Fotoseptiembre USA, the one-of-a-kind, community-based photographic festival now in its 20th year, is a visual feast of images. But a conversation with Michael Mehl, its passionate, articulate founder, is just as much of an education in words as pictures. And as the month-long event has evolved, so have the ideals that Fotoseptiembre endeavors to transmit.
Mehl and his wife, Ann Kinser, as a team of working artists, have worked side-by-side to host the festival for 20 years. Mehl is the more public face of the operation while soft-spoken Kinser works behind the scenes. That’s right: No city grants, no private funding sources – just themselves. That right there should set the festival apart, but it’s not the only way. Dig a bit deeper and the other remarkable elements come tumbling out.
“As far as we know, we’re the only community-based photography festival in the whole world,” Mehl said. “We are not a gatekeeper festival" that prevents others from becoming involved, or showing their work. "We are door-openers."
“We define ourselves as a community-based festival that is eclectic, open, inclusive — with curated international components," he added.
The international component is very much in evidence. The venues, for the most part, are all San Antonian and regional, but the exhibitors come from all over the world. Thursday night’s concurrent opening receptions across the city make that clear.
For “Photo Contemplo,” at Cathedral House Gallery; “Straight from Spain,” at Ruiz-Healy Art; and “Momentary Realities,” at Cinnabar Art Gallery in the Blue Star Arts Complex, there are 12 photographers involved, from San Antonio, Santa Fe, New York, and Spain.
If you include Fotoseptiembre USA’s web galleries, there are six additional exhibits from international contributors.
Mami Kiyoshi’s “New Reading Portraits” (Japan) are fanciful looks at modern Japanese couples’ lifestyles (see top photo). Ursula Sprecher and Andi Cortellini’s “Hobby Buddies” (Switzerland) documents groups of individuals attracted to pursuits from the banal to the bizarre. Alban Lécuyer’s “Here Soon” (France) envisions distressed built environments as stylized architectural renderings.
A personal favorite, Thibault de Puyfontaine’s “Late Colors” (France) makes use of a palette of colors infused by twilight, featuring environments one might not otherwise even notice. Piotr Kosiński’s “The ‘Usual’ People” (Poland) is a melancholy photo essay on the nature of piety among elderly Catholic practitioners in his home country.
Keymo’s “Perversion is the Poetry of the Body” (Poland) provides a stark contrast to the exhibit immediately preceding. Fascinated with 15th-century Dutch painting, she combines “surreal phantasms, doll-girls, puppet-girls, and attractive femme fatales” to “express the demise of everlasting Christian traditions.”
Spending part of an afternoon sifting through the curated online exhibits — each of which contains about two dozen images — I already felt more conversant with what’s going on in photography internationally today. But that was before speaking with the iconoclastic Mehl and meeting him and his wife at a gallery talk at the Briscoe Western Art Museum on Tuesday night.
That gallery talk, hosted by a University of Texas at Austin professor and focusing on Edward Curtis' monolithic body of work about vanishing Native Americans, was just one of an impressive series of events all month marking Fotoseptiembre.
This month there are more than 30 exhibits, Mehl said, most in downtown San Antonio venues but many outside the urban core into the Hill Country. That’s down from a previous – though unsustainable – high of 60-70 exhibits held from 2000 to 2003.
“Fortunately we came to our senses. The best size for a festival in our particular context is 30 to 40 exhibits, which is where we have been for the last few years," Mehl said.
They’ve been able to sustain their vision despite offering “no gimmicks, no (opening) parties, (and) no international writers” covering the exhibits. The sustainability, he said, comes from the event's community base and its inclusive nature.
“That is where the power lies,” Mehl noted. “We have to recognize our own place in the universe."
That commitment involves recognizing San Antonio’s strengths and limitations as an art destination.
“We know what the context is here, and we work within it," Mehl said. “Community is our largest support" rather than private funding via grants or even City support, though a partnership with the City has existed at different times, depending on the year.
San Antonio's growing photographic community is also part of that support, though Mehl conceded not everyone is always happy with the festival’s selections.
Over the 20 years that Fotoseptiembre has been staged, the notions of photography as a fine art form and of community have both changed dramatically. Community no longer means a cluster of venues in downtown San Antonio alone, but an expansion to south San Antonio, the Hill Country, Austin, and the entire region. In addition, the Internet "is our largest community," Mehl added.
He had high praise for the City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture and Creative Development, which he calls “probably the best city cultural department in the country,” in terms of percentage disbursement of funds to support arts organizations rather than absolute dollars.
For Fotoseptiembre’s founder, however, a sense of where the festival fits culturally along some important philosophical divides is a topic he can really warm to.
“In these past 20 years, we have seen several story lines play out that have impacted not just photography, but the cultural environment, as well,” he said. “When we started, the notion of photography as a legitimate art form was always being debated. So the first controversy was whether photography was really art.”
Then, in the early 2000s, with this debate set aside at least internationally and its position as an art form fairly well accepted, the new debate became over film versus digital. The current debate, Mehl said, is around photographs “as art forms per se, or as social agents for change."
Yet for Mehl and the festival, “We don’t take sides. We don’t support any particular position. ... What’s important to us is the image. If the image is successful and effective, that’s all we care about. We don’t care where the image came from, where it’s going, how it was achieved, or why — none of that is relevant to us.
“There’s a whole industry based around people describing what they do, and writing about what they do," he said. "What we have figured out is that if your image, or what you are producing, is not strong enough to speak on its own and convey something on its own — then whatever you have to say about, however contrived or convoluted that may be, it will not actually make the image better – in fact, it will make it worse."
Mehl said he prefers a purer, more elemental aspect. “We are focused on the artist, and we are focused on the image.”
*Featured/top image: Mr. and Mrs. Ochiai - Ibaraki, Japan, 2005. Photo by Mami Kiyoshi (Japan). Part of FotoSeptiembre’s SAFoto’s Web gallery.