FotoFest Takeaways

April 29, 2016

By Rebecca Robertson

Photography festivals are ubiquitous, but among the oldest and best regarded is Houston’s FotoFest, the biennial that began in 1986. This year’s event, which took place from early March to April 24, included exhibitions in 130 venues ranging from empty lots to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It’s nearly impossible to see everything, so we asked six reviewers to tell us about the artists they discovered or new work they saw that they were most excited about.

Baltimore-based Jonah Calinawan’s dreamlike, semiautobiographical images are part of an ongoing series. Ann Jastrab, Gallery Director at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco, tells us via email, “Jonah Calinawan states that his project “A Million Suns” is a story of one man’s search for his future. It was clear when Calinawan sat down at my table at Fotofest that his beautifully printed cyanotypes disclosed a personal journey, and also a transcendent one. These images of his figure traveling through a surreal landscape in the deepest blue of the night sky are sublime. I learned that he has only completed two of the three sections of his story. I, for one, am keenly waiting for the final chapter to see how the hero’s story ends.”

Yukari Chikura’s images depict a traditional Japanese ritual preserved for over 1300 years, which was threatened by the 2011 earthquake. Writes Jastrab, “Looking at Yukari Chikura’s project, “Zaido” made me feel like I was being let into a secret world. I had so many questions about what this sacred Japanese ritual and tradition meant, but above it all, I was transported by the beauty and sensitivity of Chikura’s photographs and what they unveiled.”

The Watchers, recently published by Thames and Hudson, documents the reactions of passersby to photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero as she poses for self portraits. Hannah Watson from Trolley Books in London, writes, “I’d seen Haley Morris-Cafiero’s work recently and thought it was a fantastic and intriguing project…I realized she would be perfect for the forthcoming group show I am curating at TJ Boulting on the diverse use of the body in photography. I asked her, she said yes.”

Phil Underdown has documented the changing landscape near his Upstate New York home, but a recent series got more personal, tenderly documenting the mice killed in traps around his house. Says Watson, “I also was taken with Phil Underdown’s book dummy ‘House Mice’ on dead mouse portraits in his home. [The book dummy was] a really large format emphasizing the tiny animals, benign, calm and often elegant in their demise. But what was most intriguing of all was his absolute sympathy and pathos at having to kill them, even though they were taking over his home. Man versus mouse!”

Amy Wolff, creative director of CoEdit Collection (and former PDN photo editor), writes, “The exceptionally detailed, sweeping views of South America by Medellín-based photographer Camilo Echavarria focus on the relationship of humans and their environment. Over the past seven years, Echavarria has traveled through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, often backpacking in remote areas, to create large-format stills and video. Images from the series “Illustrated Landscapes” remind the viewer of collectible travel postcards from the nineteenth century, which pre-date the photographic album. Our perception or memory of a place can sometimes supersede its reality.”

Farah Al Qasimi is from the United Arab Emirates, and splits her time between there and Connecticut. Stephanie Heimann, photo director at New Republic, writes: “Her work looks at the hidden world of Arab women who are her sisters, aunts and mother. The images are thoughtful and searing, and even days later I could describe one of her images to fellow reviewers. We are featuring this image in New Republic’s June “Backstory” section. Al Qasimi is a MFA candidate at Yale and I suspect we will be seeing much more of her work in the future.”

Heimann also connected with the long-term documentary work of Canadian photographer Brenda Spielmann, who, she writes, “has been photographing the harrowing experience of one of her children who was born with spina bifida. She follows him and his ‘normal’ siblings from babies to adulthood. I find this work to be a powerful story of family and love, and also brave work from Ms. Spielmann who in the context of a mother with all the responsibilities that go along with it, has still managed to be true to her craft of photography and is only just now, after almost 20 years, showing this work to a professional audience.”

Priya Kambli works with old family photos, piercing them with tiny holes or layering them with rice powder in delicate patterns, referencing time, memory and her childhood in India. Says Samantha Johnston, executive director at Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver, “I could not stop looking at Priya Kambli’s project ‘Kitchen Gods.’ Her application of pattern and changes she makes to these family artifacts encompass her fascination with her parents whom she lost at a young age.”

Johnston also praised Toby Smith’s “Rare Earthenware,” which documents the mining and transportation of rare earth metals used in high-end electronics. The video was included in “Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet,” the biennial’s central exhibition. The project overlays images with moving graphics that present information about the rare earth trade. Johnson says that while Smith’s photos document the mining process, “the video that accompanies this project tells the story in a different way, with subtle metadata that weaves the viewer through the video,” and “is fantastic.”

Daylight Books cofounder Michael Itkoff was interested in a series featured in “Discoveries of the Meeting Place,” an exhibition curated by selected reviewers from FotoFest in 2014. Itkoff writes, “I was most taken by the work of Mahtab Hussain titled ‘You Get Me?’  Mahtab’s straightforward color portraits of young Muslim males in the UK alludes to this communities struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy when society at large has pegged them as a vaguely threatening ‘other’.”

A catalogue from Schilt Publishing includes Hussain’s work along with work from “Changing Circumstances” and many of the other shows that make up FotoFest 2016.