Planning your Festival of the Photograph itinerary? Allow us to focus your lenses

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There are obvious shortcomings to describing a visual medium in words. Hence this preview of 2009 LOOK3: Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph can only be a snapshot, and a poor one at that. It’s more like a Polaroid (RIP, Polaroid) photo that you’ll have to flap around between June 11 and June 13 before you see the whole image develop. Until then, here are some Festival highlights to whet your artistic appetite and add fuel to your flapping.

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Click here for an exclusive interview with photographer Sylvia Plachy!

First, some quick résumés for the three festival headliners: Martin Parr, Gilles Peress and Sylvia Plachy. They were all selected by Executive Directors Nick Nichols and Jessica Nagle, Guest Curator MaryAnne Golon, and the rest of the LOOK3 team to bring their internationally renowned work and artistic insights to Charlottesville, so this weekend you should operate under the savvy assumption that they’re not to be missed. Parr, Peress and Plachy stamp the whole festival with their personal watermarks, assuring Virginia that their work is inimitable.

Martin Parr

Martin Parr has a keen eye for social commentary, and the work he produces is relatable and often comic. He was only narrowly voted into Magnum, an elite guild of photojournalists, due to his reputation as being a dilettante’s (i.e. Margaret Thatcher’s favorite) photographer. While his peers were taking pictures of war zones, Parr was shooting the working class beaches of New Brighton, England. “Magnum photographers were meant to go out as a crusade…to places like famine and war,” he once said. “I went out and went rounthe corner to the local supermarket because this to me is the front line.” He has published numerous books, including Bored Couples, in which he and his own partner were self-mockingly featured, and Parking Spaces, about the last parking space available in 41 different countries. He brings an otherworldly focus to common scenes: “With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”

INsight talk: June 12, 4-6pm, Paramount Theater
Gallery exhibit: “Luxury” at Second Street Gallery, through July 18
Gallery reception: June 12, 6:30-7:30, Second Street Gallery

Gilles Peress

Gilles Peress once said, “I don’t care that much anymore about ‘good photography’; I’m gathering evidence for history, so that we remember.” The man practices what he preaches. His photographs capture the atrocities of wars in Bosnia and Rwanda and the tension of the Iranian hostage crisis. In his emotionally taxing books, he is known for not detracting from his photographs with superfluous text. He lets his images of the world and its human dramas speak for themselves.

INsight talk: June 13, 4-6pm, Paramount Theater
Gallery exhibit: “Natures Mortes” at Michie at Seventh, through June 28

Sylvia Plachy

How does Charlottesville afford these superstars?

In a way, it’s misleading that the Festival of the Photograph attracts such high-profile names in addition to the occasional flush corporate sponsors like Canon, Apple and National Geographic. In just three years LOOK3 has built a prestigious reputation and an enviable street cred in the close-knit photo community (or “my tribe,” as Nichols calls it), but the annual event still suffers from a funding deficit. When a large sponsor dropped out in January, the 2009 festival seemed doomed to operate in the red. In fact, Nagle and Nichols might still have to pick up the tab for this year’s financial losses.

The funding issue was very much on Nichols’ mind last week as he contemplated how to preserve the festival for future generations. “It’s got to be sustainable,” he said. “We can’t keep begging for money…and living on the knife edge. …We need to take a deep breath after the festival and figure out how to make it last forever. It can’t last if it’s just one person’s dream…or ‘Nick and Jessica’s Show.’” Federal and city aid, grants like the one from the Annenberg Foundation that LOOK3 received this year, and private funds are key to the success of future festivals. Since 2007 Nichols and Nagle have invested wisely in bringing some of the biggest names to Charlottesville; now the prestige needs to translate into dollar amounts so these artists will continue to transform the Downtown Mall into an internationally recognized photo gallery every summer.—W.W.M.

In Hollywood, Plachy’s son, Adrien Brody, is the most famous member of her family. But in the international art world, Hungarian-born photographer Sylvia Plachy is the one doling out autographs. Known for her work in the Village Voice and the New Yorker as well as her many award-winning books like Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry, Nichols has documented schoolchildren in Romania, refugees in America, and of course the life of her son, the Oscar-winning actor. If only everyone could have such striking subjects at their fingertips. Read an exclusive interview with Plachy here.

