A closer LOOK3: New director brings new approach to photo fest

LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph gears up for a full schedule in 2016, led by new executive director Mary Virginia Swanson (right). Photo: Riley Blanks LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph gears up for a full schedule in 2016, led by new executive director Mary Virginia Swanson (right). Photo: Riley Blanks

This year marks the 10th year of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph but promises to bring a new approach to the popular programming, taking place June 13-19. The festival has continued to evolve throughout its decade of public programs to meet the interests of the field’s amateurs and professionals alike. While doing so, it has provided local community members with opportunities to view work and engage with some of the most challenging and respected photographers in the world. Though it’s still one of Charlottesville’s young festivals, LOOK3 is established and well-regarded within the worldwide photography community.

LOOK3 leadership has always reflected this high esteem as well, boasting accomplished photography consultants and practitioners on the festival’s staff and board over the years. When the executive director stepped down in 2015 to pursue other projects, an intensive search followed, resulting in the selection of Mary Virginia Swanson.

As an educator, consultant, mentor and writer, Swanson has remained deeply embedded in photography since earning her MFA in the field in the late 1970s. She was the founding director of the American Photography Institute at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and has organized special projects through Magnum Photos and education initiatives such as the Ansel Adams Workshop, among others. She is also the author of three books on the business of photography, advising aspiring and professional photographers on the ins and outs of marketing and selling work, publishing art books and other industry nitty-gritty.

In 2013, Swanson joined the education faculty for the festival, leading a program on long-term project proposals and assisting with portfolio reviews. “I found LOOK3 to be completely engaging,” she says. “It was an atmosphere where everyone mattered, no matter if you had forged a reputation in our field or not. We were all made to feel special and very welcome in Charlottesville.”

Last fall she accepted the executive director position, while remaining a dedicated teacher and mentor—she speaks to groups and reviews portfolios for the Aperture Foundation in her spare time.

As she takes the reins of the festival, Swanson’s interest in education remains strong, as does her focus on continuing the feeling of inclusivity that she experienced first-hand. “My passion for relevant education is powerful,” says Swanson. “I want LOOK3 to offer a continuing education program that serves photographers of all ages and levels of expertise. We are expanding education at the start of the week, offering one-day seminars on the technical as well as the business side of photography. With changes in digital imaging capabilities, the photography world is changing fast.”

Swanson and her small staff have already announced the 2016 LOOK3 lineup of featured photographers, including Nick Brandt, Graciela Iturbide, Yuri Kozyrev, Frans Lanting, Olivia Bee, Binh Danh, Sheila Pree Bright, Doug DuBois and Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye.

The international representation among the artists is broad, but this year the focus is more on the subject of each photographer’s work than on the artists themselves. This move away from the celebrity-photographer to the documentarian and activist-photographer is an important part of Swanson’s issue-focused approach to the festival. “Whatever area of work they’ve championed is just as important as their name,” she says.

Iturbide is a Mexican documentary photographer who captures everyday life of indigenous communities, while Kozyrev is a Russian photojournalist covering Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, among other sites of international conflict. Pree Bright explores cultural identities and the African-American experience through her work, while DuBois focuses on American portraiture. Danh is a Vietnamese photographer best known for his chlorophyll prints that photosynthesize images directly onto a leaf or a blade of grass, with the Vietnam War recurring as a major theme through his work.

“I am inspired by artists engaged in documentary practices where we learn about our world and those who came before us, as well as those expressing themselves through historic processes,” says Swanson.

LOOK3’s unique schedule offers a full festival three out of every four years, with LOOKbetween educational programming on the off year of each cycle. This year’s full program includes educational events, artist exhibitions and talks, and the outdoor projections—a perennial crowd favorite—will return. The Sunday of the festival coincides with Father’s Day and will feature a new draw for locals: Family Photo Day. The program will offer free family portraits taken by professional photographers, plus plenty of kid-friendly activities at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

LOOK3 passes are on sale at look3.org.

What is your favorite festival event? Tell us in the comments below.

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