I set out for the LOOKbetween photo festival from Taos, New Mexico last Wednesday. As some of you know, I participated in Review Santa Fe the week before. It took 13 hours to get to New York, where I was planning to catch a bus that LOOK had chartered. I spent Thursday running around the City in meetings, and going to some openings in Chelsea as well. (Jesse Burke’s show at Clampart is killer, BTW.)
Friday, the bus embarked from Penn Station just after 9am, and didn’t arrive at the Deep Rock farm outside Charlottesville, Virginia until 6:30 pm. I tell you this at the outset for a very important reason: I was practically a zombie by the time the festival began. The rest of this piece ought to be read with that perspective in mind. If you want a more structured account of the who’s and what’s, I’ve seen some good reports filed by PDN on their blog.
That said, I had a fantastic experience at the farm, and spent a concentrated period of time that likely won’t be duplicated. The setting for LOOKbetween was like something out of a Southern Romance novel; rolling green hills, crystalline ponds, braying donkeys, ribbitting frogs, strumming banjos, and a humidity level that would induce a full sweat in seconds. I didn’t have any sweet tea over the weekend, but short of that, the South represented for sure.
As we arrived, we were directed to set up our tents on a lush field overlooking the rest of the farm. I didn’t count, but there must have been 60 or 70 tents filled with photographers from different backgrounds and countries. We were provided with all the tasty food, cold water, and nourishing booze that anyone could want, all weekend long. And outdoor showers and washing stations were conveniently located as well.
After we struck camp, a cocktail hour and dinner buffet were served, which provided people the opportunity to meet, greet, and get a solid meal before the evening’s activities. A short orientation gave us the lay of the land, and then after dinner the evening’s program was a slate of 3 minute multi-media slideshows (or short films) that each attending photographer made just for the event. Prior to the projector rolling, a spokesman from the medical supply company BD gave a presentation on how his company uses photojournalism to deliver its message on Global Health in the Third World. Unlike Review Santa Fe, where the photographer’s tuition pays for the event, LOOKbetween had corporate sponsorship from BD, as well as Leica, National Geographic and a few others. The messaging was appropriate and understated, but made for a slightly different atmosphere.
Sitting on a green hill, watching the stars emerge as one smart project after another rolled along; it was brilliant. Story after story provided a glimpse into a different issue or part of the world. I went with a more experimental style and vision, and had to accept that my project did not really stand out. C’est la vie. Overall, the most successful pieces were the one’s that used either HD video or voice-over narration to engage the viewer. Christopher Capozziello‘s project on his twin brother’s cerebral palsy was visceral due to the narration; Erika Larsen‘s HD short film of reindeer culture in Scandinavia was riveting. Dima Gavrysh’s photos taken while embedded in Afghanistan were probably the best I saw in a more traditional slideshow format.
After 40 pieces or so, we broke for the night and headed back to camp for a huge bonfire and some serious drinking and talking. My friend Susan Worsham, (whom I know primarily through FB,) and I talked about our art process and motivation for almost 3 hours. It was inspiring, motivating, and unique. Deep conversations, as opposed to token schmoozing, were the highlight of LOOKbetween for me. I trekked across the country for dialogue, and the festival delivered. Sleep was tough to find, given that many of the younger photographers were yelling and screaming outside the tents until dawn. I would have been annoyed, but I was quite the lout in my college years, and karma is a bitch sometimes.
Saturday, after breakfast, LOOKbetween organized some specific round table discussions and a full-panel-talk after lunch. This was definitely the weak spot of the weekend for me. Certainly, my tired brain made me less inclined to share, but many of my art colleagues concurred that the structure was geared almost exclusively towards the editorial and journalistic photographers. After trying initially to participate, I became more disengaged by the minute. Several of my colleagues actually skipped out on the afternoon activities, and I stuck around in body only. The efforts to create conversation around serious issues were sincere, but no attempt was made to bridge the gap between how fine artists use photography relative to commissioned work. In fairness, I did find the dialogue about collective and collaborative action by Luceo to be beneficial, and the photographers who embraced rather than resented video found themselves talking a lot. And people were listening.
Saturday night was another slate of projections, and again the ones that used video wisely were well appreciated. The evening’s work was heavy on Third World photojournalism, which began to seem highly repetitive. And repetitive. It was a sticking point for me between the worlds of art and journalism, in that art photographers are trained to try to make original images and many journalists seem to stick to a template. I’m not suggesting the art model is superior, as it often produces meaningless self-indulgence, while journalists seem driven by a sense of mission and obligation. But the gap existed nonetheless.
My favorite of the night, and overall for that matter, was by the aforementioned Virginia photographer Susan Worsham. While I tried something new and improvisational, and perhaps failed, Susan made her first video just for the occasion and crushed it. She’s known for her sharp, lyrical portraits and still lives from her project “Some Fox Trails in Virginia.” She was the only photographer to split the screen, using two parallel square boxes with white, negative space surrounding. Susan paired photos on one side with video on the other, and narration over the top. It was magical.
The end of the evening was another bonfire, this time with fire-dancers and music. Kind of hippie, yes, but as I live in Taos, I can dig it. I spent another few hours talking about art and exploitation with the witty, naughty, and highly intelligent British photographers Ben Roberts and Hin Chua. They were frustrated by the work they saw that seemed to USE subjects in order to advance a message. I won’t name names here, but I enjoyed the chance to talk seriously about where boundaries ought to be respected, as opposed to broken. (I’d discussed a similar theme on the bus ride down about Nina Berman’s photographs from the Whitney Biennial.)
Sunday was breakfast and coffee, and then back on the bus. 8 ½ hours up I-95 was a tough slog. (I cheated and jumped off in Jersey.) But given that bonds had already developed, I was able to talk about art and business practice with super-savvy New York photographer Justine Reyes, and Syracuse MFA student Rose Marie Cromwell. So even rubbernecking traffic provided a chance to learn and laugh. (Road giddy is a particular kind of thing.)
Was it worth the hassle of getting from Taos to Virginia via NYC? Absolutely. Would I go back again if invited? Unquestionably. Do I think that the organizers will pay a bit more attention next time to synthesizing the different communities? I do. Was it strange to see cliques develop like high school? Surely. Did it matter in the end that I didn’t get to meet that many people? No, because I haven’t had the chance to mix it up with talented peers since I got out of graduate school in 2004. So thank you, LOOKbetween. I appreciate your hospitality, generosity, and good intentions.