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Launchpad.AI founder talks AI, Russian lit and film

Arshak Navruzyan is the founder of Launchpad.AI, a provider of artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions to enterprises. He founded Fellowship.AI an applied machine learning fellowship program, and is a cofounder of Platform.AI. He has delivered AI solutions for some of the largest enterprises in the world and multi-billion dollar quantitative hedge funds. Previously, Arshak served as the Chief Technology Officer at Sentient Technologies. He has also been in technology leadership roles at Argyle Data, Alpine and Endeca (Oracle). He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied Russian literature and art history.

Q. Your family is originally from Armenia. What brought your family to the United States, and where did you settle and grow up?

A. I knew there was no real future for me in Soviet Armenia. I was rather precocious for my age, and it was my initiative that brought us to the U.S. That was 1988 just as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Q. What were your first impressions of Los Angeles?

A. Disappointment, I sort of expected the U.S. to be more futuristic, high tech and livable. 

Yerevan [the family’s hometown in Armenia] is a proper city with architecture, stone buildings, parks…  LA is a hodgepodge of random buildings, malls, designed for cars and only has Griffith Park. But shortly afterwards, I discovered the public libraries and would spend most waking hours there. I was starved for books. In the Soviet Union, everything was contraband. People passed around hand-copied versions of books. Here you could read whatever you wanted. I basically learned English by spending all my time at the L.A. and Glendale public libraries. 

Q. What were you reading? Was there anything systematic about how you discovered books?

A. I was an adolescent so top of my list were books you absolutely couldn’t read in the U.S.S.R. that were considered “degenerate” for political and moral reasons like Camus, Sartre, Beckett, Joyce, Jean Genet. I don’t read any of these authors now, it’s not my taste. I prefer Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, but you know how it is with forbidden fruit.

Q. I note some existentialists among your early reading. How much of the thrill of reading them was that they were forbidden back in the U.S.S.R. versus how they might have resonated with the fact that you were in your adolescence, meaning, a lot of us seem to go through an existentialist phase when we are young. Why have you gravitated back towards Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol?

And I know that you developed a love for visual arts. What did that stem from? What art and films were you into in your younger years?

A. I was thinking about this recently, if you want to do something sophisticated with your audience you need to have a good shared frame of reference (to get jokes, speak shorthand,). My frame of reference matches these authors.

Scorsese and Coppola talk about it in this interview. They said their frame of reference was classic Hollywood, today’s generation has a frame of reference based on TV sitcoms (which makes it challenging for them to make good movies that the audience will get)

Even in the visual arts I gravitated towards things that I am somewhat indifferent to now. As an adolescent I think you look for things that are very different, so at that time I was into Peter Greenaway, Sergei Paradjanov, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, in other words, visually striking, postmodern narratives–the cinematic equivalent of the purple and pink mohawk.

My taste has evolved to filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Yasujirō Ozu, Louis Malle and to a certain extent Fellini and Antonioni that tell ordinary human stories, but with the subtlety and depth of understanding of Chekhov. 

Q.  Yes! Like how indebted to Japanese samurai films and WWII movies George Lucas was! And to Flash Gordon too…!

A. So I think as with most things, my love for the visual arts started with a really good teacher. Someone that made paintings and sculptures seem really significant like the key to unlock a past or even present civilization. 

If you’ve seen Simon Schama’s “Power of Art” series, I think Schama does this very effectively. You want to understand the French Revolution, all you need is to hear Schama talk about Jacques Louis David

I started watching this BORIS play yesterday. It’s amazing, unbelievably original. I would love for everyone to see it to really understand Putin. But it won’t work because outside of Russia. No one reads Pushkin, so the jokes will be missed, and they don’t know Russian history, so the context doesn’t exist. This is something we can say about [AI] LLMs [large language models], they don’t have enough context.

Q. Who was the teacher who influenced you, and was there a sudden event, like a specific work that struck you?

A. I forget his name now. It was at university, I was taking Greek / Roman art and architecture as an elective. I didn’t have high expectations of the class. He basically had this idea that Roman art was propaganda, statues of Augustus, and this completely changed my viewpoint.

