New York Photo Festival

2 June, 2010

New York Photo Festival

A trip to New York is generally easy to say yes to, a trip to New York plus a feast of photography is a no brainer: so it was with much alacrity that I booked my flight, rang a friend to check the spare room was still on offer and revelled in the idea of spending time in my favourite city and visiting the New York Photo Festival.

Upon arrival, much delayed due to the vagaries of the ash cloud, I pondered on the choices of heading straight to Dumbo, meeting up with some friends or going to the Picasso exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As this was a rare opportunity to see nearly the entirety of the Met’s collection of Picasso it seemed rude not to pay homage to the master and it was indeed a rewarding experience. With my head full of ideas about photography I had a completely different approach to Picasso’s early work. Here was an artist; painting around the time photography was invented, using the same subject matter that photojournalists and documentary photographers use today. His work based on visits to brothels, Saint Lazare’s prison, a blind man and his wine jug all had the same social concern many photographers use as their starting point. Yet as a painter Picasso was doing something different; reaching for a universal story rather than that of the individual.

Having filled up on a diet of Picasso I headed off to the photo festival with high expectations. Now in its third year, last year’s festival had received less than favourable reviews. But with an interesting line up of curators including the singer song writer Lou Reed, it seemed likely that this year the organisers would have raised their game.

The press night was well organised with a host taking us from venue to venue and the individual curators talking us through their shows. Most interesting was the exhibition by Erik Kessels: “Use Me and Abuse Me.” Kessels had looked at the processes of image making, in particular digital technology and collage.

Osang Gwon

Osang Gwon

Strikingly dramatic were giant statues brought to life with pasted photographs covering the entire surface by Osang Gwon. This show stood out for its coherence; both in the work shown and the way it was exhibited, which was visually led and often using the humour of the work to lead you round the exhibits.

We ended the tour with the celebrity highlight of the festival, a Lou Reed slide show “Hidden Books, Hidden Stories” in the presence of the great man himself. I should say straight away that as a songwriter and singer, Lou gets all my votes and he has written two of my all time favourite songs, Wild Things and Perfect Day. While it was clear that Lou had had a ball doing what ever it was he had done, as a curator his enigmatic monosyllabic talk [about three sentences long] and obvious discomfort in being asked to give us a few clues about what he had done, left me bewildered and just a little disappointed.

Morton Bartlet

Morton Bartlet

About half way through his slide show, having settled into the seemingly random mix of imagery being displayed I decided that there was no obvious connection between one image and another except perhaps a visual link. This was quite an exciting thought as the idea of a visual rather than content driven or linguistic link was potentially a refreshing approach and certainly one with which I had a great deal of sympathy. However Lou didn’t quite pull it off. While I am sure that the visual relationships between each image and sequence of images were clear to him, for the viewer it was often ambiguous or simply not apparent at all. This coupled with Lou’s refusal to engage with his eager and indeed supportive audience led me to think of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The rest of Lou Reed show was a collection of photography books placed in display units, which the visitor could leaf through. There was no written explanation about why these books had been chosen; nor why, given the title of the exhibition, they were hidden; nor whether or not there was a relationship between them. Nor was there any information about the artists. It was a little bit like being in Waterstones on Piccadilly in their photography section. Although some of the books and their authors were fascinatingly weird, in particular Morton Bartlett and his collection of dolls.

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf

The two other shows, “Object Lesson” curated by Vince Aletti and “Bodies in Question” by Fred Ritchin were familiar in their imagery and presentation. Neither curator had given much thought to the space they were given and it was difficult to separate them out from the satellite galleries who had as equally interesting work on show. Ritchin’s collective theme was “isms” as expressed by the motley collection of protest movements currently active on the left of politics. His stated intention was to look at the transformation our identities undergo when surveyed and the inclusion of Michael Wolf’s Paris streets as seen on Google earth was a stroke of genius and very apt. But the pictures of icebergs seemed to pander to some curious green agenda that diluted what could have been a more interesting show.

Richard Learoyd

Richard Learoyd

“Object Lesson” was exactly that, using the genre of the still life Aletti had brought together a series of artists working with various objects often to do with decay. It is always lovely to see Richard Learoyd’s sublimely delicate pictures of curious parts of dead things, in this case a fish heart suspended in black thread. So while a very traditional show and perhaps a little unambitious, a lot of the photography was exceptionally good.

There is much to say that was good about my trip to New York; the walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Dumbo; a visit to the High Line in homage to Joel Sternfeld; the Picasso exhibition and of course the Cartier Bresson retrospective at MOMA. The city is fabulous and full of some of the most exciting sights in the world, but the claim that the New York Photo Festival is the ”American counterpart and thematic successor to the prestigious European photo festival” is a great ambition that has yet to be properly realised.

I do though wish them luck in reaching their stated goal and if my friend is still in New York and still has her spare room on offer I will try to go to next year’s festival.

2 Responses to “New York Photo Festival”

  1. Daniel Power Says:

    Nice post Bridget. I helped Lou Reed with his show; the title comes from the boxes with lids in which the books were placed, or hidden, and each containing a visual narrative to be deciphered by the viewer (for the press preview the lids were left open). After his slide show he asked the evidently speechless audience three times if there were any questions, with no takers, hence the brevity. He did say, as the TImes quoted the next day, he did not take the pictures in the show but his soul did: the show was a song in photographs (his as-yet unreleased Taijik Meditation Music, three tracks, accompanies the slide show). The show is available at Vimeo if you wish to review it. Thanks for coming to the festival and for your thoughtful comments. I am glad you enjoyed it. DP

  2. a festival dedicated to contemporary photography. The third New York Photo Festival 2010 (NYPH’10) took place from May 12 to May 16, 2010, and the NYPH’10 Festival Curators were Lou Reed , Erik Kessels , Vince Aletti , and Fred Ritchin .

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