FotoFest: A Meeting of Minds

The FotoFest 1992 Biennial at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, Texas [photo © FotoFest]

I was personally very interested in creating opportunities for photographers to get good first-hand face-to-face advice.

Wendy Watriss


Few cultural initiatives in recent decades have had more impact in the world of photography than FotoFest International in Houston, Texas. While it is a large event, it is not its scale that is most significant, but its sophisticated multi-layered approach to the medium as a medium. That is, a means to an end and not just an end in itself. At FotoFest, photography is a way to address the pressing issues of our age. A way to engage and empower citizens, but also a way to educate the powerful so that they may be more compassionate. A way to stimulate the serious appreciation and collecting of photography by institutions and by individuals, not simply as aesthetic objects but as the distillation of ideas.

In Ancient Greece the agora was the centre of artistic, spiritual and political life in the city. The word literally means ‘gathering place’ and its significance lay not simply in the range of activity undertaken there, but in the diversity of those who attended. The agora was a meeting place of strangers drawn together by trade, debate and curiosity. A place of public proclamation and private conversation. Foreigners and Greeks rubbed shoulders as they transacted business, and, in the process, became exposed to new ideas, new ways of understanding the world.

Central to FotoFest is a latter-day agora – the Meeting Place – where photographers meet with curators, publishers and collectors from many parts of the world to show their work, seek advice and hope for success. The heart of the Meeting Place is found less in the photographs themselves than in the people who make, love, buy, show, covet and collect them. The human network whose dynamic pumps the circulation of imagery in the photographic art world. It is a successful idea that has been taken up by festivals in many other countries. And, just as the agora was a node in a network, leading out as well as drawing in, so FotoFest has one of the most diverse international programs of any photography festival anywhere.

FotoFest was founded over thirty years ago by two internationally respected photojournalists: Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss. Their advocacy of photography in the service of social justice and environmental responsibly has ensured that FotoFest is not only a meeting place for photographers, but a place in which many disciplines convene to share their perspectives on the world and the challenges it faces. In 2014, they were joined by Steven Evans who became the organisation’s Executive Director, while Fred Baldwin is the Chair and Wendy Watriss the Senior Curator. I spoke with them when our paths crossed in Brazil.

Alasdair Foster

© Mandy Barker ‘Penalty – The World’ 2013 [762 marine-debris footballs]


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Fred: Wendy and I were in France in 1982. We had been told about a photographic event in Arles. And so we went there and discovered that they had something called a ‘rencontres’ [gathering] – it was very informal, mostly people sitting around the hotel showing their work to a few curators – but we thought it was a lovely idea.

Then we learned that the Mois de la Photo [Month of Photography] was occurring in Paris. This festival had been established at the behest of the Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, who was doing it in competition with Jacques Lang, the French Minister of Culture – because Chirac was a conservative and Lang was a liberal. Chirac had brought in a man named Jean-Luc Monterosso from Paris Audiovisuel as the director and together they invented this new kind of citywide photography event.

We found the ideas and experience of Arles and Paris very stimulating and, on the flight home, we decided that we wanted to combine them.

FotoFest Co-Founders Wendy Watriss and Frederick Baldwin in their home darkroom, c. 1983 [photo © FotoFest]

Wendy: We have been ‘internationalists’ all our lives. One thing that impressed us as we travelled was the amount of high quality photography being made outside of the United States and Western Europe, but which was known to very few people inside the US and certainly never reaching the general American public.

Fred: This was not a conspiracy by US museums and galleries, it was just a sort of ‘assumption’ that all important photographic work came from France or Germany or England… We thought this was a very constricted view of the world and we decided that we wanted to build bridges going out and coming back.

Also, we decided that we weren’t interested in the ‘superstars’. We wanted to make discoveries of new talent from outside the United States, or US talent that had been forgotten, or young talent that had not yet been discovered and show it first in the US, in Houston.

When did the festival begin?

Fred: We incorporated FotoFest in 1983 and staged the first festival in 1986. We were advised by somebody who was supposed to be knowledgeable about the arts in Houston that we should probably start off with something small and build it up. But we knew perfectly well that that would not work! We had to come in huge and ‘Texas-sized’. And that is what we did. I think that first festival had 35 or 45 exhibitions all running in the same month.

