Losing Focus?

Once groundbreaking, this year's FotoFest just tilled old soil

Any way you slice it, FotoFest 1994 -- the biennial international photography event that filled the George R. Brown Convention Center from mid- to late November and is touted as one of the largest such festivals in the world -- was surprisingly tame. Immediately upon entering the convention center, one couldn't help but notice the slippage from earlier shows as FotoFest seemingly reveled in old-fashioned "trade show" staging. The centerpiece of the confab was a Disneyish mausoleum that safely housed the world's first photo, a heliograph on pewter done by Joseph Niepce in 1826. Scattered around the tomblike structure and cordoned-off viewing area were dozens of aluminum chairs and tables that had already seen too many banquets and conventions. Adding to the visual confusion were low-slung banners draped overhead like canopies and lavender, tie-dye painted walls with signage designating the three major exhibits: "American Voices: Latino/Chicano/Hispanic Photography"; "The Global Environment"; and "Fashion: Evolution/Revolution."

Few viewers could have entered the "American Voices" segment without experiencing a certain queasiness that immigration could very well be the prime issue of the '90s. On the day I visited the show, several hundred school children were treated to mini-tours by various exhibiting photographers. Max Aguilera-Hellweg offered insight to his portraits of East L.A. girl gang members; their steely expressions and body language seemed to mirror that of the high school kids standing in front of them. Oakland photographer Catalina Govea spoke about the traditional celebrations that connected three generations of her family. Only a few weeks earlier, her portraits of little girls in frilly communion dresses or family members dancing at a party would have seemed sweet, if slightly nostalgic. But with California's passage of Proposition 187, the images seemed more painful than poignant. The portraits of a family who moved north to seek a better life had become ghosts, spirits of a time gone by.

Similarly, Genaro Molina's color photos documenting California's migrant farm workers pointed to our ignorance of who picks the fruit and vegetables we eat. Taken as a whole, "American Voices" asked viewers to keep in mind the following question: what or who constitutes a subculture, for how long and under what circumstances? Accordingly, many of the photographers were preoccupied with issues of identity as well as authentic primitive or mythical symbology. Perhaps the most cohesive segment of the three was the Mexican-American portion, which had photographers dealing with such topics as exclusion, racism and disempowerment. Harry Gamboa Jr.'s "Chicano Male Unbonded" challenged outsider stereotypes by ironically presenting Chicanos in threatening "step up" poses on city streets. The assumed threat was subverted by the titles of the photos and short biographies of the subjects, who were identified as lawyers, historians, artists and other professionals. Martina Lopez used computer technology to fabricate dreamlike landscapes. Reassembling old family images and fragments of snapshots, she aimed to unhinge time in a way that reflects the personal dreams of both artist and viewer.

Though none of the Latino, Chicano and Hispanic sections provided shocking revelations, they did dispel false ideas about the respective cultures and modes of creativity. The most interesting section, it tackled the duality of cultural patrimony that exists when artists move back and forth between cultures. But as survey and analysis, this FotoFest rehashed old issues and achieved the near impossible feat of making what tries to pass for "radical" creation look even weaker than it actually is.

"The Global Environment," a tripartite exhibit combining art, science and technology, included some 250 photographs about important environmental issues around the world. In general, however, the potential theatricality of geopolitics and earth's resources wasn't absorbing or momentarily shocking. Even when focusing on pollution, war, nuclear dumping or urban crowding, the selected photographers seemed to evoke a 19th-century preoccupation with well-ordered majesty of vista and facade rather than a physical engagement that could remind us to what extent our perceived reality depends on our vantage point. Encounters with Peter Goin's image of a missile protruding from the cracked earth of an eerily serene bombing range in Nevada or the geometries of Toshio Shibata's photos of Izumi Village didn't jolt so much as allow us to grasp an image cerebrally and be on our way with a transcendental frisson.

Such "hot zone" topics aren't merely the nightly news; they're the moral dilemmas of our times, and it was here that the real character of FotoFest was put to the test. Whereas political art ran riot in the 1992 festival, seldom did this year's version have any guts or clout, any power or conviction that would have linked the endeavor directly to international tensions and personal conscience. After the many high-color television horrors viewed on a daily basis, one's reaction to Antonin Kratochvil's formally composed, black-and-white images of a factory polluting the air in Rumania or Marc Riboud's seductively beautiful examination of the war-torn temples of Angkor Wat were less unsettled than weighed down and vaguely guilty.

This portion of FotoFest could have served as a kind of appeal to rethink tangled issues. Instead, however, viewers were sent navigating through a roomful of some 120 glowing globes resurfaced to show the relationship of human society to the earth's resources. If this Hall of Globes looked a bit like a social studies project, the third part of "The Global Environment" -- The Earth Forum -- veered close to the "hands-on" activities usually found in children's museums. Appropriately, the interactive electronic highway, where users can directly access state-of-the-art technology and resource information about the earth with simple, easy-to-use software, will be installed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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