Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NYPH '09 In Review

This past Friday, I spent the better part of the day at the second annual New York Photo Festival viewing the exhibitions and hearing a few panel discussions. Despite not being terrible interested in the exhibitions before visiting (based solely on what I read about them on the festival website) I held out some hope that when viewed in person with greater specificity and context the exhibitions might come to life. This, however, with a few notable exceptions, was not the case. I understand that new festivals face many obstacles and road blocks along the way that make it challenging to create the perfect festival experience. The New York Photo Festival certainly has its heart in the right place. Photography-dedicated festivals are invaluable to the photo community, however, NYPH could stand to make improvements in a few different areas - particularly in the organization, programming and admission price departments.

Ultimately, the $20 day pass struck me as slightly exorbitant. I fully understand that art festivals, like any other endeavor, operate around a need to generate profit. There are undoubtedly an immense number of expenses that require the proper capital backing, but the burden (in my opinion) should not be put on the festival goer. If it has to, then I guess I would expect more for my money. The $20 admission price simply gave you access to the 4 main exhibitions, lectures and panel discussions. The satellite shows, which largely proved to be more engaging, were free and open to the public. This price would have felt more appropriate if there was twice as many exhibitions on view.

The exhibition that I found the most thought-provoking, contemporary and succinctly curated was (super)natural, a Satellite Show organized by the curatorial collective LUCI. As LUCI explains:

"The work on view gives visible form to the trace of something just beyond - pointing to an excess of visual language and yet an ultimate failure to convey a precise meaning. The awesome and terrifying aspect of the sublime explains the darkness that pervades the show, evident in the depths of Victoria Sambunaris’ cave; the threat of storm beneath Christopher Lamarca's rainbow; Theresa Ganz’s delicately encroaching vines suddenly strangling. Chasing after the elusive spirit of the landscape, these images explore the expanse of history and possibility beneath a deceptively mundane surface."

Jon Levy's curatorial offering Home For Good was by far my favorite of the main exhibitions. Bringing together the work of Lorraine Grupe, Tim Hetherington, Simon Roberts, Chris Killip, Venetia Dearden, Seba Kurtis, Louie Palu, Bruno Stevens, Adam Nadel, and David Gray, Levy's exhibition aimed to explore the intersection of personal experience and international conflict. The title somewhat ironically suggests a domestic experience inundated by a more global reality. Ultimately, Home For Good was successful because it accurately highlighted how complex and multifaceted the state of the world is; how truly global and interconnected these conflicts are. Of the artists exhibited in this show, I particularly enjoyed the work of Venetia Dearden, Seba Kurtis and Tim Hetherington.

Jody Quon's exhibition I don't really know what kind of girl I am, which takes its name from the film Juno, set out to "expose, depict, and assemble the essence, features and virtues of women as subjects." This statement struck me as rather broad and avoided addressing feminine identity in any kind of a social, cultural or personal context. Instead of breaking down any of the culturally stereotypical notions of femininity, many of the artists in this show seemed to reinforce it. Rene & Radka's commercially-tinged images of young girls, for example, are seeped in aesthetic polish and superficiality. On the other hand, however, Hank Willis Thomas' installation wonderfully addressed both feminine and African American identity with cultural and historic relevance.

Chris Boot's offering Gay Men Play explored "the contemporary photographic representation of gay sex and gay recreational sexual identities." This exhibition consisted Stefan Ruiz's traditional studio portraits of gay men dressed up for play during party weekends in San Francisco and Berlin and a number of projects shown on digital screens in a back room. Ruiz's avedonian portraits, albeit beautifully printed, transformed his subjects into an almost indistinguishable mass of bodies, a taxonomy of gay culture if you will. This rather traditional approach to portraiture certainly has its place in the photo world. However, in the case of Ruiz's portraits, this stylistic device worked to dehumanize his subjects rather than celebrate their individuality. On the other hand, perhaps his intention was to show gay men dressed up for play as a larger social construct, as a vibrant culture rather than as characteristic people.

It was the back room of Gay Men Play, however, that I had larger issues with. Small digital screens ran through slideshows of images depicting exploitation, violence and even certain behaviors that seemed to border on torture. This segment of the exhibition left me feeling like I'd seen something I wasn't supposed to see and, once again, this very well may have been the point. I'm looking forward to reading Boot's essay (of the same name) in the new Aperture for a more detailed reading of the photographic representation of gay culture in galleries and on the internet.

Much like its title suggested, William Ewing's exhibtion All Over The Place! was almost entirely lacking in any curatorial cohesion. According to Ewing, his intention was to "celebrate photography’s unruly nature, its rich diversity, and its refusal to fit into neat categories." I suppose, to some extent, he succeeded in doing this. However, I can't help but feel like Ewing found a curatorial loop-hole in which is was able to skirt the responsibility of imposing a structure on his exhibition.

I would love to hear your impressions of the festival if you attended!