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Losing Focus?

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.

As if to throw viewers psychologically off-balance, FotoFest's third exhibit -- "Fashion: Evolution/Revolution" -- insinuated a sly reminder of the relationship between oppression and swank. Coming off of "American Voices" and "Global Environment," how could a viewer look at 130 fashion photographs without purposefully forgetting the crumpled majority whose labor is the base for all the indulgences of the affluent minority? Gazing at '60s supermodels Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, or the nineties' pouty Claudia Schiffer grasping a Barbie doll and Nadja Auermann clad in black spiked boots and black bikini, one became aware that fashion models have always looked like they ruled the earth (or at least that narrowly circumscribed fantasy of it the magazines conjure up). At the core of the display were Richard Avedon's spreads that took the models beyond mere attitude into the more theatrical or cinematic realm of character and emotion. Next to this confirmed classicist, photographers Herb Ritts and Matthew Rolston looked mannered and gimmick-ridden. But Bruce Weber defined the fashion moment, which seems to be about the perfect surfaces of things.

Experienced together, the three exhibitions produced an almost surreal dislocation. It's as if they were given simultaneously under separate but equal conditions -- two sides of the same coin, the international marketplace and the people who get shafted by it. Part of the problem can be attributed to grandiose expectations built up from the hype of previous FotoFests -- all of them high-visibility shows that brought critics, curators and collectors swarming to Houston. Smack in the middle of the oil bust, FotoFest managed to kick off a 1986 debut with numbers that were, according to Newsweek at the time, "pure Texas": 64 exhibitions, 783 photographers on display, 4,000 photographs spread across a mile of walls, a $2 million budget. Modeled after the world's top cultural festivals, FotoFest quickly became one of the nation's most respected photography extravaganzas. Founders Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss aimed to unite photographic cultures from all over the world into one melting pot as a way to promote international understanding and education.

Yet FotoFest had to get even bigger to attract corporate money, and in 1990, the extravaganza moved over to the George R. Brown Convention Center -- thereby concentrating in its enormous space more photographs than anyone would ever want to see in one place. After all, some 123,500 square feet of photographs, most of them 11-by-14 inch black-and-white prints, is enough to give any viewer a headache. Still, the 1992 FotoFest managed to deliver a groundbreakingly cohesive overview of photography in Latin America and Europe. But as FotoFest sought to "put Houston on the map," becoming a source of civic pride and arts boosterism, it also suffered from financial troubles. This fifth FotoFest, originally scheduled for March, was postponed when Kodak, its primary sponsor, canceled its support and debts were found to be running as high as $700,000.

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It's hard to fault public service, but in this scaled-down economy, isn't it foolish to keep up the appearances of a booming global marketplace of images? This time around, FotoFest tended to trip over its sincerity, getting tangled up with voracious ambition and the need to impress. Perhaps because FotoFest is unsure of an audience, it tried too hard to please with its gamut of choices rather than thoroughly investigate one area. Where was the depth?

Quite possibly, FotoFest 1994 raised more questions than it was prepared to answer. For all its conferences, symposia and workshops, one didn't come away from the exhibition with the heightened sense of a medium in transition. And the medium of image -- whether it be film, TV or photographs -- has proven to be a difficult one for this generation's artists to remain legitimate in. When they were younger, images led them to believe in the racial harmony of Different Strokes, as well as the paternalistic, benevolent strength of Ronald Reagan. But as they've grown older and less naive, they've learned that these projections weren't close to the truth, but were used to manipulate and seduce. The outcome is a generation at once distrustful of images and at the same time enthralled by them. Simply put, clever images of nuclear annihilation and endangered species mean little in our impatient world, when we want -- to paraphrase Jim Morrison -- our social anarchy, and we want it now.

In any case, FotoFest would probably be more vital if it hadn't demanded that we brave too many worlds within the compass of one massive exhibition. Beyond the convention hoopla, it should be mentioned that FotoFest has since 1988 quietly sponsored an ongoing education program, Literacy Through Photography. Directly accessing "at-risk" children in HISD, the program uses the photographic medium to stimulate skills in writing and cognitive thinking. Moreover, between festivals, FotoFest initiates projects designed to broaden public awareness of and provoke dialogue on important social issues.

Last year, projects included an incisive exhibition of contemporary Cuban photography as well as sponsorship at an inner-city high school of Brian Weil's nationally acclaimed exhibit about AIDS. In light of these endeavors, does FotoFest need to keep gearing itself on commercial overdrive? Has the extravaganza outlived its usefulness? Perhaps the time has come for choosing between a "successful" biennial and sustaining critical dialogue beyond the single event.

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