New York Photo Festival 2009 In Review

The New York Photo Festival occurred last weekend and I spent most of the days checking out all the exhibits and tending to my own little contribution in the form of an affiliated exhibition with myself and 25 other photographers. Check that out here.

My young family and the neglect they suffered as a result of time I had to put in during the lead up to the festival meant that I decided not to bother with the Industry schmoozing of the evening events and instead focused on just taking in the actual work that was on offer, which was quite enough to be going on with.

I also attempted to attend a couple of the talks, but failed miserably. In any case the one I was really looking forward to was canceled, (Curator and Foto8 top man Jon Levy on Sunday morning…though he had spoke on Saturday as well, which I missed as I thought I'd hear him Sunday...)

So anyway, on with the reviews...


BLOGGING

I did manage to make it to the panel discussion on blogging with Brian Ulrich, Cara Phillips, Laurel Ptak, Jorg Colberg and Andrew Hetherington. As someone who keeps a blog, I thought it only pertinent. A few issues were raised – on the fact that the internet has replaced face to face discussion between peers, that blogs can be used as propaganda for your own work, that writing a blog is time consuming and so forth. Cara Phillips pointed out that one problem with blogs and with the internet in general is the constant demand for new content. I agree. This particular blog originally started as a kind of online notebook, one which I had hoped a few other people would be able to contribute to. Before long I was feeling pressure to post new content regularly, as that’s what all the other blogs seemed to be doing. This false need has since subsided for me but I do see it as a problem for blogs. If you come to a new blog, how often do you read content beyond the most recent few posts? What happens to all the old posts? As Jorg Colberg pointed out, the accessibility of the archive is key here. Seems like bloggers need to become librarians of their content. As a closer to the discussion, an audience member stated that he thought blogs should exist alongside traditional media but should do what the print media cannot, in that personal opinions, short commentary and analysis can be quickly and widely disseminated, along with images and links to photographers and content that a printed daily, weekly or monthly may not have the space for. In short, blogs are useful and needed to be treated with care, both by their readers and by those who write them.

MAN OF THE MOMENT

The other presentation I was really hoping to attend aside from Jon Levy’s second of the weekend was Tim Hetherington’s – seeing as I had just seen his exhibit in the Umbrage Editions Gallery and taken a look at his recently published book on Liberia. I had my son in tow on Saturday and his nap time failed to coincide with the talks, and although Tim Hetherington gave another talk at Umbrage later that day, the place was so packed with bodies I couldn’t get near, let alone in the door. Thankfully, the (unrelated) Andrew Hetherington has the whole of the festival presentation on his blog. (see, blogs are great…)

Tim Hetherington speaks at the packed Umbrage Gallery

Tim’s short video piece in which he combines his photographs of sleeping soldiers with footage from a patrol in Afghanistan is very beautiful and tense, making good use of overlapping imagery and echoing audio snippets. Panic, pain and peace, the chaos of war and the hidden horrors are all conveyed very effectively but implicitly. It is no wonder there was a buzz surrounding this man. Hear a short interview with him conducted by Ronit Novak here.


Installation shots of Tim Hetherington's video work

THE SATELLITE SHOWS

As with last year’s festival, I was very curious about the satellite shows. Again, these were held in the Tobacco warehouse, a marvelous structure the architecture of which was promptly ignored by erecting a marquee in the centre and filling it with wooden boards on which the work was hung. I really hope the festival changes this format for next year. I know cost is the most prominent issue in regards to this way of presenting the work, but some pieces really would benefit from better care in the presentation. For example - and this was not the only one by far - my friend Francesca Cao had three pieces on display that seemed crammed into a corner while opposite a wall was taken up with (in my opinion) too many polaroids. These wooden walls give the work a slapdash throwaway feel, as if these photographs are somehow not very important. I don’t like that. These satellite shows are an essential part of this festival (indeed it is elements like this that make it a festival rather than simply 4 coinciding exhibits) and should be shown a bit more respect. At least paint the walls!

That said, the good photography transcended it’s presentation and shone through. Here are a few favourites:

Jessica Todd Harper

Tiana Markova-Gold

Manuela Bohme

From the collection of Veronique Bouquin

Myrto Papadopoulos

JODY QUON

The same criticism about presentation could be leveled to one of the main pavilions – Jody Quon’s ‘I don’t really know what kind of girl I am’. Those wooden walls are really bad...

