FotoFocus Sees the Big Picture

The photography and video art festival returns after four years and draws in more than 90 venues from Northern Kentucky to Columbus.
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FotoFocus, the biennial exhibition of photography and other forms of lens-based art, returns bigger than ever this month from a pandemic-forced cancellation in 2020. Almost 100 individual shows will be occurring at more than 90 venues, and not just in Cincinnati area museums and galleries—you’ll also find exhibits in Columbus, Dayton, and Yellow Springs, many of which will continue past October.

FotoFocus has been highly regarded nationally since its debut in 2012, and interest should be through the roof given the four-year COVID-induced layoff. “This is a time for people to come together again,” says Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, the biennial’s new director. “I’m hoping people see themselves in some of the shows and find new perspectives in others.”

The tumult of the past several years—racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, scary effects of climate change and mobilization to mitigate it, and the pandemic—has influenced many of the individual shows, says Kevin Moore, FotoFocus artistic director and curator. Indeed, this year’s theme, World Record, encourages shows that address the need for climate justice.

Photograph by Nancy Ford Cones, "Mama's Kodak" (Circa 1912), Collection of Roger and Patricia K. Fry

World Record is a double entendre,” says Moore. “It’s literally a record of the world, photographic documents of everything. But the title also plays with the idea that breaking records used to seem like a positive thing—the idea of mankind achieving dominance over his environment. Increasingly, though, it has a negative connotation: ‘the hottest day on record,’ ‘most hurricanes in a season,’ ‘record extinctions,’ these kinds of things. We want to embrace what’s going on in contemporary life as best we can.”

The biennial’s shows are divided into two categories: 12 high-profile curated exhibitions at nine locations, some including special commissions by major artists, and participating venues, where the bulk of the exhibits happen. Detailed information about everything being offered September 29–October 8 can be found at fotofocus.org.

Moore is involved in the curation of four shows, including two related ones featuring Australian photographer Ian Strange at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He co-curated On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith (with Harvard Art Museums’s photography curator Makeda Best) at the Contemporary Arts Center, which will subtly and sometimes metaphorically address current social/environmental issues. Its subtitle gains meaning from one particular work, a silent film called Government Cut Freestyle by Miami artist Dara Friedman that shows youths from Miami’s Latin American community jumping off a wall into the water. “[They’re] in a kind of fragile but hopeful place socially in the world,” says Moore. “The risk they face in jumping off the wall is breaking their neck. The faith is in the buffering qualities of water that will absorb your body and protect you.”

Moore also is co-curating a show at Michael Lowe Gallery downtown featuring artist and co-curator Tony Oursler, renowned for his surreal, sculptural video projections. Called Crossing Neptune, it’s drawn primarily from Oursler’s own archive of collected material related to mythologies of water.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will host “Free As They Want to Be:” Artists Committed to Memory, a look at how participating contemporary artists, many of them African American, approach the legacies of slavery. They often use older images as source material, including work by J.P. Ball, the 19th-century Cincinnati-based Black photographer. The exhibit is co-curated by Cheryl Finley, director of the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, and Deborah Willis, chair of the photography and imaging department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Two of the curated exhibitions represent new locations for FotoFocus. Sun Dogs features the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra collaborating with Liquid Music, a Minnesota-based contemporary music ensemble, to bring together filmmakers and composers to make short films inspired by the natural world. The movies will screen at Music Hall while the symphony accompanies them.

In Camp Washington, FotoFocus Director of Curatorial Strategy Carissa Barnard will present California-based artist Liz Roberts’s Post Blonde installations, which will symbolize moving forward—like a car in motion—while also being aware of the past. An old car in an outside parking lot will have video footage from the region projected onto its windows at night, which will make the car glow, and she’ll create a screen from 16 salvaged windshields in a second location to project video drawn from collected archival footage. “It’s using discarded items as windows and vehicles to provide some insight and perspective,” says Barnard.

Other curated shows include These Things Are Connected at The Carnegie in Covington, assembled by its exhibitions director, Matt Distel, and co-curators; Natural World at the Cincinnati Art Museum, curated by Nathaniel Stein, the museum’s photography curator; A Lens for Freedom: Civil Rights Photographs by Steve Schapiro at the Miami University Art Museum; and Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones at Taft Museum of Art, curated by Pepper Stetler, associate professor of history at Miami University. Cones, who lived in Loveland, was a celebrated, innovative photographer in the earlier decades of the 20th century.

Even as this sprawling, stimulating biennial gets underway, FotoFocus is in the process of evolving into a year-round Cincinnati arts institution with its own brick-and-mortar home. The new 14,700-square-foot FotoFocus Center, which will be at the corner of Liberty and Sycamore streets in Over-the-Rhine, is slated to open in two years. “It seemed to add to and complement all the other great arts organizations we have,” says Mary Ellen Goeke, executive director of FotoFocus, on the decision to expand. “For another nonprofit group dedicated solely to photography, film, and video within the Midwest, you have to go to Chicago or Cleveland.”

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