastrous Awards ceremony, overpriced portfolio review etc) and address problem areas. I will look forward to next year’s festival with renewed optimism!

  9. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and reply.
    Here’s to a great, construction-free 2011 NYPH!

  10. Daniel Power says:

    Nice blog. You’re very right in assuming we don’t try to cater to or incorporate all facets of photography; we choose 4 curators and several invited satellites to showcase the every expanding boundaries of what’s being done with photography. Other festivals do the photo-j thing or the best of, but frankly, it’s been done and can get boring. What’s new, where are the goal posts being moved to? That to me is intriguing, and it may take more rigor to make sense of it, but the pay off is being challenged in your beliefs and what you find “beautiful”.

    Dumbo has been supportive, and yes it would have been great had there not been street work, but moving NYC to delay or alter things planned for years ago is next to impossible. On positive note we have a great new partnership with the Brooklyn Bridge Development Corp.—you heard it here first!—so look for more integration southward.

    Thanks for the recap, and keep up the great work!

    DP, NYPH Chair

  11. Hey Bryan,
    Thanks for the thoughts. I agree about the online community. I know there was some difficulty for some europeans because of that volcano thing and of course, economic issues always factor in.

  12. Nice write up. We totally missed the Bodies in Motion exhibit, which sucks. It was kind of confusing getting around and figuring out where everything was. Probably our fault but all the construction didn’t help either. I mean come on, how welcoming is it when you’re walking around a complete construction zone that smells like tar?

    Another issue was that the lighting was terrible in a few of the exhibits.

    I was a big fan of Use Me Abuse Me. Amen to Lou Reed, but man, it’s hard to stand and page through books at something like this.

    I think Stella’s comment is interesting because there are so many ‘photography communities’ these days that almost everyone could make the same type of comment. It felt out of touch with the photography community I know too!

    I think one big thing they could do is really make a better effort of connecting with the internet community. I don’t know in what form, but I think there are opportunities to bring together more interested parties that connect internationally through the web. I’m not sure my friends in Europe really even knew about it or cared very much. Maybe they shouldn’t 🙂

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