Q. I was surprised to learn that you were not a computer science major back in school–but that you studied art history and literature? What were you originally planning to do with a college degree?

My plan was to become a museum curator and for a while I worked and volunteered at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]. I quickly figured out the career opportunities were very limited, and so I pivoted to tech, which I also loved. 

Q. Why did you want to become a museum curator?

I wanted to be a curator because I thought I have good taste and continue to privately curate, books, music, films for a circle of friends.They say if you love something don’t do it professionally.

Q. What kind of things are you curating for your friends?

A. Mostly Russian and French cultural artifacts that aren’t available in translation. (YouTube [Closed Captions] CC auto translate is only like 30 to 40 percent  accurate.) Also, having some background information helps. I’ll sort of set the scene why I’m excited about a particular director and writer and watch it with them so they get it. It’s rewarding for me because trying to explain it to others deepens your own appreciation and understanding.

Last few examples have been Vakhtangov Theatre’s production of Eugene Onegin, the moral tales of [French film director / writer] Eric Rohmer, Harold Pinter’s Victoria Station

Unless you’re my friend, chances are you will live your entire life not realizing how great these works are.

Q. How strong were you on the science and quantitative side? How challenging was the pivot? Did you bother to change your majors or was it mostly changing your coursework? What were your interests on the computer science (CS) side in and coming out of school?

A. I never took CS classes. Didn’t find them interesting. I taught myself, playing around with early versions of the dialup bulletin board systems (BBSes) and (“worldwide web”) www before browsers were invented. I got a job at the UCLA Office of Academic Computing doing dialup internet support for students and faculty. That was the turning point. From there I went to EarthLink Network.

Q. How did you get from the early BBSes to where you are today in AI? 

A. I went from BBSing to where I am today in both a linear and nonlinear way. BBS had forums, not unlike what Slack has today. They had app share features, not unlike that of the Apple App Store. What’s amazing is how far things have progressed in my lifetime. 

Q. What common thread, if any, do you see between your interest in art and what you do in AI? Where is the line between your interest in curating art and creating art?

A. I was in Business Intelligence for a while working with Endeca, Qlik, Tableau and realized that manually sifting through data will not scale, and you need something intelligent–that isn’t just a business analyst drawing conclusions from data. I don’t have much interest [nor] probably the talent and courage for creating. I’m happy to be an advocate for others.

Q. Tell us about Launchpad.AI. What is it, and how and why did you start it? How is Fellowship.AI part of it?

A. Launchpad is the commercial arm of the Fellowship. Fellowship started in 2015 with the agenda of expanding the community of qualified [AI] practitioners through the hands-on experience of real world use cases, Launchpad was created in 2017 to commercialize some of the research work we had done. The initial focus was on trading through an exclusive partnership with a hedge fund. We pivoted to enterprise when we added Launchpad.

Today Launchpad is largely an AI consultancy focused on delivering resources and solutions to large enterprises. We continue to stay deeply engaged in research through the Fellowship, which is a further differentiator. Our people stay more cutting edge because of the research.

Q. How hard a “sell” has AI been when enterprises generally are still on the ground floor of understanding what is capable with AI?

A. We don’t hard sell, because we tend to work with industry leading organizations that clearly recognize the value of AI. 

Q. Please talk about some of the more interesting projects / applications of AI you have executed?

Production AI is still fairly complex, and often there is a mismatch between what an organization wishes to do versus what they can realistically afford to do. We’ve been around for 7+ years now. There is no lack of interesting use cases: systemic trading strategies, EV battery lifespan prediction, optimizing medical claims, asset management signals from earnings calls, discovering the next blockbuster athletic shoes from consumer preferences… 

Between commercial and Fellowship research, it might be easier to list what we haven’t worked on (military and sin industries). 

Q. I know you are very familiar with OpenAI and its projects, but what was your reaction to ChatGPT when it became more generally available?

This is what keeps me so excited about Launchpad, I’m always learning. ChatGPT is a pivotal moment in that it takes AI out of the hands of researchers and engineers and invites the individual to experience its power directly–similar to the PC revolution that democratized compute. OpenAI is not Apple, however, they are throwing off interesting and useful artifacts on their [artificial general intelligence] AGI quest. The name of the prototype already tells you that they’re not a consumer products company. 

