The Meat Market

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The back lobby of the Warwick Hotel is dotted with Xeroxed "No Smoking" signs that have been futilely taped to the wall. A cluster of European FotoFest participants is pointedly ignoring them, nervously lighting up their stockpiled foreign cigarettes. The only signs that matter are the ones that indicate the way to the Meeting Place, the semicircular ballroom where dozens of editors, curators, gallery owners, publishers and collectors sit at damask-skirted tables reviewing photographers' portfolios.

The photographers are among the 350 who signed nine months in advance and paid $650 each to spend four days meeting with the reviewers. They will have from four to six 20-minute reviews daily, while the 150 unpaid reviewers will see at least 14 portfolios. Participants refer to the Meeting Place as the Meat Market. Reviewers are hoping to discover new and interesting work; participants are hoping it will be theirs. The artists could get exhibitions, sales, book deals...or just feedback.

Having waded through FotoFest's water-themed exhibitions, I've decided to check out the event that, for many, is the whole point of FotoFest. There's a directory of reviewers for participants, which lists their credentials and describes the type of work they're interested in seeing, as well as the types they aren't. Apparently a lot of people have been burned in the past. Some reviewers' "don'ts" include "inane nudity and self-indulgent excess," "nude self- portraits" and "graphic depictions of surgery."


"Discoveries of the Meeting Place"

Erie City Iron Works, 1302 Nance

Through April 12; 713-223-5522

Jean Caslin, director of the Houston Center for Photography, has no squeamish restrictions on the work she'll look at and lets me sit in on her sessions. She has already done ten reviews today but somehow still appears interested and engaged. I listen in as she talks to an Oklahoman who lives in Bangkok. The hopeful photographer shows Caslin a series of mediocre photos of interesting Thai cultural phenomena; we see pictures of women and children in brightly colored embroidered fabrics and a festival with incredible wax models of temples. Caslin advises her to talk to the Museum of Natural Science.

As the Bangkok woman is packing up her photos, another candidate immediately appears. This one is a young guy from Buenos Aires with a scruffy beard and fashionably tousled hair. He places a large kitschy-looking family photo album in front of us. Inside are color portraits of middle-class Argentine families and their maids, alongside photographs of the maids with their own families. It is a fascinating conceptual project.

The interviewees have their pitches down and succinctly present their work, flipping through their stacks of photographs. Some of the more anal-retentive wear white gloves. A man's voice comes over a loudspeaker and announces "Five minutes" in a heavy Texas accent.

Erie City Iron Works, a converted warehouse, is the site of this year's "Discoveries of the Meeting Place," an exhibition of photographers selected during the portfolio reviews at the last FotoFest. Sian Bonnell is one such artist. She uses food and kitchen equipment in quirky staged photographs. Bonnell turns a plastic colander into a glowing alien structure, grows dish brushes like shrubs in a marsh, and tiles the kitchen backsplash with slices of lunchmeat.

The show offers a wide range of works, including Bonnell's oddball photos, deadpan images of cheerleaders, evocative shots of elderly Eastern Europeans' apartments and Simon Norfolk's starkly spectacular shots of Iraq. His large-scale color images are simultaneously unsettlingly and incredibly beautiful. A small boy, a "looter," stands against a background of devastation. The bronze arm of a Saddam Hussein statue lies in the foreground, ready to be dragged off by the boy's family and sold for scrap. Another color-saturated image shows charred file-cabinet drawers from the archives of the Iraqi National Library. The paint has bubbled and peeled away to reveal metal heated to iridescence.

The "Discoveries of the Meeting Place" show has some of the best work in all of FotoFest, and you understand why, with all of these long days of culling wheat from chaff.

Clint Willour selected Bonnell for the "Discoveries" exhibition. He's the executive director and curator of the Galveston Art Center, chair of the Photo Accessions Committee of the MFAH and a force of nature in photographic circles. Willour is looking at the starkly romantic work of a woman who spent a year teaching in Kampala, Uganda. The images of savanna, trees and animals are elegant, moody and spare. Then Willour turns to a double-exposed image of two giraffes. "Okay, that's the first one I don't like. You had me, you got me, and now I think, 'She's playing with me.' " Willour explains his objections to the gimmicky image of the ghostly giraffes. He's got a sharp eye and an equally sharp wit that's softened by a well-meaning desire to help.

Most of the artists have slick promotional materials -- CDs are all the rage -- but one kid taking aerial photographs of Alaska has handwritten his information on strips of notebook paper. Willour patiently explains to him the importance of having a printed card with an image to leave with people.

Next I join John Bennette, a New York collector with a wealth of perceptive career advice for the artists. If the work is good enough, he recommends galleries and tells artists they can use his name as a reference. A woman with a series of incredible photographs of naked, age-spotted elderly couples in discreet sexual embraces is recommended to nonprofit spaces. "You need people who don't need to make money," Bennette quips.

He also advises his reviewees to send handwritten follow-up notes to the people they've met with. "Handwritten," he says, adding, "I'm from the South."

The day finally ends, but Bennette isn't done yet. Figures that have been lurking by the doorway begin to descend on the reviewers. He shakes his head good-naturedly, saying, "I've had them follow me into the bathroom." A Chinese artist sits down, opening his portfolio. Bennette has reviewed him before, and at the previous meeting, things had gotten quite heated. The artist had been making photographs about racial injustice in the South. He felt that Bennette, an African-American who came of age in Birmingham in the civil rights era, wasn't sufficiently interested in the subject. Bennette bemusedly recounts the memory as he flips through the photographer's new work. The artist admonishes him to "Go slower!" Bennette shakes his head and is beginning a weary retort when a Norwegian photographer interrupts, asking, "Do you have a minute?" And so it goes.

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