There were artist’s presented here whose work I don’t really like, and putting Mondongo’s work next to Edith Mayben’s just heightened the pedophiliac atmosphere pervading these two sections. To Edith Mayben I say ‘Young girls will blossom into sexually mature women. I get it, I don’t need you to photoshop your daughter’s head onto your body to tell me that fact. It’s really unnecessary, thanks’. To Mondongo I say ‘Just what exactly is your point?’ Jake and Dinos Chapman do this kind of pre-pubescent disturbing sexual in your face provocative art much much better, though why people feel the need to overlay childhood with adult sexuality is beyond me. It tells me much more about the grown up artist’s own personal psychological makeup than it does about anything else.


Mondongo’s structure next to Edith Mayben’s photo illustrations

By far my favourite work here was Rene and Radka’s. These were very much like stills from a modern day fairy tale. These surreal images contained both the innocent playfulness of youth with the often dark and overwhelming nature of the world we grow up in. I found them to be both beautiful and disturbing in a way which Mayben’s or Mondongo’s were not. Rene and Radka’s were more subtle and ambiguous and much richer for it.




I was also surprised by David Sherry’s work. On first glance I dismissed it, but I returned again, compelled for some reason to look at them. The psychedelic colours were initially off putting but lodged themselves in my mind and triggered something, as I found myself travelling through time and space to imagined worlds, prehistoric perceptions and future flights of science fiction tinged fancy. Either the work has more depth than it first presents, or I was having an acid flashback. Either way it was temporarily very pleasant.

I’m not sure what all of this has to do with girl/womenhood though. I guess there are some things about the fairer sex that will ever remain a mystery to me.

WILLIAM A. EWING

William A. Ewing created for himself a neat curatorial loophole in that his selection is entitled ‘All over the place’. So it is. There is no linking theme, no attempt to direct the viewer, no nothing. Just a selection of work from a selection of photographers. Amazing. The best thing about this exhibit was ‘The Flow’ where anyone with an internet connection could upload an unlimited number of images to be projected, unedited, throughout the festival. Great idea. Shame it was tucked into a corner of the Powerhouse arena. That one projection says more about what Ewing was trying to do that anything else in his entire contribution. After trawling through the literally geographically all over the place rooms in which his selection was exhibited I saw a few interesting pieces of work but I have absolutely no idea how the photographers were selected or for what purpose. Though this was perhaps the point, it seemed as random as the projection occurring over in Powerhouse. He perhaps should have just left it at that…

Gabriel Michel projected as part of 'The Flow'


Kevin Newark

Matheiu Gofsau

A close up of a Matheiu Gofsau print (too pristine to be unretouched?)

Tiina Itkonen

Jacob Holt

Some of the photography in this section of the festival was very very bad. And I know that is just my opinion, but I wasn't the only person to think that - I mean, for example, is this really pushing the boundries of what photography can do?


CHRIS BOOT

The other two headline Curator’s shows I enjoyed immensely. One of which I didn’t expect to at all. Chris Boot’s 'Gay Men Play' was a surprise hit for me. I forced myself to go see this show as I personally have no interest in gay men or how they play. Just as golf is something I can see people enjoy but will never appeal to me personally, so gay sex is something I’m sure is a lot of fun if you’re gay but for those of us who are not…well…

So I expected to be left cold by what I saw but to my surprise I found myself thinking my god these are great portraits! I was looking at the work of Stefan Ruiz, which made up the bulk of the show. Despite the fact that these men were dressed (or undressed) in varying degrees of bondage gear they each seemed to have a life beyond the superficial nature of their attire (and sexual orientation). I expected these portraits power to hinge on the subcultural aspect of those being portrayed but instead the opposite was true. Quite simply these were respectful, humanistic portraits. After a while I noticed that they were printed on a canvas material, which in a certain light gave them a slight sheen. In light of the exhibition’s theme, I thought this was a clever touch.

A selection of Stefan Ruiz portraits


Detail of 'Rubbertotal' by Stefan Ruiz

The other part of this show was much closer to what I had expected. Presented as an installation, accessible through a metal beaded curtain evoking a sex shop entrance, this darkened room had a padded seat strewn with gay porn magazines and was wallpapered with Christopher Clary’s collection of internet sourced porn images. Several monitors situated around the room displayed slideshows of photographs taken by several different photographers. I didn’t hang around more than a few minutes, as the few pictures that I saw displayed didn’t instantly grab my attention though from the brief selection I saw, I think Steven Miller’s work deserved more attention than I gave. The wallpaper didn’t help with my concentration though.

