PHOTOGRAPHIC PRACTICE

Atlanta’s Big Picture
cathy ByRD
After decades of fervent advocacy on its behalf, the photographic image may have reached a global high as fine art. At the same time, our mediated culture seems intent on exhausting photography’s potential for immediate gratification. Every minute of the day—via cell phones, digital cameras, and laptops—billions of images are captured and transmitted, viewed and discarded. Enter a picture you might want to hold onto: the grassroots photo festival. Framed in modern and contemporary art history, photo fêtes take place around the world in places such as Arles, Toronto, Montréal, Houston, San Antonio, Berlin, and Bangladesh. Each one presents an array of photography, video, film, and transdisciplinary projects through exhibitions, lectures, and special events designed to educate and stimulate the public. Some work with funds exceeding a million dollars a year. Others, with a fraction of that budget, produce their festivals with homegrown energy. Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP), among the newest of these community-based initiatives, is nine years old this year. Corinne Adams and Susanne Katz, with a handful of other local photographers, hatched the idea of an Atlanta photo festival in 1997. By October 1999, ACP was incorporated and its officers staged their first month of photo-based exhibitions in fifty galleries, educational institutions, and other public spaces. When a year later ACP added a lecture series, the city’s visual arts community started paying attention. A hundred art spaces were involved by 2003. In 2004, Anne Dennington became ACP’s first full-time executive director, and the festival added public film screenings, the Collector’s Series lectures, and a formal public art program. The festival had already demonstrated a commitment to public art in 2002, when ACP, in collaboration with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Public Art Coalition (MPAC), presented The Big Picture. For this project, an ACP review panel sent out a call for works by Atlanta artists and selected three videos for outdoor screenings. The two-night event was staged in a downtown parking lot and adjacent three-story brick wall with the assistance of Central Atlanta Progress and the Fairlie Poplar Task Force. The audience brought its own seating or stood in the street to view Gadget Addict, by Teresa Brazen and Annie Langan; We’re Here, by Benita Carr; and Thumb Wrestle, by Gretchen Hupfel and Helena Reckitt. Carr’s site-specific work focused on the struggle to revitalize and humanize the city center. Waving and smiling en masse, the pith-helmeted hospitality corps of Olympics ambassadors reflected Atlanta’s determined efforts to provide security, information, and a welcome to the district. Though it could have been a bigger, better picture—light from surrounding street lamps competed with projected images that didn’t cover the entire wall—getting art out of the galleries and into the street was a kick for the arts community. ACP had not planned for the public art project that took shape in 2004. Atlantan Peter Bahouth volunteered his own work-in-progress. His Post No Bills presented a perfect opportunity to engage the passerby in a conversation about photography. Bahouth stationed some forty stands with stereoscopic

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ABOVE: Amy Landesberg, Urban Reverb, 2005. BELOW: Peter Bahouth, Post No Bills (viewing stand and stereoscopic image), 2004.

viewers in the pedestrian environments of Atlanta’s Midtown and nearby Decatur during October. “Pssst!” signage and a walking map lured viewers to peek into the comic dramas of the self-taught artist’s dog, vintage family photographs, and quirky landscapes. By 2005, the ACP board decided that the public art program would be a permanent part of the festival and established a $10,000 fund with the support of the Fulton County Arts Council Public Art Program and the new Atlantic Station commercial

ABOVE: Photo courtesy the artist. BELOW: Photo by Jan Fields; photo courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery.

PUBLIC ART REVIEW | VOL. 18 NO. 2 • ISSUE 36

BELOW: Matt Haffner, Serial City (from the top: Scuffle, Derek, and Revolutionary), wheat-paste photographic murals, black and white, various sites throughout Atlanta, 2006. See more at www.matthaffner.com and www.acpinfo.org.

BELOW: Photos courtesy the artist.

and residential district. A committee of public art experts from the community, the ACP director, and ACP board members selected two projects. Amy Landesberg’s sly Urban Reverb was installed in the windows of the Rhodes Center building on Peachtree Street just north of Midtown. For this work, the Atlanta-based artist architect took a four-by-five-inch photograph of the view across from the building. She scanned the image, then digitally mirrored and enlarged it for printing on an adhesive-backed vinyl that was applied to the exterior of the windows. Though challenged twice by graffiti artists, with the continued support of building owner Dewberry Capital, the trompe l’oeil reflection of moving traffic has been on view ever since. ACP commissioned New York-based Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create the second, more ethereal, 2005 project. Hide-and-Seek, their site-specific animation of children playing in popular Atlanta neighborhoods, was projected on the wall of a building at Atlantic Station for a month that fall. Again allocating $10,000 (5 percent of the year’s budget) for public art in 2006, the ACP board selected Atlanta native Joey Orr, a former ACP public art project review panelist, to serve as the first guest curator. Orr chose local artist Matt Haffner to produce Serial City, thirteen black and white photographs ranging from seven to thirty feet high that were wheat-pasted onto buildings along a loop of back streets and alternative commuter routes—urban insider spots virtually unknown to tourists and out-of-towners. His past marked by anonymous graffiti-style artmaking, Haffner found it a bit strange to have the work sanctioned. (Dennington secured permission for each site.) “But I learned that something doesn’t have to be illegal to be subversive,” he admitted. Chris Downs of TUBE, together with ACP, Orr, and Haffner, produced a Serial City DVD, the first formal documentation of the festival’s emerging public art program. Dennington considers the public art program a unique ACP initiative. “While the organization presents a growing number of programs that support exhibitions presented at other venues, we don’t have our own physical space,” she said. “Since the entire city has become our venue, public art makes sense for Atlanta Celebrates Photography.” Perhaps photography as public art will become more than a fleeting experience for Atlanta. Some locals foretell a radiant future. Considering the amount of concerted redevelopment in process, remarked Landesberg, both an ACP artist and current cochair of MPAC, “public art will expand exponentially as a cultural current. Though the focus will be large scale and permanent, we should also see more temporary work, as concepts for larger projects are being tested and developed.” Whether or not the “capital of the South” becomes the next Seattle or Chicago, it seems that Atlanta Celebrates Photography has its own mind about public art that dreams, comes true, and doesn’t need to last forever. cathy ByRD is an Atlanta-based art critic and curator who directs the gallery and teaches at the Georgia State University Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.

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PUBLIC ART REVIEW | SPRING / SUMMER 2007