Picture This

This week, as Foto Fest '96 begins, a Colombian photographer named Oscar Muoz will place a piece of photo emulsion paper in a four-foot-by-four-foot Plexiglas box sitting on the floor of the Kennedy/Foley building at 218 Travis. The paper will float on a pool of water that partially fills the box and, over the course of the following days, sink slowly to the bottom. As it sinks, a picture will develop; when it settles to rest, a self-portrait of Munoz will be revealed.

One of the purposes of Munoz's installation is to make public what is often the private side of photography, to show graphically how an idea is developed into an image. At the same time, it brings the art of picture making into the heart of the city; in that way, it's like the event that made the work possible. Foto Fest, a citywide art show, attempts to bring photography as a fine art to Houston. "Discover Photography, Discover Houston" is the theme for the sixth biannual (more or less) Foto Fest. Although this year's setup is a bit more complex -- all over town instead of largely in the George R. Brown Convention Center -- the aims of the show are refreshingly straightforward: learning how what, in one person's hands, can be a snapshot can become, in another person's hands, art, and discovering how where you live can be as exotic, and worthy of recording, as any place in the world.

Getting a handle on the whole of the show is tricky simply because so much begs to be included. Throughout March, exhibits and installations devoted to photography will be on view at more than 50 sites throughout Houston, though downtown is where the real action is this year. Foto Fest artistic director Wendy Watriss and director Fred Baldwin, along with dozens of local galleries, are orchestrating a show that offers us the chance to compare not only photojournalism from Houston and China, but also glamorous portraits from Evin Thayer Studios' "Houston Proud Celebrity Series" with glamour portraits from Magnum Photos' display of People magazine-caliber celebrities. School-age children will have shows up in office buildings and the Children's Museum. And in a half-dozen of downtown's historic buildings, Dan Havel, Dean Ruck and other members of that crowd will have installations.

In some cases -- the "Universal Family Album" that will be on display at Project Row Houses, for instance -- the photos displayed are much like what ordinary sentimental Americans have tucked away in albums at home. The difference is not simply the quality of the photos themselves (though that counts), but also that the point of a project such as the "Universal Family Album" was to bring members of a community together, and then to celebrate that community. This intent means the album is more than a collection. In other cases, such as "cyberwhat?" at the Commerce Street Art Warehouse, the images on display are digitally reworked and even, in some cases, interactive. "Universal Family Album" draws from the simplest ideas of photography; "cyberwhat?" is moving along the edge of what's photographically possible. By making the two part of a larger whole, Foto Fest shows how the art of taking pictures has evolved from badly lit birthday party snapshots to images that owe more to computers than to cameras.

Since Foto Fest lasts a month, there will be ample time for photography fans and culture seeking families to arrange their own tours -- trooping through downtown to see the Foto Fences and "Downtown Discovery" installations; wandering through the warehouse district to see the rehabilitated Erie City Iron Works Building and the Commerce Street Art Warehouse; and strolling through the 22 homes of Project Row Houses. But for those who'd prefer some guidance, Sunday March 3, 10, 17 and 24 at around 2 p.m., Foto Fest will offer an organized tour of one historic district. The festive opening weekend includes a walking tour of the Market Square area. The tour guides will not only lead a group to the Sweeney, Coombs and Fredericks Building, but also talk about how D.A. McNulty's installation and its collection of eyeglasses are set up to examine different ways of seeing. The second Sunday, the Greater Houston Preservations Alliance leads a tour of the Warehouse District. The shady section of Main Street in the Museum District is the site for the third tour. The Rice Design Alliance is in charge, and Rice Design Alliance docents will explain Houston's City Beautiful Movement and the effect it had on that thoroughfare. On the fourth Sunday, Project Row Houses has guided tours of the project, and of Albert Chong's "Ancestral Dialogues," Karen Sanders' "Camera House" and the "Universal Family Album." The album project was organized by nationally known artist Pat Ward Williams and is made up of family photos from Third Ward residents.

This project is not unique. Foto Fest features several shows with works by children. Anyone can take a picture, but the participating educational programs asked the kids to put some thought into their work. Williams worked with children, and so did several other photographers involved in "CLICK: Kids with Cameras," which highlights portraits, scenes and studies taken by children from Literacy Through Photography, Project B.R.I.D.G.E., Direct Exposure and Project Galveston. "Literacy Through Photography" may sound like a misnomer, but it's not. It involves writing -- kids have to do "braindrain" diary entries daily -- and like the other programs, Literacy Through Photography teaches kids there's more to photography than pointing and shooting. The idea is to get them to think about what they see around them, and to capture the images that express their views.

Most of Foto Fest's photographers are more sophisticated than the kids, of course, yet many have a similarly simple goal. Two highlights of the event are the first ever Western exhibit of the work of Chinese photographer Wu Jialin and the U.S. premiere of Malian portraits by African artist Seydou Keita. Jialin's black-and-white images of the people of Yunnan provide us a window into a little known society; Keita's grand portraits offer the same thing. Though Keita's work was done in a studio, the collection of formal portraits, begun in the 1940s, chronicle changes in fashion and attitude. The sitters, dressed to the nines and posed, show the increasing influence of Islamic and European traditions in Keita's African city.

These, and shows by French, Colombian, German, Mexican and Spanish photographers, are intended E well, they're supposed to offer us a chance to look at a wide selection of top-drawer photography and the technical skill and artistic eye great photographers use. But they're also supposed to make us look at how photographers elsewhere view their surroundings and their community. The notion is that such prompting may be enough to cause us to look again at how our own local photographers view their community -- and that, in turn, may lead us to take a fresh look at Houston itself.

Foto Fest '96 runs through March 30 at various locations downtown. Information Center, 309 Travis, 840-9711; grand opening Market Square, 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, March 1.

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Edith Sorenson