INsight talk: June 11, 7-9pm, Paramount Theater
Gallery exhibit: “Waiting” at McGuffey Art Center, through June 28
Gallery reception: June 11, 9-10pm McGuffey

Best of the Galleries

This year the word “gallery” should be interpreted a bit loosely. Charlottesville has lost a few prominent art venues this year. With fewer traditional homes for its artists’ work, the Festival of the Photograph had to get creative. This year the Festival makes art galleries not only out of Downtown treetops and the Mall’s Central Place, but also out of empty retail spaces. Exhibitions Director Will May has been challenged with creating galleries where abandoned businesses have left an opening for art. But venues like Second Street and McGuffey are still open wide for business. And Nichols still delivers on his promise that he’ll never produce an event that requires driving. Check out the following gallery highlights through June.

For both the sheltered and the socially conscious: Paolo Pellegrin at Free Speech Monument

Paolo Pellegrin exhibits his conflict photos at the Free Speech Monument on the Downtown Mall. This installation may include some of Pellegrin’s gut-wrenching work from As I Was Dying, his book chronicling his encounters with conflict and death in Lebanon, Haiti, and Afghanistan. A photojournalist who has worked in Kosovo, Cambodia and Darfur on assignment with the New York Times and Newsweek, Pellegrin’s photos are not for the faint of heart. “Perhaps it is only in their moment of suffering that these people will be noticed,” he once said, “and noticing erases our excuse of saying one day that we did not know.” Pellegrin’s images of suffering might threaten to start a censorship controversy similar to the one that Nichols’ treetop “chimp erection” photo caused last year, but as Nichols said in a C-VILLE interview last week, “If you can’t put conflict on the Free Speech Wall, you can’t put it anywhere.”

For amateur photographers: YourSpace opening at Charlottesville Community Design Center

YourSpace is an opportunity for both amateur and established photographers to show off their work in public during the Festival of the Photograph. In giving back to a younger generation of artists, LOOK3 aims to foster the same spirit of artistic generosity and accessibility that Nick Nichols has aimed to cultivate since his first Festival of the Photograph in 2007, which “was basically an extension of [his] back yard.” YourSpace encourages anyone to bring a print or a digital image with a “fortune” theme to the Charlottesville Community Design Center, where the work will be shown for the duration of the Festival.

For teens: “American Youth” at McGuffey Art Center

At McGuffey through June 28, “American Youth” presents companion images to the eponymous book capturing the daily existence of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. Redux Pictures, a photography consortium out of New York City, sponsored the book. Capturing the diversity and spontaneity of young adult life, the prints feature 19-year-old paralyzed war veterans, Muslim daughters of Egyptian immigrants jumping on trampolines and Iowa teens skinny dipping at a popular river hangout. The photos are stirring in their honesty and in the voices captured both unspoken and painfully articulated by the camera.

For superlative chasers: Pictures of the Year International (POYI) at 418 E. Main St. and World Press Photo 09 at 106 E. Main St.

These two exhibits are particularly beneficial for people who might not know a lot about photography; both were curated by experts in the field who each year determine the best photographs in the world. The presence of the World Press Photo 09 collection is particularly significant because this is the first time the works will appear on North American soil. Artists and art patrons from all over the nation are expected to descend on Charlottesville this year for the debut. Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan and Sydney will have left their scent on these photos, but Charlottesville will show the international art community that it is central, too.

For kids and adults alike: Tom Mangelsen’s “Within the Wild” on Downtown Mall and Joel Sartore’s “Vanishing Gems” at McGuffey Art Center

Although the Festival of the Photograph is perhaps most appreciated by adult artists and patrons, there’s still room for kids and novices to enjoy the events. For instance, no pedestrian could miss Tom Mangelsen’s larger-than-life photo installations in the treetops of the Downtown Mall. Each year the “Trees” exhibit features nature- or ecologically-minded photography. Last year’s whale photos by Flip Nicklin are taken over by Mangelsen’s images of gorillas, grizzly bears, and penguins. And make sure to take the kids to Joel Sartore’s “Vanishing Gems” exhibit of fragile amphibian life at McGuffey. Just think about covering their eyes when they reach the toad mating photos. Or is that censorship?

For wanderers: “Trees” on the Downtown Mall and “Pages” at Central Place

Part of the community fun of the Festival of the Photograph is seeing photos projected in various outdoor places across the Downtown Mall. The art is both democratic and unexpected, the way Nick Nichols and Jessica Nagle intended. After all, one of the reasons the festival has become so prestigious in just three years is its perfect placement. “The festival is designed around downtown,” says Nichols. The combination of The Paramount, the Pavilion and the enclosed pedestrian space makes it the perfect place to showcase photographs—almost a gallery in and of itself. In addition to Tom Mangelsen’s “Trees” exhibit, you can also catch “Pages” at Central Place and in storefront windows along the Mall. The latter projections show both raw images and their placement in international magazines as a commentary on how journalism both highlights and distorts the work of the photographer. Pages is open to submissions.