[Left] © Judy Haberl  ‘Hidden Agendas: Purse 13’ 2008; [Right] © Damion Berger  ‘Inauguration, Burj Khalifa, Dubai’ 2010 from the series  Black Powder

Who selects the festival program?

Wendy: We recognised that there was nothing to be gained in trying to adjudicate the exhibitions of participating spaces, so we basically left it to the will and desire of each museum and gallery to decide their own exhibitions. For FotoFest’s own exhibitions, we found other spaces, because it was important for us that there be a part of the festival program that was very much curated and in our control.

Fred: In 2016 there were in total about 120 exhibitions from participating spaces, and an additional five exhibits that were curated by FotoFest.

So, you took from the Paris Mois de la Photo the idea of an exhibition program combining shows organised by the museums and galleries complemented by the festival’s own curated exhibitions. Meanwhile, you added the idea of portfolio reviews that you had seen in Arles.

Wendy: We wanted there to be an aspect of FotoFest that was much more democratic and so we developed the Meeting Place where photographers could meet with curators and publishers – people who make decisions in the art world. But it was to be open. There was no filtering by a jury; it was run on a first-come-first-served basis

Fred: I made some very grave mistakes early in my career as a photographer. I didn’t show some work to important people because I thought it was technically inferior. I had some photographs of the Ku Klux Klan. I went to see [Edward] Steichen in New York at the Museum of Modern Art (he was then the director of photography). I also went to see Magnum, but I did not show them the Ku Klux Klan work. Had I done so, I think they would have told me to go spend a year with these people and nail this thing. If I had, it could have launched my career in a completely different way.

So, I was personally very interested in creating opportunities for photographers to get good first-hand face-to-face advice. Not just learned advice from an academic point of view, but real practical advice from professionals in the business.

Wendy: My interest was in providing an open way in which photographers could gain access to people who could do things for their careers. By the time I started my work as a photographer ten or more years after Fred, there was no Edward Steichen. You could not go to the Museum of Modern Art and arrange a meeting with John Szarkowski; in fact you could barely arrange a meeting with the associate curator. They were in this kind of elite ivory tower.

I saw no reason why that ivory tower should exist. I wanted to break down that hierarchy: to democratise it. This benefited both sides. At that time curators didn’t have big travel budgets. They weren’t traveling much. Through the Meeting Place curators, publishers and decision-makers now had access to photographers who could not otherwise get to them.

Fred: There was another aspect to this. I remember the first time that I went to Argentina I discovered that they had an exhibition of Finnish photography there. How in the world would they wind up getting a Finnish exhibition in Buenos Aires? The answer was because the curators had met at FotoFest while taking part in the Meeting Place portfolio reviews. Over and over again this has proved to be the situation.

Wendy: Curators learn from other curators.

It has certainly been successful. Not just in itself, but in the number of similar events it has encouraged around the world. And, of course, it has provided an opportunity for many new talents to come to the fore. Can you tell me about the Discoveries of the Meeting Place exhibition that has since developed?

Wendy: We started that in 1996. Each biennial, we choose ten reviewers who are very diverse geographically, by gender, taste-wise and in their institutional affiliation and ask them to name three artists (in ranked order) whose work was a real discovery for them. It is not a contest. Fred, Steven and I do not believe in contests because they benefit only a very few people and are possibly damaging to the self-confidence of many more. We ask the reviewers to select people whose work they found particularly interesting. Then, if two reviewers pick the same artist as their first choice we will go to their second choice of one of those reviewers. Each photographer that is selected is asked to show between nine and twelve images. The artist gets a nominal fee and we pay for all the matting, framing and so on. And we reserve a place for them at the next Meeting Place, because it fills up so quickly.

You have an extensive educational program, but one initiative that has been particularly successful is called Literacy Through Photography. Can you tell me about that?

