Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Adamstein was the owner of Dodge-Chrome. He is a part-owner.
There have been many dramatic changes in photography over the past 10 years, but the biggest one, to Theodore Adamstein, has not been about technology, but feelings.
“Photography has gone through a number of cycles. In the days of film and printing, it was incredibly social — you needed to move around town to shoot, get your film developed, send it off to clients. [Now . . . they would just go back to their studio, they would download their files, upload them and off they go, with much less interaction,” he said. “And the comment I heard from many professional photographers was that photography has become lonely.”
In 2007 that realization led Adamstein, a photographer and part-owner of Dodge-Chrome, a photo printing business, to found FotoWeek DC, a weeklong celebration of photography in Washington. The first year brought together local galleries and 15,000 people for seminars, parties and photo-shooting sessions. This year, as FotoWeek celebrates its fifth anniversary, it’s grown considerably: 3,450 entries from 32 countries, an expected attendance of 40,000, and 64 partners and growing, as of last week. The festival, Nov. 9-18, features a contest with cash prizes, as well as parties, lectures and educational opportunities. But Adamstein still finds himself dealing with photographers’ feelings – no longer of loneliness, but sometimes, of discontent. Since its first grass-roots year, Fotoweek has expanded rapidly to become an international organization — and to some photographers, that’s not necessarily a cause for celebration
As Adamstein was contemplating the isolation of contemporary photographers more than five years ago, he says, “A thought occurred: Why are Washington photographers not recognized for great work?”
That year, he gathered about 100 photographers, curators and other folks in the business to put together a festival that focused on three types of photography that remain the festival’s wheelhouse: Fine-art photography, photojournalism and, within the latter category, images that focus on human rights and social justice.
“The very first competition was regional because we had no idea where this would grow or evolve, or even if it would go beyond one year,” he said. “After that, many photographers wrote to us and said, ‘Why is this local?’ ”
So Adamstein expanded, opening the competitions to anyone in the world who could pony up the entry fees, between $14 and $95 this year. That’s when FotoWeek changed, for better or worse, depending on whom you ask.
When FotoWeek went international, its potential for growth became limitless. The international pool of applicants made the festival more attractive to sponsors, and it began to receive more funding (today, its operating budget is approximately $750,000). It introduced curators and photographers to the D.C. scene and made it possible for FotoWeek to bring traveling shows to town. The greatest benefit of all, says Adamstein, has been in the work:
“The quality gets better and better,” he said. “The work that is not as strong does not see its way into competitions anymore, because there is really great work being submitted.”
In 2011, FotoWeek went from weeklong festival to Foto DC, a year-round nonprofit organization that supports local, national and international photography. Adamstein runs it full-time, and he is one of four on a board of directors, with an advisory board of 19 members.
“I think we’ve matured,” said Adamstein. “I think we’ve become more focused, and I think if you were to have asked me in the very beginning, ‘What is this festival about?’ I would have said, ‘It’s a celebration of photography,’ and I think it still is, but what has become very clear is that we’re all about exposure for photographers — from emerging to established, regional, local, national, international, all the way down to kids.”
But some local photographers feel that in the quest for international exposure, Fotoweek has left them in the dust.
“I’ve been around with FotoWeek since the beginning, and when it started out it was local-focused, but it seems like it lost sight of that,” said James Campbell, one of the founders of Instant DC, a collective for photographers interested in instant photography, whether it’s old-school Polaroid or contemporary Instagram. “I don’t know if you could say they’re not local-focused, but the overall trend has been more towards international, and bigger and bigger, and it’s almost turned into this monster.”
Campbell is participating in FotoWeek this year as a partner. He and Instant D.C. are hosting their own show,”Soul of the City,” at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in Mount Pleasant, in collaboration with another local collective of street photographers, STRATA. They paid $95 to become a partner, which gets their event listed on FotoWeek’s Web site, and Campbell says they had some assistance from FotoWeek in finding their exhibit space — but other than that, they’ve been on their own. And because they’re outside the nucleus of FotoWeek Central — the festival hub downtown at the Warner Building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue — their local show is more likely to attract local eyeballs rather than the out-of-town guests who come for Fotoweek, says Campbell. Fotoweek’s mission of exposure isn’t opening the aperture wide enough for the partners and locals on the edges of the festival.
“Planning a huge one-week festival is a lot of work, I give [Adamstein] the benefit of the doubt. He tried to do what he could, but there were too many things going on to help us. [Our show is] more out of loyalty than us thinking we’re going to get a ton of exposure,” said Campbell.
International visitors “are going to come in and look at the work, but they’re not going to network with the local artists . . . I’m focusing on the crowd that I know cares about the work because they live here or three hours away, so they have a physical connection with the space. [FotoWeek] is giving us exposure to the international community — but don’t Web sites do that?”
The balance in this year’s Fotoweek contest is tipped more towards international entries — 55 percent, vs. 45 percent local. That’s an improvement from last year’s contest, which attracted only 30 percent local entries, although Adamstein notes that a single photographer can tip that balance. Adamstein has dealt with local photographers’ criticisms before, and he says he takes them seriously.
