Arts Desk

FotoWeek: Camera Obscura?

Courtesy Flickr user Kevin H.

Over at TBD, Maura Judkis shares some thoughts on FotoWeek and its discontents. Judkis interviews FotoWeek contributors past and present to convey how the festival has gone off the rails—seemingly, according to plan.

Her story examines all angles of the problem of FotoWeek—or, if you prefer, the problem that FotoWeek solves. Just by naming the past contributors who declined to get involved with FotoWeek this year, Judkis indirectly illustrates the breadth of the festival.

For every event type there is a complaint. The projections, for instance: Photographer Max Cook says it's too cold to stand outside and look at them. Then there are the venues: George Hemphill has a gallery where he can show any works he wants. Why put so much effort into hosting a special event of limited duration? Or the FotoWeek awards: The Washington Post's Blake Gopnik says everyone has seen all these pro photos before. That's certainly true for art critics and photographers, though maybe less so for a FotoWeek walk-in.

There's the crux of the problem, the distilled essence of what makes FotoWeek suck: It's too hard to be a FotoWeek walk-in.

There are not enough days in a FotoWeek to take much of it in. Especially given that FotoWeek events take place in all four quadrants (and beyond)—a gesture toward inclusiveness that works against the brand. Do international photographers and curators come to D.C. for FotoWeek? Maybe so—but can they see it all when they get here? And what about the rest of us?

Other fairs fare better through different strategies. The D.C. Record Fair assembles dozens of vendors with a world of vinyl wealth under one roof, bringing out buyers from all over who might not make the trip for a Record Fair distributed through Smash, Red Onion, Crooked Beat, and so on. Alternatively, the Capital Fringe Festival is a mad-house, but it's a mad-house that lasts for nearly a month at a go. And although DCist Exposed catered exclusively to DMV shutterbugs, it did so exceptionally well.

A distributed, grassroots FotoWeek presentation—a FotoWeek show at Hemphill, a FotoWeek show at Honfleur, and so on—has its appeal. It seems to reflect founder Theo Adamstein's business plan, anyway. But it doesn't ultimately reflect how photography is organized in D.C. Here, there are two big tents for photography—the Corcoran and National Geographic—and any photo festival worth its salt needs their blessing. (Which FotoWeek has.)

Beyond the big two, photography shows take place at tons of smaller venues sprinkled throughout the city. Why not put a lot of them under a big third tent? A place like Artisphere or the Arlington Arts Center would do the trick—something with delicious public funding. It would be easier, and by easier I mean doable, to track many events taking place at three (and just three) big venues. And while George, Max, and Blake may have their respective complaints about individual aspects of FotoWeek, each of them might find something to like in a more centralized presentation of photography exhibitions.

How's that for unsolicited advice? What FotoWeek needs is to become a full-on three-ring circus.

Courtesy Flickr user Kevin H.

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