Fred: In 1987, I heard a woman on National Public Radio talking about work that she was doing in the hills of West Virginia. Her name was Wendy Ewald. What she was doing was getting the students to take photographs and then discuss them. I went up to New York, found her and brought her back to Houston. We did an experimental program at the Children’s Museum. We hired a poet – a Vietnam veteran – and started an education program called Literacy Through Photography.

School students are issued a camera and take photographs of themselves, their family, their community and their dreams. But they have to write about what they are doing at every point, which helps them improve their written skills as well as their visual ones. And they have to work together in groups, which encourages interconnection between children of different ethnic backgrounds. It has turned out to be a most successful program. Today, we deal with over sixty classrooms in thirty schools.

Wendy: The program has been expanded and refined and there is now a written curriculum. The first three or four sessions are about visual analysis, visual literacy. What is the content of a picture? Break it down. And, before they start photographing, the students see and discuss some of the best photography in the world – a kind of quick practicum on the history of photography.

Fred: What we have tried to do is engage people in the process of photography and then nurture the benefits in a humanistic way.

Steven, you’ve come in after this long build-up of an increasingly broad-range festival and, in a sense, you have got to leap on top of a horse that is already galloping. How will you go about this?

Steven: It’s certainly been invigorating! Wendy and Fred have spoken about FotoFest as a platform for art and ideas, at the intersection of art, culture, society and social relevance, and those are things that really get me excited. I find that aspect of FotoFest’s mission very appealing and rare. It’s not actually very common in the arts. Controversy or sensitive subjects are things to be feared by most people… or ‘postponed’… but FotoFest isn’t afraid to tackle socially important issues and that is something which will continue very strongly as long as I am involved.

[Left] © Wanda Hammerbeck Untitled 1997; [Right] © Theodor Schwenk ‘Train of Vortices’ c. 1960

Another characteristic that is striking is the way in which FotoFest engages with ideas and practices outside of the medium itself.

Fred: That’s a good point because in 2004, the year we had water as a theme, we worked with Rice University to launch an international conference. This was not aimed at cultural workers and photographers but politicians and academics. We brought in twenty-five world experts on water, each with a different approach. For example: someone from the Max Planck Institute, someone who ran the water system in San Diego, California, a woman priest who used water in her Christian theology…

Wendy: Maude Barlow on social justice and water. [Maude Barlow is an author and Senior Advisor on Water at the United Nations.]

[Left] © AES+F ‘Episode 1, #13’ 2003 from the series ‘Action Half Life’; [Right] © Paula Luttringer ‘El Lamento De Los Muros’ 2000–2005

Fred: We do programs that are outside of the normal bounds of photography because we think those are important public issues that need to be aired. Another year we explored the theme of violence.

Steven: In 2016, ‘Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet’ addressed an issue that is of global significance. We had a three-day symposium and we brought in scientists, public policy experts, artists, filmmakers, philosophers and activists to participate together. But we also did very exciting unorthodox programs like co-commissioning the world premiere of a multi-disciplinary piece called ‘The Colorado: A Film Oratorio’. This was a collaborative project blending film, original music and choral performance exploring water, land and survival in the Colorado River Basin.

Wendy: We have also done a lot of politically oriented projects between biennials. We did ‘Guantanamo …. Questions of Justice’ working with the families of people imprisoned by the US military in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In 2005, we presented an Arab show curated by the organisers of the Noorderlicht festival … and then last year Steven curated an exhibition about the rights of gay and transgender people. So we are active every year, not just at the biennials.

And you are also very active internationally…

Fred: Wendy has curated exhibitions not just at the biennial, but all over the world: in Colombia, Brazil, Russia, China… Resource sharing is a comfortable practice for us. Over the past thirty years Wendy and I have been involved with over sixty countries. We have strong ongoing relationships in some of those countries and we are keen to encourage people; to provide them with the tools and the connections to develop their own programs.

Steven: International engagement is also very important to me, both in terms of bringing the artists, curators and publishers to Houston and in taking FotoFest ideas and methods out into the world. And, in Fred and Wendy, FotoFest has two of the best ambassadors.

What changes do you think FotoFest has made in Texas?

