18 June 2009


Look3: The Festival of the Photograph was great fun — three days of browsing photography exhibits, seeing presentations from luminaries in the field, and hanging out with lots of photographer friends. However, the photography on display I found less than inspiring.

The exhibits and shows were heavily weighted towards serious photojournalism. The implication here was that photography needs to communicate a very direct social or political message. Indeed, the Saturday morning breakfast session, where James Nachtway discussed his body of work on highly drug resistant tuberculosis, was titled “How Can Photography Improve the World’s Health?”

But my favorite body of work of the entire weekend was Chinese photographer Li Jiejun’s series of iconic war photographs restaged with action figures. His work won 3rd prize in the World Press Photo awards Portrait series category, especially surprising since his portraits were all of plastic toys. The images raise intriging questions about the authenticity of documentary photography.

The Insight Conversations were also thought-provoking. Martin Parr walked the audience through his long career of doing exactly the opposite of what a serious photographer is expected to do. While most photographers gravitate to the extremes, documenting the poorest of the poor or glamorizing the rich, Parr’s images highlight the middle class in very ordinary circumstances. The discussion with Gilles Peress was challenging and sometimes awkward, but I found Peress’ refusal to be nailed down as a “war photographer” or even a “photojournalist” to be refreshing. He acknowledged that his work is driven more by what is inside, the photographer’s personal world, than by any external events or influences.

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