Enterprises are starting to be concerned on many levels about depending on ChatGPT, about what information leaks into these models during inference. I think enterprises will be inspired to move more quickly because of what ChatGPT instigated, but they’ll probably look to instructionally fine tune open source models like LLaMA

Q. What does the curator in you think of how generative AI is going to change the creation of art? What will the role of humans be?

A. I go to a lot of contemporary art museums and see [something like an] artist who has quilted a provocative slogan into a blanket. This is commercialization of work that belongs on a freeway overpass not in a modern art museum! It’s not mind expanding, shocking, inspiring, terrifying, the way real art is.

As [Martin] Scorsese argues, movies based on Marvel comics are not cinema. I argue that word art isn’t art. Maybe generative [AI] can get us out of this rut, maybe it will get us even deeper into it. If I knew the answer I would be the next [art dealer] Larry Gagosian–who coincidentally has a succession problem because great taste isn’t easy to pass on. 

Q. How possible is artificial general intelligence (AGI)? How far or close are we to achieving something like it?

Depends what we mean by AGI. If the definition is accurate and instantaneous retrieval and summarization of knowledge, I think we are only 5 to 10 years out. If our definition is more broad–that includes scientific discovery, real creativity, real-world decision making, I think it will take much longer, 50 to 100 years, perhaps. 

To train AIs with these advanced capabilities we need to give them a lot more access to the real world (let AI run labs and blow things up) and rethink our notions of privacy (let AI listen to your dinner conversations and even difficult arguments with your spouse). Otherwise, AIs trained on the Internet will continue to exhibit the intelligence of the Internet. 


Hello World!

This blog has been dormant for too long! I would write a more composed entry and keep editing this until I had something more polished, but then I would never get it written… So here goes…

Why is it that whenever I am looking to be more productive, my first instinct is to buy a new tool or device to help me? That said, the best tool is the one on hand, and this year I plan to be much better at keeping things within reach.


Journal / Index Cards. (I need a good index card wallet. When I was younger, I coveted the Levenger model. I have an inexpensive, faux leather one that I found years ago on Amazon.)

Cell Phone / Tablet and External Keyboard and / or Laptop. (I have been binge watching device repair videos and I have revived an old Dell XPS 13 and a Mid-2012 MacBook Air).

Reading Material (Kindle App). Hardcopy book? Hemingway supposedly always keep a paperback in his pocket. His A Moveable Feast would be a good (re)read and one to have on hand…


Camera / Cell Phone / Pocket Camera. Seeing all the many articles about the death of single-lens reflex cameras, I am alarmed by how many I still own. Like everyone, I almost always have my cell phone on me, but though cell phone cameras have become more responsive and better through their AI engines, I still find them slow. Would love a Fuji X100 because I would like to have a good fixed lens pocket camera, but the latest version, the Fuji X100V, seems to be hard to find in inventory and who wants to spend more than $1,000 when surely there must be a perfectly good earlier version that I can find secondhand?

Why should we care about the Waste land?

“The most revolutionary and influential poem of the last 100 years was written by an American banker in the City of London. When TS Eliot published ‘The Waste Land,’ his forbiddingly difficult work in five parts — full of parody, pastiche and allusion — in 1922, Time magazine wondered whether it was a hoax.”

Why should we care about TS Eliot’s The Waste Land? via @FT

T. S. Eliot at Lloyds Bank

Cindy Chin Interview

Cindy Chin: Interview

Cindy Chin is CEO and founder of CLC Advisors. Cindy is an advisor to several startups. She is a member of NASA’s 2016 Datanauts class, one of NASA’s Women in Data open innovation program initiatives. She is a former consultant for McKinsey & Company, Coopers & Lybrand, LLC (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Strategic Hotels & Resorts.

From when and where does your interest in technology stem?

My interest in technology actually began at home. Both my parents worked in semiconductors and telecommunications. As a child, I got to witness the birth of the Internet and navigate it at its introduction into the marketplace. I remember a time when there were very few web pages, and it’s been exciting to see how technology has grown and the various cycles it has undergone.

