Interview with Harris Fogel

Harris Fogel (left) reviewing portfolios.

Harris Fogel, Director and Curator of the Sol Mednick Gallery of Photography & Gallery 1401 and Associate Professor of Photography at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, visited Łódź, Poland, to participate in the 11th Annual Fotofestival as one of the festival’s visiting experts.  His trip is sponsored by U.S. Embassy Warsaw.

Harris was kind enough to speak with ASMP Philly about his experience.

ASMP: What can you tell us about the Fotofestival in Poland?

I was invited to serve as a portfolio reviewer for the FOTOFESTIWAL – the International Festival of Photography in Łódź, which is now in its 11th year. The festival is held in Grohman’s Villa, a beautiful, old, but somewhat decrepit estate in the center of the city, once owned by the Grohman family who owned textile factories. It was seized during the war, and then left to rot by the communists, not unlike many buildings in Łódź, which was one of the primary centers of industrial production in Poland. When the Communists left, they also emptied many of the factories, warehouses, and industrial sites in the city.

The creative community has been able to use those spaces for art exhibitions, film festivals, and music events. It is a slightly surreal experience to see so many enormous buildings and spaces throughout the city, some restored and in use, or others more or less abandoned, and then reborn by some driven individuals committed to utilizing them for creative uses. And as artists around the world have experienced, those spaces are slowly becoming gentrified, and harder to find. One very cool thing is that one of the Grohman estate buildings is now home to the new Book Art Museum.

The festival theme this year was I*NETWORK, and it was represented by six blocks; Human Connection, Grand Prix, Tied Up in Gender, Education, Accompanying Events, and Exhibitions. As you might expect there were photo exhibitions just about everywhere, in museums, galleries, in the Łódź Art Center, and I found them to be uniformly high quality and challenging. The artists ranged from students to some of the most highly regarded photographers working in Poland and Europe. Simon Norfolk, one of the most important documentary photographers today, taught a workshop and lectured.

It is also home to the National Film School in Łódź, where Roman Polanski attended and was graduated from. The city’s rich cinematic, photographic, animation, and music histories are evident in the work being done there, and the educational environment is clearly holds a high level of respect for the faculty and students engaged in this work; the city seems very proud of its creative history. The tortured history of the city, including the creation of the Łódź Ghetto (one of the largest Jewish Ghettos created by the Nazis) and the city’s invasion during the war, with the loss of over 300,000 Jews, and around 120,000 Poles, contributes to the feel of a city still trying to rebuild and rethink its own identity, and much of the work I saw reflected that struggle. The exhibitions included a very strong show in the Museum of City Łódź of gender-based images curated by Adam Mazur who is the leading photo historian of Polish photography. Another challenging show was entitled Human Connection and held in the villa. It was curated by Bill Kouwenhoven and Gergely László, explored personal stories, projects, and histories, and featured videos, documentary, and conceptual work from photographers from all over the world, and I found it asked fundamental questions about what we use photography for.

In many ways the still-present industrial infrastructure in Łódź reminds me of American cities like Detroit, where the infrastructure is there, but the jobs and factories have been sent overseas, leaving the cities wondering what to do with their future. In Łódź one response has been the creation of such festivals that bring thousands of visitors.

ASMP: What are some of the main points and trends in the current state of American photography?

Documentary projects that might also be seen as extended portrait projects seem to be one of the overriding trends in the photographic sphere. However the interactions between traditional media like painting, sculpture, and conceptual and performance work is all over the place, but not necessarily seen in the same photography-based venues. I love it when those worlds collide. I think that one example of this is the return to film and analog processes as a response to the perceived sameness of digital. This isn’t only an American phenomenon, but I’ve seen it in work from around the world. Maybe this is similar to the rise of vinyl LPs, a retro return to a creative process where staying on top of the latest version of software isn’t necessary. I think it is so interesting that Leica would introduce a black and white only version of its M9 digital camera. Of course it is hugely limited audience wise by its price tag with a lens is a bit north of $10 grand. But still, the urge to photograph in B&W is still here using film or digital or some combination, and that means something.

This isn’t to say that digital technologies aren’t still ruling the medium, especially in output. The scale of work, the uniformity of prints and presentation, are all evidence of that aspect of photography that is free of the haptic influence, the sense of the hand. And digital is a great way to work on long-term documentary projects at minimal expense. What I’m still curious about is how the web, iPad, and other technologies will really impact the medium. After the web became part of our lives, a lot of folks predicted that photography would start to exist mostly in atomic form, but here we see folks really seeking out exhibitions of prints – carbon-based prints! Silver prints, platinum, and gum prints were all things that were supposed to sort of die away, but instead have had resurgence.

So while pixels may be the predominant form factor for photographic capture, I’m not convinced that in 25 years or more that prints won’t be valued even more. I guess what I’m saying is that I think we haven’t progressed much in how photography has been affected by the internet, there is nothing revolutionary for the vast majority of how photography on the web is used and consumed. Henry Wilhelm would argue that the web has allowed one of photography’s earliest goals of a truly democratic medium with distribution model that allows one to share work with millions of people to become a reality. While I agree with his thoughts on that I also think that the astonishingly temporary state of the web and digital storage also means that we should expect most will be lost to history.