Wendy: Well, I think FotoFest has been an inspiration for the creation of photography organisations and events in other cities: Austin, Dallas, San Antonio… And I think it has altered collecting practices. It’s opened up the idea that museums can have access to good work from outside the US that is really worth collecting. There are a lot of artists that have had very successful careers in the art world after they were shown at FotoFest.

Fred: It’s done another thing as well. It has encouraged funders to put money into the arts when then might not have done so before. This has been an educational process for them because they have seen the benefits that come to Houston through tourism and through massive national and international publicity.

Steven: Something that I have observed coming in from ‘outside’, and that I’ve been told a number of times, is that FotoFest has helped Houston embrace its identity as an international city. That it has opened the eyes of so many people to the fact that Houston is international and that there is meaningful cultural exchange at FotoFest and in the city.

Fred: We are also increasing the collector base for photography. We have a very successful photography auction that has been run pro bono through Sotheby’s.

Wendy: The head of the photography department at Sotheby’s says that this is one of the best charitable auctions in the country.

FotoFest is a complex and far-reaching project, but if you distil it down to just a couple of words, how would each of you describe it?

Fred: That’s easy: ‘giving back’.

Wendy: ‘Opportunity’ and ‘social justice’.

Steven: FotoFest is ‘nimble’: it is a museum without walls, staging high quality exhibitions in a variety of spaces around Houston and internationally. I think it is a real strength of FotoFest that it is able to respond quickly to the changing conditions of the city, the medium and the world.

FotoFest Co-Founder Wendy Watriss meets with Chinese Press at the Meeting Place FotoFest Beijing 2006 [photo © FotoFest]

Biographical Notes

Frederick C. Baldwin was born in 1928 in Switzerland, where his father served as a US diplomat. A Marine rifleman, he was wounded and decorated twice during the Korean War. After earning a BA degree from Columbia College, New York in 1956, he began a freelance photography career which continued until 1987. Traveling widely his assignments led him to locations where few or no photographers had gone before. He worked for many publications including ‘Audubon’, ‘LIFE’, ‘National Geographic’, ‘GEO’, ‘Newsweek’, ‘Camera’ (Switzerland), ‘Bunte’ and ‘Stern’ (Germany), ‘The New York Times’ and Time-Life Books. His photographs featured in ‘Freedom’s March: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah’ (University of Georgia Press, 2008) and, in 2019, he published his memoir ‘Dear Mr. Picasso: An Illustrated Love Affair with Freedom’ (Schilt Publishing). In 1983, he co-founded FotoFest with his life partner Wendy Watriss and has served as its Chairman ever since.

Wendy Watriss was born in San Francisco in 1943. She studied Spanish at the University of Madrid, going on to receive a BA (Hons) in English Literature from New York University. From 1970 to 1992 she worked as a photojournalist publishing in magazines such as ‘LIFE’, ‘GEO’, ‘The New York Times’, ‘Photoreportages’ (France), ‘Stern’ (Germany), and ‘Bild’ (Sweden). Her images are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including The Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth); Museum of Fine Arts (Houston); The Menil Collection (Houston); The Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris); and the Musée de la Photographie (Charleroi, Belgium). In 1983, she co-founded FotoFest with her husband, Fred Baldwin, becoming its Artistic Director in 1990. As senior curator she has developed over sixty exhibitions during her tenure. In 2013 Watriss received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Houston Fine Arts Fair.

In 2013 The Center for Photography at Woodstock awarded Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss a Lifetime achievement Award for their work in photography.

Steven Evans was born in Key West, Florida. He has a BFA from Atlanta College of Art, Georgia (1987) and an MFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1989). From 1990, he worked at Dia Art Foundation in New York, where he helped artists such as Douglas Gordon and Vera Lutter create large-scale exhibitions. In 2000, he began work at the Dia:Beacon museum in upstate New York, where he was the museum’s managing director until 2010. Subsequently, he worked as director of the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio. He has served as a panellist for the US National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. In 2014, he was appointed FotoFest Executive Director and is responsible for its exhibitions, programs, and overall management.

Established in 1986, FotoFest International is a biennial event held in the city Houston, Texas, USA.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

An image from Head On Photo Festival featured on the cover of this issue.

© Mandy Barker ‘Penalty – The World’ 2013