Picture This

Forget New York or L.A., "FotoFest could only happen in Houston," says world-traveled photojournalist Frederick Baldwin, president and co-founder of FotoFest, the only noncommercial photographic arts festival of its scope in the United States. Thanks to Houston's renowned hospitality and openness, combined with its multitude of venues and art supporters, our city provides the ideal landscape for an event like FotoFest.

It all started in 1982, when Baldwin and FotoFest co-founder and artistic director Wendy Watriss participated in the mother of all photo festivals, the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France. After their work was seen by the photography world's finest, resulting in many assignments and invitations for exhibitions, they decided to create a similar experience in Houston. Since Baldwin and Watriss couldn't compete with France's exotic locale, they decided to distinguish Houston's extravaganza by sheer scope and ambition. According to the catalog introduction by Baldwin and Watriss, "Since 1986, FotoFest has worked to bring art works, artists, curators, writers, and cultural activists together in ways that would stimulate new creative energies, artistic discoveries, and new ways of connecting different culturesŠ."

FotoFest 2000 kicks off with a giant grand opening downtown Friday night, followed by several weeks of festivities, including artist and curator talks, street theater, portfolio reviews, site-specific works, technique demonstrations and the Fourth International Fine Print Auction on March 8. By the time it's all over on April 3, more than 200,000 enthusiasts will have explored the city's commercial and alternative galleries, art spaces, studios, cafes and restaurants, while professional photographers and curators will have scouted new talent, exchanged ideas and expanded their contacts.

Baldwin says that at the beginning of his career, famed photographer Edward Steichen bought a print from him as an act of encouragement -- much like Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, had done years before to encourage the then-neophyte Steichen. Baldwin was determined to foster the same nurturing environment for the next generation of photographers by creating The International Meeting Place, a venue where the established can reach out to up-and-comers. Budding photographers can have their portfolios reviewed by the world's top curators and other influential photo aficionados. Promising work has been culled from the participants of the past three years for a special "Best of the Meeting Place" exhibit.

This year's highlights include the unprecedented group show of "Contemporary Korean Photographers, The New Generation." Jungjin Lee, the only woman in the show, has generated much excitement for her large, beautiful images of the American desert, rendered on handmade rice paper. There is also "Highlights in Nordic Photogravure," which modernizes an outdated, sometimes even toxic photo-making process. According to curator Finn Thrane, it represents "a new pictorialism that, undaunted, accommodates the copper engraver, the computer nerd and the snapshot photographer." Plus, there are more interesting tidbits here and there, such as the witty "Minimalism and Modernism" show at Purse Building Studios, which brings together the work of Chema Madoz of Spain and his unlikely Texan twin visionary, Neil Maurer, for the first time.

Not to be missed are the exhibits sponsored by Foley's downtown, in which 17 Houston-based artists have been commissioned to create installations in the windows, including the Art Guys, who are creating a piece designed to interact with the bus stop at the corner of Main and Travis. There are also the exhibits at DiverseWorks and the University of Houston (the first FotoFest ever there), which feature Texas artists; Lawing Gallery's major retrospectives of Philip-Lorca diCorcia; the Photo League at John Cleary Gallery; Luis Gonzalez Palma, "the most successful photographer in Latin America," at Solero; and finally, there's the 24/7, international, yearlong exhibition, the "Festival of Light" Web site, which links to 22 photography festivals around the globe. You'll find it at www.festivaloflight.org.

FotoFest 2000 grand-opening events are scattered throughout Market Square and the Theater District, Friday, March 3, 6-11 p.m. (information booth at Market Square Clock Tower). Free. Weeklong gallery openings, March 4-11, 6-10 p.m. Free. The International Meeting Place/Artist Portfolio Reviews, March 4-11, Rice University Student Center (registration required). Fine Print Auction, Wednesday, March 8, 6:30-10 p.m., Foley's Town Hall downtown, 1100 Main. Tickets are $50. For more information or free maps, call (713)223-5522, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.fotofest.org.

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Liz Belile