“If the photographers — these few people — are feeling this, either we still have a way to go, and they will feel, ‘Wow, there is extensive exposure here.’ Or on their end, their work has to be better,” said Adamstein. “This is not like a formula where you submit, you win, you get exposure, and your career suddenly changes . . . This is not only for the sake of exposure, this is for the pleasure and the educational aspect that our audience gets from viewing this work. Now it’s for everyone to decide if that work is of value to them.”
Many local photographers have found that value. It’s even easier to see it if you’re a Fotoweek prize winner, which results in even more exposure for your work. Val Proudkii, a Northern Virginia photographer who focuses on travel and street photography, is one of Fotoweek’s most prolific winners, racking up seven awards in the last four years.
“This is not just pretty pictures of Washington, D.C., monuments,” said Proudkii. “Just because the Foto DC name suggests a local thing, I didn’t take it as a local venue. It’s great for a community to be on a national level and have name recognition of many places in the U.S. and world. I personally don’t feel left behind, and I would advise people who feel that way, look at it from a different perspective.”
Nicole Aguirre, photographer and editor in chief of Worn Magazine, has also been involved in Fotoweek nearly every year — this year as a portfolio reviewer — and she says the dual focus is good for D.C.
“I think it’s extremely important for [FotoWeek] to keep its local authenticity. Part of what makes it so interesting is that it is in D.C., and this is an important city. The fact that it is here and started here, for that to continue to be promoted is important to lift up the creative community in D.C.,” she said. “The global aspect should be promoted too — it brings people here, and it gives people a different perspective of what’s in D.C. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. I think it should grow in both directions.”
FotoWeek’s growing pains may soon subside. Adamstein has encouraged some programs that put the spotlight on locals – he points to Uncover/Discover, a curated exhibition of 10 local artists – and plans to host sessions for local curators and potential partners to give him feedback. Still, some photographers have discovered that the best way to get involved in FotoWeek is to do it themselves.
“You’ve got to shake the bushes a bit yourself,” said Matt Dunn, one of the founders of STRATA photo collective. “I think that if you want to participate in FotoWeek, you have to do a DIY approach. . . . You have to find a space and get your own show, if you want to exhibit your work or participate in a group show. Don’t rely on Theo.”
Dunn thinks that satellite fairs — like Scope, to Miami’s Art Basel — could someday spring up to support more local work. Campbell is not as sure: “I would rather work with [FotoWeek] than against them. There’s plenty of space for everybody,” he said. He suggested the idea of dual festival tracks: “I would love to see FotoWeek have a whole separate section that’s all local,” he said. “You could picture all the events of the whole week and pick a path. You pay 100 bucks and would have it mapped out where you could just hit the local-focused events.”
FotoWeek’s geographic identity may be murky, but one facet of the festival is clear: FotoWeek consistently tries to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to new photographic technologies and entrepreneurial approaches to running a nonprofit.
This year will bring advances for the FotoWeek partner platform and for individual photographers. The site has begun to offer FotoPage, a portfolio-hosting service that will serve as a directory for curators and partners to discover new work beyond the festival. Adamstein says that photographers who purchase FotoPages ($65 per year, but the festival is offering them for a special $35 rate) will be supporting the organization but also will benefit from FotoWeek’s “matchmaking” services, which help pair curators and artists for shows, lectures and exhibitions. FotoWeek Edu, the festival’s educational wing, will also expand, offering lectures and portfolio reviews year-round.
Five years from now, says Adamstein, the goal is “a permanent space, of a certain size, throughout the year, where all of the programming that you would see in the festival takes place on a daily basis.”
Adamstein is also constantly adjusting the competitions and programming to accommodate new forms of photography. A few years ago, it introduced an iPhoneography competition. This year, that category has evolved to become “Modern Vintage,” taking submissions of any type of filtered image – whether it’s from old toy cameras, like the Holga or Diana, or an iPhone Instagram snapshot. Fotoweek is hosting an Instagram contest, and Instant DC is, too. The former had taken in nearly 2,000 entries as of two weeks ago, and the latter has attracted more than 3,200 images.
While some photographers initially rejected apps such as Instagram, the apps have become more popular among professionals, says Campbell. Social media are also a way to mitigate the profession’s new digital isolation.
“Once you get someone to take a picture with the mobile phone and see, ‘Oh, the quality’s pretty decent,’ ” said Campbell. “Years from now, you’ll have a phone that can take pictures as well as a DSLR. It doesn’t matter the equipment as long as you get the shot.”
Adamstein said that as he was looking at this year’s submissions, he often couldn’t tell which ones came from an iPhone.
“I was thinking, ‘What moves me? What jumps out? What haven’t I seen before? That is so powerful and strange and mysterious,’ ” he said. “I guess what’s maybe happened is that technique is less important and the resulting strength and power of the image is what’s most important. . . . It seems that the excitement in photography is really about the exuberance of picture-taking time — or, picture-making time.”