A few weeks ago United Photo Industries’ creative director Sam Barzilay described Photoville as a “county fair for photography” and that’s what it turned out to be.  Barzilay, creative producer Dave Shelley, and the UPI team have pulled off a photography event that is original and accessible, and which is responsive to both its audiences and its surroundings.  In the still developing Brooklyn Bridge Park, under the Brooklyn Heights promenade and the BQE, Photoville’s temporary installation of shipping containers, tents and lunch trucks opened last weekend, providing a leisurely venue for visitors to explore, and more, to participate.  A torrential rainstorm cancelled Friday’s opening night events but made for a beautiful first weekend.  Photoville continues this Thursday through Sunday.

Photos courtesy UPI. L © Sam Barzilay, R © Eli Sands
Photoville before and after. (Photos courtesy UPI. L: © Sam Barzilay, R: © Eli Sands)

© Leo Hsu
Photo Stand-Ins presented by Dumbo Arts Center. © Leo Hsu

Photoville’s success is in its inclusiveness and its ability to offer visitors an undirected experience of discovery and the opportunity to participate.  Both the long fence of curated photography along the main path leading through the park, and the pod-city of white shipping containers have a powerful leveling effect and set a populist tone.  Most of the photographs in the containers are attached with magnets or clips; strings of electric lights run through the lengths of the pods; the photographs on the fence and the dog run are printed on a flexible banner material.  The presentation could not be more different from the carefully modulated presentation of traditional art gallery spaces.  But the DIY approach does not compromise the quality of the photography, or the coherence of each organization’s contribution.

© Leo Hsu
Pushing rainwater off of tents: Friday’s Photoville opening. © Leo Hsu

Some exhibits, such as the New York Times’ “Ten Years of War”, PDN’s “The Curator”  and Aloys Ginjaar’s “The Wonder of Women” are curated group shows.  Organizations like Maine’s SALT Institute for Documentary Studies and Phoot Camp use their containers as a means to introduce themselves to visitors.  Conveyor Arts hosts a popup book shop, you can have a portrait made with a view camera, and one pod has a hole drilled into it, thus transformed into a camera obscura trained on lower Manhattan.  There’s also a dog run (utliized, if not heavily) and a greenhouse of plastic camera flowers in which visitors sit for pictures.

© Leo Hsu
“The Fence at Photoville” runs between Pier 1 and Pier 3, Brooklyn Bridge Park. © Leo Hsu

Among the most effective exhibits are installations.  “Becoming Visible” presents Josh Lehrer’s gorgeous platinum palladium portraits of transgendered homeless teens.  These images are luxurious and adoring,adorning both the inside and the outside of the container.  Noorderlicht shows Pete Brook and Hester Keijser’s “Cruel and Unusual” which deals with themes that Brook regularly explores on his Prison Photography website, including notes from his Prison Photography Road Trip; the double container exhibit brings together a large array of work that was driven by perhaps similar motivations, but which are realised in distinctively different and intimate ways.  The Magnum Foundation’s installation of “China’s Rat Tribe” shows Sim Chi Yin’s project on young people living in small underground apartments in Chinese cities, and recreates within the pod a tiny living space with bed, posters, and mini rice cooker.  

© Leo Hsu
Sim Chi Yin’s “China’s Rat Tribe”, presented by the Magnum Foundation. © Leo Hsu

Despite the absence of an overall theme, the contributions of many of the individual curators suggests that the pods are resonant of something very much of this moment.   Along with Sim Chi Yin’s work and Noorderlicht’s pods, Magnum’s Bruce Gilden installation on foreclosures and Wyatt Gallery’s photographs of Haitian tent cities long after the earthquake describe the specific (socially, physically, economically) constrained conditions in which people live, and the ways in which improvisational adaptations to supposedly temporary conditions have become permanent, necessary, and commonplace and everyday.   The tone extends into other exhibits as well, a sense that the possibilities of the world are defined not by imagination but by accommodation.

© Leo Hsu
Lori Waselchuk and Pete Brook at the “Cruel and Unusual” presentation, Saturday June 23, 2012. © Leo Hsu

Talks were hot and many were standing room only: Brook’s panel discussion with Lori Waselchuk, Yana Payusova and Deborah Luster asked whether prison photography actually has any rehabilitative value; Brook noted that institutions are increasingly media-savvy and some prisons even see the possibility of using photography as a means to improve conditions for those incarcerated.  Michael Shaw brought the website Bag News Notes to life, tracing out through examples how news photographs assert messages and work powerfully through their circulation through social media.  Glenn Ruga spoke about “the new documentary” and his panel-  Ed Kashi, Jessica Dimmock and Lori Grinker- demonstrated how the desire to enact change now has many more outlets for a photographer than it did in the past.  Raising awareness is important, noted Kashi, but he spoke of his increased desire to enact change by putting his pictures directly in front of decision-makers. Dimmock described her use of narrative fiction to draw attention to homophobic bullying and Grinker discussed the extended use value of documentary photography in educational materials made available to schools.  Notably the audience attending these talks included people who were being introduced to the work and the concepts for the first time, and the speakers were well chosen in their ability to speak effectively about their projects.

© Leo Hsu
Phoot Camp at Photoville. © Leo Hsu

The location is scenic and the attractions are novel, but moreover, Photoville works because it recognizes that photography is everywhere, that subjects surround us, (see for example Russell Frederick’s pictures of everyday life in Bed-Stuy), and that a photography festival can act as an amplifier rather than as a gatekeeper.   And it must have been empowering: everyone, absolutely everyone, was taking pictures, because we are all citizens of Photoville.

Leo Hsu

Disclosure: I was a Kickstarter supporter of Photoville. Find my picture of our departed hamster Beachball on the dog run fence.

Photoville continues Thursday 28 June through Sunday 1 July, 2012.
United Photo Industries