Photo phest phrenzy

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The board of the Festival of the Photograph functions a bit like the aperture of a camera, the part behind the lens that expands to capture more light. As the festival’s name and reputation grows, the board behind it is better able to snap up legends from a wider pool of names.


Bombs away: The Festival of the Photograph announces this year’s featured artists, including war photographer James Nachtwey (who snapped this picture of a Palestinian tossing a Molotov cocktail in the West Bank).

The problem is that, once the controlling eye behind the viewfinder gets used to a certain style, it faces a decision: Make a name and a reputation with one style, or let a bit more light in and shoot for another effect. “The first year,” says Nick Nichols, co-executive director of the Festival of the Photograph, “I said, ‘We’re gonna have color photography, social photography and fine art photography.’ That creates another set of curatorial problems.”

Last year’s lineup fit Nichols’ three categories (William Albert Allard, Eugene Richards and Sally Mann), but building the Festival’s reputation meant that the board had to expand their aperture to collect a bit more, even if it meant sacrificing their three easy categories. Which is precisely how the Festival nabbed a more explosive (and surely more controversial, in Curtain Calls’ opinion) lineup for 2008, with the three rings of this flash-soaked circus occupied by Mary Ellen Mark, James Nachtwey and Joel-Peter Witkin.

Or, as Nichols describes the selection process and two of the photographers: “We have a black and white war photographer [Nachtwey] and a black and white documentary photographer [Mark]. So we don’t have any color. So the process is falling apart.”

Falling apart or not, the stories behind the festival’s ties to these photographers attest to the strength of the photography community in town. Mark, a photographer since the mid-’60s, built a career with photos that document subjects somewhere between oblivious action and camera-ready portraiture, a style that allows her to maintain her subjects’ natural relationship with their surroundings but still look a voyeur right in the lens. Nichols, long a fan of Mark’s work, took her to dinner to propose that she attend the 2008 Festival as a featured artist. (In Nichols’ words: “I’ll die and rot in hell if we don’t have a woman in those [featured] three every year.”)

Mark’s recent project, it turns out, has been high school proms, which she shoots with an oversized Polaroid camera, capturing a one-off event with one-of-a-kind photos, opting for the kiss of chemicals on Polaroid paper rather than digital shots.

“I told her, ‘Hey, we got a high school,’” says Nichols. “She’s actually gonna have her exhibit at McGuffey [Art Center], which will be the pictures she shoots at the Charlottesville High School prom.” Nichols adds that the shoot is still being arranged, but that Mark will donate the images to the donors that help her coordinate the project.

James Nachtwey, one of the most popular war photographers in the world, earned some of his earliest raves in 1981 while photographing the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland surrounding the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Since then, he has documented wars and conflicts in South Africa and Baghdad, where he was injured in the grenade blast that blew off the hand of Time journalist Michael Weisskopf. He was on the Festival board’s wish-list for 2007, according to Nichols, but a gut feeling led the board to opt for putting Eugene Richards’ show at McGuffey.

“Last year, McGuffey was kinda blown away by Eugene Richards,” says Nichols. “[They asked] ‘Please don’t give us the guy that stops you in your tracks every year.’” So Nachtwey is headed to Les Yeux du Monde this year.

Which leaves Joel-Peter Witkin and Second Street Gallery. And, Curt admits, he’s been saving the best details for last. Witkin frequently works with bits and parts of corpses to compose elaborate scenes, often in imitation of famous works (see his riff on Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” re-created with upwards of 10 bodies). As luck would have it, Leah Stoddard, director of Second Street, knows a collector of Witkin’s work (the photos, not the bodies) in Charlottesville, and so the venue and artist were (pun so very much intended) pieced together.

So there you have it, readers—the main attractions of the 2008 Festival of the Photo. Nichols added that fest alums Bill Allard (recently featured in Abode, C-VILLE’s guide to all things dwelling; check the bins around town!) and Eugene Richards will return to teach workshops preceding the fest, and that peerless whale photographer (and Nichols’ National Geographic colleague) Charles “Flip” Nicklin will hang his images of whales along the Downtown Mall this year.

Before he and Curt part ways, Nichols tells him that the outdoor art “will always be something you can hang outside, regardless of monkey dicks.” (Nichols used spray paint as chimp penis concealer when locals complained about an aroused ape last year; for video, see c-ville.com.) CC wonders for a second: Don’t whales have fairly sizeable genitals?

D.R.C.

For those of you thinking that “D.R.C.” stands for Democratic Republic of the Congo,” guess again, you acro-nincompoops. Because few things drive Curt’s culture jive like a night of New Order (“True Faith” is his jam of choice) or LCD Soundsystem, he’s implementing a new “Dance Report Card” to keep you posted on local dance nights. And now, readers, it’s time to take OXO to school.

CC hit OXO recently to catch DJ XSV spinning his particular mix of ’90s rock and old-school hip-hop, but what he found was a bit disappointing. The joint was jumpin’, as Fats Waller might say, but to a straight-up, largely nonironic playing of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

War veterans have flashbacks, readers, but the dance floor, like love, is a battlefield, too, and this episode sent CC back to nights of hanging out on innumerable frat house porches around Rugby Road, desperately trying to get into parties to relieve a bad case of the “gottamoves.” The night might’ve improved (and according to at least one C-VILLE dance enthusiast, OXO’s dance night is on the up-and-up, so Curt will head back soon), so consider this your chance for extra credit, OXO—Curt wants the funk. Your grade: C+.

And while we’re on flashbacks, CC was a bit shocked to see a dress code list posted near the entrance to OXO akin to the late Jabberwocky’s much-contested rules governing attire (no hats, no jeans). Curt may give you a report card, OXO, but he’s not one to mandate uniforms. What gives?

Got any arts news or dance-off challenges? E-mail curtain@c-ville.com.

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