I remember around 18 years ago when some schools and businesses decided to tear out their darkrooms, color labs, etc., because they were going all digital, and instead of simplifying their lives, the nascent state of digital imaging only made it far more complicated and expensive. Not to mention the images were pretty much useless! A new generation of students and photographers have come to value those traditional processes; in the fine-art realm I think we see that reflected in much of the work now getting attention. When I was in Poland, I saw a lot of work from all over the world that was silver based, as well as conventional Type-C color prints.

And I think it crosses over to the editorial space as well. The primary purpose of photography in a magazine is to set it apart from other magazines; the content and presentation are what keep those publications in business, and so a process that moves us to reconsider photography’s roots also means it’s not the same-old, same-old. And usually that spurs sales, making the art director, publisher, and accountants happy! Duane Michals likes to say that all art has a hook, which might sound a bit crass, but it’s true. Advertising, fashion, editorial, documentary, journalism, and fine-art work all need a specific point of view to call home, or the work becomes generic. It’s hard to be dogmatic when one remembers W. Eugene Smith with potassium ferricyanide tweaking his prints by bleaching the silver.

Today’s photographers and artists possess a high level knowledge of media, the web, the art market, and the lack of boundaries. As a result they are making work that is very self and community aware, work that hopefully will get shown.  Being so aware, they are also hip to the need to express themselves in a way that distinguishes them from the rest of the pack. You might think of it as cynical, but I think it is being aware of the canon and trying to navigate one’s own way.

ASMP: What major changes have you seen in over the last 10 years in fine art photography?

Tough question to answer without a long discussion over dinner, but the rise of the photo book is certainly one of them. Print on Demand allows for an astonishing ability to create a finalized statement without the need or approval of a publishing house. It is also a wonderful way to work out ideas on a continual basis, refining a statement. And, since such books are quite affordable, they are a way to distribute physical bodies of work for a fraction of the price of traditional publishing. Sure, there are quality issues, but that isn’t the point.

For me the point is the return to carbon. Despite the allure of the net and all those promises of how the net would transform the media, I think that most photographers now understand that the web is strongest as a resource. It is a great way to show off one’s work, but I would argue that it is only the first step. The next step is a mix of carbon and human interaction – to physically show work to a curator, art director, or photo editor. As a curator, I’ve been misled by digital representations, so the physical is key to understanding the big picture, if you don’t mind the terrible pun. And I think people consider a book not only a more permanent statement about their work, but also about their humanity and presence on the planet. So the rise of the photo book is for me an amazing change to the medium.

My own stance is that what was revolutionary about Photoshop wasn’t the ability to tweak pixels but rather the ability to add text to images easily. Before Photoshop if you wanted to add type to an image, you only had a few choices: handwriting, offset, silkscreen, photolith, dye-transfer, press-type, and so on. None of them were all that easy, or professional looking, and a process such as offset often required a large expenditure. But with Photoshop suddenly you could add and work with text and images. For me, it was as if the Guttenberg Bible had been reimagined. Print on Demand is one direct offshoot, as is its predecessor desktop publishing and so on. The connections allowed by the easy use and integration of text cannot be overstated.

ASMP: How did the US Embassy end up sponsoring your trip to Warsaw?

This is the second time I’ve been sponsored by the US State Department, which sponsors cultural exchanges. My Polish experience all began when UArts received a call from an individual from Philadelphia-based business support organization who said there were two educators from Warsaw who wanted to meet with Media Arts educators. It turned out they really wanted to meet with photo educators, and we ended up showing them around the department and introducing them to faculty members; out of that grew a relationship.

As a result, our photo students have been invited to exhibit in the Łódź festival for the past six years as part of the Factory of Photography student exhibitions. Several years back, the Academy of Art in Warsaw, in conjunction with the Cultural Attaché at the US Embassy there, invited me to visit, lecture, and meet with a wide range of students, curators, artists, and galleries, as part of the State Department’s “America Presents” program which brings Americans in many academic and cultural fields to countries around the world. The sponsorship of the embassy is really wonderful, and it was such an honor. I was also invited by the Academy of Art in Warsaw to hold an exhibition of my own work, which was great –nice to see my own work up for a change!

My recent visit was similar to my first, but timed for the Łódź festival. I was given a tightly structured program of meetings and events, so I was quite busy during the visits. I was fortunate to be able to attend the pre-opening for the Photo Month in Krakow, which is similar to the Łódź festval. Krakow is an absolutely beautiful, amazing city to walk around in and the first exhibitions I visited were in the Kazimierz district, which is the old Jewish quarter. Some of the exhibitions in the larger venues for the festival featured such photographers as Alexander Rodchenko and Sally Mann. Both festivals are very professionally run, which is necessary for the Embassy to approve sponsorship.

The Embassy doesn’t expect a visit to be over and done once a visitor returns home; rather, the goal is to foster on-going relationships, with cultural exchanges and interactions in the years ahead. This means I have a lot of e-mails to send, answer, and follow-up on! I’m already working on such exchanges.