Looking Back and Looking Forward: FotoWeek DC 2010

Posted in Events, Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on November 14, 2010

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Two weeks ago I witnessed the corporate-backed PhotoPlus spectacle, the flawless execution of which is matched only by its enormity of scale and centralized planning. This past week I headed down to the Capital to experience a very different kind of photo industry event, where not a logo was in sight.

FotoWeek DC is a loosely-knit assemblage of photo exhibits, lectures, workshops, portfolio reviews and other events aimed at professional and enthusiast photographers, from fine art to photojournalism to commercial. If that sounds general, it’s because it is. In my three days at the event, having seen most of the exhibits, I still couldn’t wrap my head around a unifying theme.

If I had to give a “vibe” to FotoWeek, I’d say it traced its spiritual roots to the city from whence it came. Intentional or not, there was a political bent to many of the works on display. Photojournalists, and fine-art documentary and “issue” photographers were abundant, giving lectures with titles like, “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict,” and “Time Being: Photography with the Documentary Impulse.”

The biggest selling point of FotoWeek is that almost everything is free, or at least very competitively priced. It seems geared to students and emerging artists, which is probably why it’s gotten so much buzz among young and web-savvy photographers. This relevance to the next generation will bode well for its future, as its base becomes more established in the photo world.

I went to almost all the exhibitions on view (using our handy map) and the caliber of the work was all over the place. Heavy hitters came to give talks and workshops, but for the most-part, the galleries featured up-and-coming artists from the surrounding area. This led to a great many pleasant surprises, as well as a few disappointments – a couple of the exhibitions felt like high school shows both in quality and presentation. Some participating galleries clearly viewed it as an afterthought, putting on a token, barely-curated show in their 2nd space, or mixing a couple of photos into their current show, for a spot in the FotoWeek guide. Still, many of the shows blew me away, and I found myself inspired and shooting constantly throughout (I’ve been posting some of the shots on my Tumblr).

My main regret is that I didn’t get to many of the lectures or workshops – I came as the festival was winding down – but the ones I saw were excellent (especially noteworthy was the Tim Hetherington talk, which I’ll be covering in a separate post).

Overall, the festival felt like exactly what it is: an ambitious but still developing undertaking (it only began in 2008), which shone brightly at times, but also occasionally succumbed to the temptation to sacrifice quality for sheer quantity. This is a delicate balancing act for the young event, and I don’t envy the board’s position. To create an occasion large enough in scope to attract visitors from beyond the immediate region, it has to naturally embrace all comers, at least early on. But a big tent philosophy can reduce overall quality, which can hurt a festival’s reputation in the long term. I have faith that as the festival matures it will find its focus as it swells in size.

FotoWeek’s explosive growth in just three years is certainly impressive and laudable, and I anticipate exciting new developments when I make the pilgrimage again next November.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photo and video artist in New York City. His pictures are on his site and blog, and his videos are on Vimeo.

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  1. ingrid said, on November 15, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Great wrap up Nathan!

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