Review: 2009 New York Photo Festival

Editor’s Note: The 2nd Annual New York Photo Festival was held in Dumbo, Brooklyn on May 13 – 17, 2009. The following is a review of the festival as seen through the eyes of independent curator and writer Lisa Henry – you can read Lisa’s bio at the end of this post. The opinions expressed in this post are not necessarily those of the editor.

In describing it’s premiere last spring, the NYPH website states “The inaugural New York Photo Festival (May 14–May 18, 2008) delivered a dynamic, high-quality event in what is arguably the photographic capital of the world.” While I was busy working on a photography exhibition of my own – I kept hearing about the festival in DUMBO and sorely regretted the inability to be in two places at the same time. It seemed like the East coast photo community was abuzz with excitement about this event, so I vowed not to miss NYPH’s next installment.

Now I can speak from experience and say that the NYPH is indeed a dynamic and ambitious program. It provides something sorely needed in NY, namely, a celebration and exploration of photography by artists, curators and art writers that is not primarily focused on the marketplace. I have been to many photo fairs but not many photo festivals, and while there was certainly work for sale, the focus seemed to be on contemporary art and trying to make connections (some of them tenuous) between current artistic practice, historical figures and popular themes, such as environmentalism, war, personal identity, and image appropriation.

There was a distinct air of celebration and a bit of excess to the event as a whole. With three main pavilions and a number of affiliated and satellite shows, there was more than enough photography to go around. One exhibition in particular, William A Ewing’s All over the place!, was literally just that. But no matter it’s excess, it was wonderful to see so much photography in one place and to contemplate the possible connections.

Matthieu Gafsou, Surface #2, 2008

© Matthieu Gafsou, Surface #2, 2008, from All over the place! curated by William A. Ewing, New York Photo Festival 2009.

The three main exhibitions this year were I don’t really know what kind of girl I am curated by Jody Quon, Jon Levy’s Home for Good, Gay Men Play curated by Chris Boot and “All Over the Place” by William A. Ewing. All shows were photo based with a smattering of video, slide shows and installation for good measure. In addition to the curated pavilions, there were many opportunities for the public to hear artists and critics discuss current themes during a full series of seminars, lectures, book signings, workshops, and live performances. So if you only had one day to take it all in (like me) it could be quite overwhelming.

All over the place!, curated by William A. Ewing, was the perfect example of the type of expansive display that required at least a second visit. It included an enormous variety of works by over 15 artists. In addition, Ewing attempted to integrate classic photographer Edward Steichen acting as curator, representing him with installation slides from his landmark MoMA exhibition The Family of Man (1955).

Ewing’s sprawling curatorial project was spread over four different DUMBO locations. Works by older photographers such as Ernst Haas, Jacob Holdt, and Steichen mixed and mingled with that of younger artists such as Manolis Baboussis, Oliver Godow, Tiina Itkonen, Philipp Schaerer, Joni Sternbach, and Patrick Weidmann, among others. This created a dizzying urge to try to see and absorb as much of the eclectic group as possible.

In the end however, it was hard to pull a cohesive theme from Ewing’s choices, even though there were some standout individual works. Sternbach’s tintypes of surfers, Itkonen’s cool; icy landscapes, and Schaerer’s straight images of architectural whimsy were all exceptional and rewarded careful looking.

What could possibly unite Edward Steichen’s seminal, if controversial exhibition, The Family of Man, with Jacob Holdt’s unblinking, unsparing view of American life a decade or two later?

What are the lessons to be learned from unearthing early Ernst Haas color imagery?

What do Haas, Holdt, and Steichen have to do with younger talents on our roster?

These were some of the questions Ewing asked himself in the process of curating his pavilion, and though I tried, I can’t honestly say that I saw all the connections or learned all the lessons.

At the other end of NYPH09’s grand spectrum was Quon’s I don’t really know what kind of girl I am. Fairly straightforward in it’s combination of modern and contemporary images grappling with the complexities of female identity, this exhibition included works by only 10 artists many of whom were represented by one piece or installation.

Gokurōsama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i by Brian Y. Sato

“Red Head, 1967”, 2008-2009, by Carlos Ranc, from I don’t really know what kind of girl I am curated by Jody Quon, New York Photo Festival 2009, Courtesy of the artist and Nina Menocal gallery.

Rene & Radka’s dreamlike images, Mondongo’s giant doll house, Hank Willis Thomas’ multiple appropriations of Ebony and Jet images from the 1970s, and Sam Samore’s mysterious close ups, all drew me in and made me wish I had come to the festival a day earlier. Finally, the blurry digitally manipulated Playboy pinups of Carlos Ranc (shown above) left me intrigued but wanting more. Appropriation and the ripple effect caused by the abundance of digital technology were in evidence throughout the entire festival but Quon’s exhibition, though thematically tight, seemed to rely very heavily on these two elements.

Home For Good – an exhibition spread over two spaces and curated by Jon Levy and Foto8, was memorable for a gem-like image by British photographer Chris Killip and truly standout work by fellow Brit Tim Hetherington.

Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers was represented by both still images and a three-panel video of young soldiers alternating between sleep and combat. By the end of the day Hetherington’s work was what stayed with me, playing on my thoughts during the subway ride back to Astoria. Hetherington captures young men sleeping and fighting, arguing and then resting – many, many miles away in an armed conflict that is far from being resolved.

More than anything else I saw that day, Hetherington’s work elicited questions beyond the confines of curatorial statements and artistic ambitions. His approach, direct yet lyrical, enfolds the complications of current U.S. foreign policy within the changes that have occurred in photojournalism over the last 40 years, and draws attention to both history and our current moment, as we approached another Memorial Day.

Lisa Henry
Independent Curator, Writer

An independent curator and writer based in Los Angeles, Lisa has written profiles on documentary and conceptual photographers such as Ingrid Pollard, Laura Aguillar, Glynnis Reed and Gerald Cyrus. Lisa was formally Assistant Curator for American Art at the Newark Museum, where she oversaw the rotation of prints and photographs on display in the permanent collection galleries. She also increased the museum’s holdings of contemporary photographs by working closely with their collectors group, The Friends of American Art. Since 2004 she has worked as a guest curator for The Amistad Center at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT. She is one of the curators of the exhibition Young Americans: Photographs by Sheila Pree Bright, which premiered at The High Museum of Art in 2008 and is currently touring the country. Since relocating back to Los Angeles, she has worked as a consultant for The Japanese American National Museum, The California African American Museum and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Past exhibitions include Connections at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco & New York, Double Exposure, MoAD, San Francisco, CA, and I’m Thinking of a Place, UCLA Hammer Museum, CA. She is interested in artists who use photography as a conceptual strategy, photographers exploring landscape, land-use and architecture, and extended projects that are intended to be completed as photographic books. She is not interested in nudes, fashion, advertising or commercial photography.

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