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Monday, March 19, 2018

Photography Regional - HIJACKED!

Sarah Sweeney - Five Down at Jokulsarlon 2015
The 40th Annual Photography Regional, which recently opened at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery, is quite unlike any of the 39 that came before it. Many will be displeased by Opalka director Judie Gilmore's decision to present the show as an invitational, rather than as a juried show that all can enter, though that is the format employed thrice before by the Opalka (in 2006, 2009, and 2012), and once in 1995 by then co-sponsor Rensselaer County Council for the Arts (now known as the Arts Center of the Capital Region and no longer a sponsor of the Photo Regional).

There's a lot of history behind this circumstance, and a lot of passion among the people who have participated in this show over the decades. I'm one of those people - for the record, I was included in the first 12 Photo Regionals, and then participated off and on until about ten years ago, when I gave up exhibiting my work altogether. During that time I was honored with a number of juror's awards, and I was included in the 1995 and 2006 invitationals (so there's no sour grapes here). I also have had a certain amount of input into the planning of the show, including having helped decide who would judge it on a few occasions, both as a volunteer and as longtime exhibits chair for Albany Center Gallery, the only original sponsor still in the hosting rotation.

This puts me in the company of quite a few other regional photographers - the show has always been driven by volunteers and grass roots organizations, and it has always existed in the spirit of serving the wants and needs of the regional photography community by providing a showcase, critical input from an outside juror, almost always a public presentation by the juror, and a chance for everyone to come together once a year and take stock.

This year's guest curator Tim Davis, a prominent photographer and Bard College professor, has provided just one of those benefits: His talk at the Opalka on the evening before the show's official opening was first-rate, and certainly the only one in these 40 years in which the guest speaker accompanied himself on guitar while singing original songs while his images shuffled past (delightfully rhyming "setting Southern sun" with "William Eggleston"). Davis showed three recent bodies of work, all of them excellent, and variously spoke, sang and played, and read a long Beat-inspired essay. He earned many rounds of applause during the presentation.

But Davis is a much better artist than he is a curator. The show, which includes 16 bodies of work by 17 artists (two being collaborators), has no center. If it does have a theme, it would be the phenomenon I like to call "too-muchness," which is relevant both to our time in general and to the dilemma currently facing serious photographers, who must compete with every iPhone and Droid on earth - and the billions of pictures they generate every day - for the viewer's attention.

Tim Davis - El Pollo Loco
Davis's own work deals quite beautifully with our overabundance of visual stimuli, particularly in a group of pictures he showed that were shot in an unstructured swoon during a sabbatical in Los Angeles (see an example at right); some of the people he included in the show do similarly, though not as well as Davis does, in my opinion. However, I digress. What is it about this show that makes it wrong as a Photo Regional?

First, it fails to represent any meaningful concept of the region. Though the various entities that have sponsored the show over the decades were not consistent in defining a geography for the show (apparently having set its geographic limit variously between a 75-mile and a 150-mile radius of the Capital Region), this overly personal selection simply squashes the geography into the mid-Hudson Valley (where Davis resides), while also including one photographer from a rural location near Oneonta, one from Saratoga Springs, one from Florence, Mass., and a collaborating pair from Rochester (which is over 200 miles from Albany). The one person included who has a residence in the Capital District (Averill Park) is a special case: Phyllis Galembo, as the winner of the first Photography Regional's top prize in 1979 - and a past juror - provides a vital link to the show's history. But these facts stand in stark contrast to the randomness of the rest of the current edition's content.

Whereas the past Invitationals were drawn from photographers who regularly show in or near the Capital Region and who, in most cases, would probably have submitted to the show in a juried format, that is not the situation here - most of these photographers are represented by galleries in major cities and, therefore, would have no interest in participating in a juried regional (notably, Galembo never submitted again after that first year). Both the first Photo Regional Invitational held at the RCCA in 1995 and the second one, organized by the Opalka's late director Jim Richard Wilson in 2006, specifically drew their selections entirely from prior Photo Regional prize winners.

Sharon Core Unititled #17 2017
Opalka Exhibition Coordinator Amy Griffin said, "as a regional photographer myself, I'm happy to have discovered some photographers I was not aware of before and I would hope other photographers would feel the same." I agree, in principle - but does that justify displacing the Regional itself? Further, this is just one of several current opportunities to see really high-level photography in nearby galleries, including a massive joint presentation of 12 major international photographers at Colgate University, Hamilton University, Skidmore's Tang Teaching Museum (through April 22) and Albany's University Art Museum (through April 7). Entitled This Place, the show focuses on Israel's West Bank; for more details, click here. There's also a solo exhibition by Daesha Devon Harris, the top prize-winner in 2015's Photo Regional, at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery (through April 13); and two of the six artists featured in Albany Center Gallery's current Mohawk-Hudson Regional Invitational are photographers.

Griffin also said that her husband, Danny Goodwin, who (along with Tara Fracalossi) juried last year's Photo Regional at Albany Center Gallery, pointed out to her that he was not pleased to see that some people submitted older or oft-shown work (a phenomenon that no doubt crops up at most juried annuals), which she cited as another reason to curate the show this time rather than to invite open submissions. But that's a really easy fix - the juror(s) can simply omit any submitted work they find to be stale.

Ironically, this iteration of the show turns out to be stuffed with stale work. Based on the exhibition checklist, most of it dates to 2015 or even earlier, such as Chad Kleitsch's two large prints from 2010 and Polly Apfelbaum's whole collection from 2012. Only one artist in the show, Saskia Baden, offers an entirely fresh body of work - 14 gelatin-silver prints dated 2017 - and she's a kid who just graduated from Bard. C'mon people, you're supposed to be professionals - you're going to let a rookie show you how to produce? Well, good for Baden - even if she is Davis's star student, he had every reason to count her in, because those 14 pieces are really wonderful. And, wait - did I say gelatin silver prints? Yeaaaah, baby.

Ultimately, The 40th Annual Photography Regional, which is subtitled Effects That Aren't Special and runs through April 21, will provide to the community the same vital service as its 39 predecessors: Stimulating people in the community to talk about the medium they adore so passionately, and causing all of us to seek ways to keep the show relevant and effective for 40 more years. The discussion has been going on for a long time, and it will continue.

I hope you, dear reader, will add to that discussion. Please visit the Opalka and join the conversation by posting a comment here, or talk about it with others who love photography. And, remember - as ever, it's still our show.

Justin Kimball - Liberty Street 2014