Contemporary U.S. Photography, Fotofest 2010 Biennial   (Catalogue)
Houston TX, March 12 – April 25, 2010
Published by Fotofest Inc., Houston, and Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam
Distributed by Fotofest Inc. and Thames & Hudson, London

Introduction : Contemporary U.S. Photography
written by Charlotte Cotton, Curator


For the 2010 Fotofest-curated exhibition program, four curators were invited to make propositions about contemporary U.S. photography. Their selections of lens-based and video artists offer four contrasting and overlapping narratives of the United States, photography, and U.S. contemporary photography.

In keeping with the enduring spirit of Fotofest, the curators of CONTEMPORARY U.S. PHOTOGRAPHY have responded to the Biennial's chosen theme by introducing us to provocative and aspirant talents within the sphere of photography and film. Each exhibition represents the exciting substance of new U.S. photography in works that look beyond the established conventions of this quintessentially American medium. Collectively, the artists and the bodies of work that have been chosen for this year's Fotofest open up new lines of artistic inquiry and comprise a summary of the forms and frameworks that contemporary U.S. photographers are giving to the medium. Another bridging schema of these exhibitions is their reassessing and re-evaluating of key moments and practitioners that have shaped the history of U.S. photography and constructed enduring fables of American life. Similarly, the currents of new visual and social influences, including how we use image-making within our lives and what we choose to represent, ripple through Fotofest's presentation of contemporary U.S. photography. . .

. . .The legacy of Conceptual Art since the early 1960s is the most pronounced historical underpinning of ASSEMBLY: EIGHT EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA showing the work of eight artists who have graduated from Southern California art schools, selected by the curatorial team of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This theme reflects a nationwide refocusing upon a period when artists were preoccupied with what it meant to make art, and what art could speak of in a time of political and societal anxiety. It has a unique resonance in Southern California, an axis along which the scope of Conceptual Art photography and video was once defined, not only through U.S. artists who were based in the region but also through its gravitational pull on artists internationally who were preoccupied with parallel issues. California has remained strongly aligned to its Conceptual heritage because its strong network of art schools, with all the discursive and risk-taking energy this implies (as opposed to art institutions or the art market), constitutes a critical mass or artistic practice. The ground that Robert Heinecken laid at University of California Los Angeles, starting in 1961, for exploring photography outside of its traditional genres, 9 concepts, or aesthetics still remains fertile. Many artists who have plotted out and contributed to the range of Conceptual photography and film are aligned with Southern Californian art schools, including John Baldessari, James Welling, Judy Fiskin, and John Divola, and they safeguard a supremely generous and expansive climate for emergent photographers and artists.

There is a range of Conceptual Art driven practices as play within the selection for ASSEMBLY. Nicole Belle's and Augusta Wood's photographs depict temporary performances or interventions within daily life and its environments, strongly informed by the heritage of Conceptual Art in the Americas and Europe. Belle and Wood both subtly reorganize and tip the ordinary into sites and scenes that express the artists' subjective and emotional states. Peter Holzhauer, Whitney Hubbs, and Joey Lehman Morris are all photographers who are out in the real world, observing and capturing the moments where life throws up psychological paradoxes and visual confusions. All three photographers, in their own wa, are deeply concerned with the final rendering of the viewer's experience in their work. They are not satisfied simply with their success at "finding" the pictures that are waiting to happen all around us showing life's visual contradictions, but they also strive to acknowledge the inherent physicality of photography. For instance, Morris's prints are sometimes propped up or laid flat on the floor, reworking the playfulness with which photography's material (albeit quite flat) properties have been treated in Conceptual photography installations since the 1960s. Hubbs has used the symbolically loaded and rich language of black and white photography to create a subjective language of signs. Just as the photographic print no longer constitutes the default vehicle for a photographic idea or even documentation, Hubb's use of monochrome is far from neutral, and both these elements in the monochrome and the physical form of the print reveal themselves to be extremely active choices for a young artist in a chromatic, screen-based age. Similarly, Matthew Brandt, Asha Schechter, and Matt Lipps are each creating photographic bodies of work that consciously require viewers to acknowledge their highly process driven means. Whether it is the psychologically charged use of the analogue, or 'wet', darkroom in Brandt's modestly sized landscapes and portraits, or the heightened visual language and embodiment of digital processes in Schechter's Picture (2009) series, or the degree of craft involved in Lipp's montages, each of the artists selected here has a highly astute sense of the increasingly heavy symbolic weight of photography's material form in an increasingly dematerialized world.