Some 25 years ago, photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols began hosting slide-show parties in his backyard, allowing friends to show their new work for encouragement and critique. Those get-togethers continue, but they’ve outgrown Nichols’s home. In 2007, the private affairs became the open-to-the-public Look3 Festival of the Photograph.
“Our official name is Festival of the Photograph,” explains Andrew Owen, managing director of the annual Charlottesville event, which this year runs June 13-15. “That shortens to F-O-P, fop, and that doesn’t really have the ring that we wanted.”
“ ‘Look’ was a word we really liked, and it was strong visually. The ‘3” comes from three days and three featured artists. This year, we have way more than three featured artists. But that’s the brand and the logo, and it just sort of stuck.”
The 2013 fest actually runs five days, counting the educational activities that begin Tuesday. But the last three are the culmination of the event, and are the ones that are largely open to the public.
This year, for the first time, the photographers’s talks will be live-streamed on the event’s Web site, www.look3.org.
“I’d say about 60 percent of our attendees are working professionally in the photography industry,” says Owen. “The rest of the audience is serious amateurs and students, teachers and curators.”
.This year, most of the shows will be on display through the end of June. Giant photographic banners featuring the work of nature chronicler Tim Laman, who set out to document all 38 species of birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea, will flank central Charlottesville’s open-air mall until July 7.
“We really try to transform downtown as much as possible,” Owen says. “So as you’re in the public space, creative and social moments kind of all happen at the same time. It doesn’t stop and start with walking in or out of a gallery or sitting in on a projection.”
Nichols, who depicts lions, elephants and various simians for National Geographic, is among the photographers whose work will be shown this year. Also highlighted are Gregory Crewdson, who makes elaborately staged large-scale narrative photographs; Carrie Mae Weems, known for multileveled works on African American history; and Martha Rosler, who collages appropriated images.
The other featured photographers are Josef Koudelka, who as a young man in 1968 documented the Soviet invasion of his native Prague; Susan Meiselas, who’s known for documenting workers and human-rights issues; Richard Mishrach, a pioneer in depicting landscapes with color photography; and Stephanie Berger, who specializes in cultural events, notably dance performances.
The work was selected by this year’s curators, Melissa Harris, editor in chief of Aperture magazine, and Yolanda Cuomo, a New York-based graphic designer. According to Owen, leaving the choices to guest curators makes for a livelier festival.
“I think our core audience is mostly the documentary community. But I do think each year, with the curators, it evolves,” he notes. “Last year we had more of a documentary emphasis. This year, we have more fine art.”
All the shows but one are devoted to a single photographer, a format Owen generally prefers. The exception is “Pictures of the Year,” the 69th annual selection of the best photojournalism, selected by the Donald W. Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Owen, the first employee Look3 ever hired, says the outlook has changed since the fest began seven years ago. “The publishing industry went through some significant changes, 2008, 2009, that redefined how people look at being a full-time photographer. The budgets, and the magazines and newspapers, they’re not what they once were. So there’s been a lot of reinvention. I think the festival is a really important opportunity for photographers to connect and reevaluate what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”
“That’s really important to us,” he continues. “That we’re not just showing photographs. We are facilitating the conversations that are going to make the industry stronger.”
Another major change is the rise of inexpensive digital photography, notably via cellphones, and the Web sites that showcase the images.
“It needs to be evaluated, and applauded when it’s successful,” Owen says. “I think it makes our festival more interesting, because there are so many new photographers out there doing interesting things. And we’re showing that work. We’ve shown iPhone camerawork before.”
“We’re sort of agnostic” about photographic technology, Owen concludes. “We’re really here to put people together.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
June 13-15, is headquartered at 100 Fifth St. NE, Charlottesville and has exhibit spaces around downtown Charlottesville. A festival pass ($155, $95 for students) includes access to photographer talks, projection showcases and a final party. Exhibitions are free, as is the first showcase on June 14. For more information, call 434-977-3687 or visit www.look3.org.