Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughts on LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

I just returned from a weekend spent down in Charlottesville, Virginia at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. It was my first time attending, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The festival, or just plain "Look" as it's known, is billed as "three days of love, peace and photography." I definitely think that description fits in with the festival's origins, which everybody knows is the legendary backyard slide projections hosted by National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols. That small gathering has evolved into a full-fledged photography festival featuring the work of dozens of photographers in various exhibitions and nightly projections. The "3" in LOOK3 does not refer to this being a three-day festival, or even that it is in its third year. It refers to the fact that there are three "legacy artists" that are honored each year. The first year, 2007, featured Eugene Richards, William Albert Allard and Sally Mann. Last year it was Joel-Peter Witkin, Mary Ellen Mark and James Nachtwey. This year it was Sylvia Plachy, Martin Parr and Gilles Peress. Sadly, Look is taking next year off, the goal being to return in 2011 bigger and better than ever and with more funding. You can get the backstory on that here. I definitely hope to return in 2011.

It was very hard for me not to compare Look to Visa pour l'Image, which is a photojournalism festival I attended last year in Perpignan, France. Both festivals revolve around the centrally located area of their respective pedestrian/historic districts, with various exhibitions in dynamic venues and nightly amphitheater-style projections. Here are some thoughts:

--I went into Look knowing a LOT more people. I showed up at Visa solo, a total stranger. So for me, Look felt a lot more like a reunion with old photographer friends. Look definitely reminded me of one of the NPPA Flying Short Course events I attended in college and when working at my first newspaper job in the late 90s. At Visa, initiating conversation with folks was a lot of work. For me, Visa was just as much about sightseeing and being a tourist as it was about seeing great photography.

--For Visa, think "Castle near the River." Look is simply, "Main Street Pedestrian Mall." One is not better than the other, I'm simply listing this early on sort of give you a visual since I don't have any pics to post. Look was all centrally located, everything within a couple hundred yards. Visa was also centrally located but spread out more and required a bit more walking.

--I think it takes a while to get the feel of a festival. Both at Visa and Look, a big part of my experience was just getting to know the lay of the land. I really had to soak it in for a few days, I'm only just now able to sit down and reflect. There's no way I would have wanted to blog from either place. That being said, I could go back now to either place and know exactly where I'd have my first meal, where I'd stay, etc.

--In general, I was more impressed with the exhibitions at Look than at Visa. The exhibitions at Look were all pretty bold, I thought. Each one was totally different from the others. Many of them felt more like photographic installations than traditional photography exhibitions. Plachy's show, "Waiting," felt like it was in the art classroom of an old school. Parr's show, "Luxury," was in a high-end boutique showroom; Peress's show, "Natures Mortes," felt like it was inside a basement morgue. Nachtwey had a show about tuberculosis that was strewn with mosquito nets. I probably spent the most time at the World Press Photo winners exhibit, which was laid out very nicely. For the most part, the exhibitions at Look were roomier and airier whereas at Visa it felt very crowded, like hordes of people milling around looking at work in a museum. Even though the cafe/street scenery and narrow streets of Perpignan are charming, I still think Look's exhibitions were all a lot more up my alley.

--Conversely, I felt the nightly projections of Look came in distant second to those of Visa. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the Look projections. The work was good but I just think the projections lacked the technical sophistication of Visa's. At Look, there was a guy at a computer in the back and sometimes his mouse and finder windows would show up on the main projection screen by accident. Again, very enjoyable but noticeably less professional than Visa. Visa's projections featured overlaying images and montages, graphics, etc. with much, much more fluid sequencing and music, dissolves, fades, triptychs, visual effects, typography, etc. I have no doubt that when Look has been around for 20 years like Visa has, they'll have it more than perfected by then.

--One of the first big media companies that I think of when I think of Look is National Geographic. When I think of Visa I think of Getty Images. In general, I got a sense Look is more about celebrating the art and craft of photography, both documentary and fine art, and everything had somewhat of a folksy vibe. Visa is a lot more scorched-earth, hardcore photojournalism and photographers who've seen horrific deeds. Look I would compare to the romance of beautiful color slides projected through an old clackety projector; Visa is more like editing color negs on a light table.

--At both festivals, after I had looked at all the exhibitions, I found myself sort of wandering aimlessly in between events, talks, etc. This is why I wish there was just a designated area where you could just sit down and share your work and look at the work of others, shoot the breeze, etc. But there was virtually no (public) sharing of work that I saw at Look, and only a tad more at Visa.

--As for the Insight Conversations with Plachy, Parr and Peress, I would have to say Peress was my favorite. Well, first of all I should say that I unfortunately missed most of Plachy's, as I arrived in Charlottesville late, just as she was starting her talk (I had to leave in order to make the check-in where I was staying). Martin Parr's on Friday afternoon was thoroughly enjoyable, a real treat, and easily he got the most laughs. And I would say his exhibit in Charlottesville was my favorite of the entire festival. But there was something about hearing Peress speak, I guess all the things I've always thought that he brings to the table of photojournalism were confirmed. I could write a whole blog post about his talk alone (he was "interviewed" by MaryAnne Golon on stage). There's a passage of his I copied down from the Magnum Stories book a few years ago, his theory on four kinds of photographic authorship: that of the camera and the lens being used, that of the photographer composing the picture and choosing the moment to press the button, that of the viewer of the photograph, and finally that of the force of reality itself. There was one moment when he was talking about when he was younger and how Henri Cartier-Bresson had given him some advice. The room was totally quiet and as he said Bresson's name there was a rumble of thunder outside. Very powerful.

--In the end, I think, it's all about being bombarded with imagery for a weekend or a week, as is the case with Look and Visa, respectively. The intensity of seeing so much work by others really makes me examine what it is that I do, makes me wonder how I stand out from the crowd, if at all. Admittedly, it was a little hard to see other people wearing name tags that said "Artist" on them, whereas mine just said "General." My biggest regret is that I didn't act quick enough in trying to get my work shown in either festival, not that I would have gotten in if I had. But I certainly feel people would respond to what I've done over the past nine years in New York, and I would say it would be undeniably more rewarding to return to either of these festivals with some work being shown or exhibited. Some day. I am going to do some regrouping of my own this summer.

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