Christopher Clary's installation room

Steven Miller

JON LEVY

Finally, Jon Levy’s ‘Home for good’ was the standout show for me. In my opinion it was head and shoulders above anything else there. I am a big fan of Foto8 so my expectations were high. I can’t say I was disappointed. It helps that the documentary style so prevalent throughout Foto8 is akin to my own personal taste in photography. This aside, I thought the work was well presented. There seemed to be some thought and care put into how best to exhibit each photographer’s work, for example the ceiling hung scrolls of Bruno Stevens' work and Chris Killip's photographs reproduced as Isle Of Man stamps. Jon Levy also had the best space in which to work with – the Dumbo Arts Center – and this comfort added to the ability to properly take in the work.

The 'Home For Good' Exhibit

Chris Killip's photography reproduced on stamps


Louie Palu's juxtoposition of soldiers and factory workers


Seba Kurtis

The other exhibits all suffered from their presentation in some way, but not so here. My only complaint was that Simon Robert’s large prints were placed in a couple of odd places, meaning that I didn’t notice them at first, and with two of them hung behind a chair and a sofa it was a little difficult to examine them closely.

I also appreciated the fact that a table had been set up with some peripheral materials cited as influential to the exhibit and to Foto8 in general. It helped place the work on show here in a wider context.


AFFILIATED EXHIBITIONS & OTHER PHOTOGRAPHS

The festival also had a couple of affiliated exhibitions. The Caption gallery was showing work by Corey Arnold shot while on board a crab trawler. Some beautiful seascapes, accomplished portraits and humourous goings on were juxtaposed with thoughts from Arnold’s diary. Corey Arnold is a friend of a friend and apparently a very nice guy. Judging by these photographs, he is also a skilled photographer.


The Henry Gregg Gallery contained an exhibition of photographs on the theme of Climate Change. In my mind, a very difficult subject to photograph effectively and although there was one too many photographs of Polar Bears, the show had some powerful and moving images and did a damn good job of highlighting the accelerated damage we are doing to our world.

Of course, Dumbo is also home to the VII photo agency and their gallery is usually worth checking out. The exhibit here was a series of photographs from Afghanistan by the late Didier Lefevre. Afghanistan is a popular focus for photography these days, but these beautifully printed photographs are not only excellent but hail from a time when Afghanistan was of little interest to the western media. The reason for this exhibit now is the publication of a graphic novel telling the story of Lefevre’s trip to the country in 1986 with a MSF team. Put it on your wishlist.


I also dropped by Greg Miller’s open studio. I took a class of his a couple of years ago and he has always been very supportive so it was good to see him getting some extra traffic from the festival. Andrew Hetherington commented that he thought there would be room for a New York Photo Fringe Festival, with events such as this taking place. I think this is a great idea and there is certainly the space in Dumbo for the area to be taken over by photography once a year…

After all of that I needed a beer, so Sunday afternoon was spent at the Dumbo General Store, enjoying the company of some friends, running after my son as he rushed around and meeting some new people as they passed through. As this was where the Timezones exhibit was situated, I also got a chance to get some feedback on this show, and get a little ego boost from the positive words that many people offered.

As with any festival, this year’s NYPH was a mixed bag, with everybody finding something they liked and something they hated. That’s the way these things are. If I had one request however, it would be that the festival organizers dropped their tagline ‘The future of contemporary photography’. I really think that’s just raising expectations and leaving yourself wide open to criticism, as well as seeming to narrow your focus. Not only does it become redundant when some of the work on display comes from 30 years or more ago, but in order to claim something like that, you really have to blow people’s minds with something new and fresh, and while I saw some great stuff, I don’t think I saw the future anywhere.

My son gets exhausted reviewing photography...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Rene and Radka prints, and many other prints throughout the festival were digital noise nightmares!

Anonymous said...

The art is in the printing...

Sean said...

This is a very indepth review - thanks for this; very informative. Excellent images of the exhibitions / displays. I take from all this that photography was allowed!

Best, Sean.

Tom White said...

Photography seemed to be allowed - plenty of people were snapping away and I didn't see anyone complaining!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the displaying of prints at the tobacco warehouse. But money was the issue here. Framing and display of an image is very critical and as you rightly say they should have atleast painted the boards!

Tom White said...

As an art teacher once said to me - 'If people are looking at the walls your work isn't good enough.' The good work did shine through but I do believe that with just a little more care and attention the presentation problems would not have been an issue at all. The work didn't necessarily need frames or mounts but like I say, some of it looked very slapdash...