Situated on the edge of Brooklyn, and overlooking the picturesque bouquet of buildings in lower Manhattan, Photoville is quickly becoming a must-see affair in the photography world. If the quality of this annual gathering of photography professionals, amateurs, and aficionados is mixed, the energy from the diversity of work is undeniable.
Organized in a maze of shipping containers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Photoville spans two weekends and brings together exhibitors as diverse as the New York Times, the Open Society Foundations, Parsons The New School for Design, the Magnum Foundation, NBC News, and the International Center of Photography. During the day, walking into the makeshift galleries can feel odd, as you step in from the sunshine to barely darkened spaces that make seeing the work a little difficult, but as the sun goes down the photographs and videos glow in these industrial galleries and the place seems to comes alive.
Photoville has organized a comprehensive schedule of workshops, artist talks, and lectures of all kinds during this year’s event, including an event about Cyanotypes, an obscure 19th century photo process, and a panel discussion with photographers who covered Superstorm Sandy.
There’s a lot to see at the gathering, but one booth by the Penumbra Foundation’s Center for Alternative Photography is worth highlighting for their mission to champion antiquated photo processes but also because they offer attractive tintype photographs ($40 +tax, yes, I paid for mine) developed in roughly 10 minutes.
Douglas Ljungkvist’s Ocean Beach series fills one container with images that capture the mid-century idealism of a small New Jersey resort town with its candy-colored cabin interiors, weathered fixtures, and suburban exterior sameness. Once a vacationer at the resort, Ljungkvist, who lives in Brooklyn, documented the town over the course of a few years before Superstorm Sandy and then went back after the place was devastated late last year.
His early photos have a chilling silence drenched in the optimistic glow of Americana, while the latter images look less rooted in their place and are hard to differentiate from other disaster imagery.
Photographs of catastrophes and war zones are everywhere at Photoville, suggesting that images of pain and devastation provide more riveting fodder for photography than happiness and joy.
Kisha Bari’s How Sandy Hit Rockaway presents the people and stories of that seaside Queens community in a container framed by sand and augmented by audio speakers that relay the tales of hardship in the voices of the people themselves.
Tyler Hicks: One Year, which was curated by Michele McNally and presented by the New York Times, had dozens of photographs from various war zones on display in all their gruesome detail. Photos from Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, the Arab Spring, and Syria offered horrifying glimpses of what a major photojournalist encounters on a daily basis and broadcasts around the world.
Donald Weber’s Interrogations, presented by the Open Society Foundation, was one of the most unsettling at Photoville. Traveling through Russia for seven years, Weber captured, as the accompanying text explains, the “physical and emotional ruins of the unstoppable storm called history.” Walking into the gallery, which was decorated like a generic post-Soviet office space, you are confronted with images of people being interrogated by faceless authorities, sometimes with guns, but always with a strained anguish on the faces of the suspected criminals. The portrait-like simplicity of the images make them almost claustrophobic as the lonely and terrified figures convey their anguish almost instantly.
Liberia: Remembering was another fully developed display that focused on one conflict zone and invited nine photographers to exhibit their images from the West African country where roughly 150,000 people perished in a deadly war. Nic Bothma’s photograph of a rebel fighter sitting near a bullet-ridden mini-van (pictured above) is a surreal scene of a place so ravaged by violence that it is seemingly on the verge of disappearing.
But not everything at Photoville probes the depths of human depravity and violence, Jerry Vezzuso’s Model Release, presented by United Photo Industries, presents vintage images from the mid-1980s of the era’s most sought-after haircuts in New York. The images are somewhat comedic and from a distance the images resemble mugshots rather than fashion shots.
The Depository of Unwanted Photographs is also in attendance at the photo gathering and the group, set up like a 1960s-era office in their container, asks visitors to hand over unwanted images (digital or analogue) into their growing archive. Depositors are asked to explain the reason for their choice in writing and the results are expected to be published in a compilation at some future time.
There were a few outdoor installations at Photoville, including André Feliciano’s sculptural “A Photographic Orchard with Cherry Blossom Trees” and Linka A. Odom’s lightbox “Aaj Tak” project. Both suggested to me that the event could use more installations to vary the jungle of shipping containers, particular during the daytime when they felt cave-like and less welcoming.
If the location of Photoville can feel remote and disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn, a friendly beer garden, and a semi-circle of food trucks, not to mention the nearby boardwalk and ferry docks, make the trip closer to a mini-vacation in the middle of the city. Many photography-related businesses and nonprofits — from Duggal to the Bushwick Community Darkroom — also have a presence at this friendly hybrid that combines some of the positives of a trade fair and a street festival with the practicality of a contemporary flea market. If you visit Photoville, and my suggestion is you do, then I would suggest taking your time and not rushing through the galleries so that you can digest the works and speak to the photographers and curators, many of whom were on hand to answer questions. In our image-soaked culture, it’s nice to see how the photographers themselves want their images to be seen without the filter and frames of publications, websites, and social media services like Instagram.
Photoville will continue Thursday, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at the Brooklyn Bridge Park (Uplands of Pier 5, Brooklyn) until September 29.