Who are your favorite science and science fiction writers, and why?

I used to love C.S. Lewis as a kid. Then I graduated to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings are still relevant today. I feel like every time you re-read his books in the context of life experience and different stages of your life, you learn something completely new. Or at least your understanding of life and its placement in time.

I am also a Dan Brown fan. He puts adventure into his fiction, which can sometimes be construed as science fiction because of his use of time in the stories. History, religion, and science are deeply intertwined, and he has a way of writing relevant big human challenges into his narratives.

Again, I want to revisit Douglas Adams, Stephen Hawking, some of Brian Cox‘s books, and a few other scientists. Also, non-scientists, including Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto on Industrial Society and Its Future. He was also known as the Unabomber but apparently he wrote this wild manifesto about the dangers and consequences of technology and mobile phones on the human race, relevant topic matters today. I am not condoning the hurt and actions of what he did to lead to the ending of human life, but understanding the psychology is of great interest. It’s only 33 pages.

Why your interest in space exploration?

Interest in space exploration began when I was a girl—and from the books I read. I used to sketch the schematics of the Space Shuttle, and my Dad and I would have conversations about astronomy, quantum physics and all things related to the universe.

As an adult, the interest and passion was reintroduced by an invitation from NASA during its transition and [the] end of the 35-year Space Shuttle program. I was invited to join NASA Social in the Mojave Desert in Southern California at NASA Armstrong Flight Space Center (known as NASA Dryden at the time) at Edwards Air Force Base on the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavor from Kennedy Space Center to California. It started with that, then the Space Shuttle Atlantis transition at Kennedy Space Center and several other NASA Social events.

Currently, I am a member of the NASA’s open data initiative called NASA Datanauts that operates out of the office of NASA’s CIO [Chief Information Officer.]. The initiative is to encourage the education and exploration of data science through the use of NASA’s 32,000+ open datasets.

How did you become involved in NASA Datanauts, and why do you remain involved?

I learned about the NASA Datanauts after hearing about them during the White House State of Women Summit that First Lady at the time Michelle Obama hosted. I had read about the panel of women in STEM, which included NASA’s Beth Beck, who works out of the NASA CIO’s Office. I thought about the need of women in tech, but in particular data science and coding. My daughter codes at school, and I thought that if I wanted to continue to keep up with her and her education, I should learn coding. She’s a huge inspiration for me.

I recently gave a presentation about the future of space travel with NASA Johnson’s Chief Knowledge Architect David Meza on board a Lufthansa 747 flight [Lufthansa Flying Lab video]. LH405 from JFK to Frankfurt while traveling to the dmexco Conference in Cologne. Giving a talk at 33,000 feet or 10,000 meters up in the air is an experience that I will never forget and even more exciting that it was about space and its digital transformation! [dmexco panel on digital transformation of the space industry  (video) Cindy organized and co-created with German astronaut Dr. Thomas Reiter and David Meza (NASA Johnson. dmexco TV interview (video).]

Which technologies around Big Data most excite you right now and why?

I’m just beginning to learn about all the technology and tools that are available right now. It can be overwhelming to decide where to start, but having an understanding of where your fundamental strengths are is very helpful. For instance, I am a visual person, and photography is one of my passions. So, it would be natural that data visualization or modeling is pretty cool. When you’re working with space data, it’s incredibly inspirational.

Currently, I am learning about repositories like GitHub, coding languages like Python and R, and also data taxonomies and tidy data. They’re all tools to help organize over 32,000 data sets that NASA has opened up, and I am excited to see what people around the world will do with that data. It’s only a subset in learning how to navigate the dataverse, not to mention that sometimes data will “lie” to you, as fellow Datanauts and guru Karen Lopez reminds us, but to really look at where the sources come from. Keywords, or in social media what we would call “hashtags,” are integral in sourcing the data. Now, let’s add Blockchain into the mix and AI—it becomes almost three-dimensional and that is just super cool to me.

Where do you stand on the Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg divide on the potential benefits and dangers of AI?

The conversations and debate on artificial intelligence are just beginning. We are on the surface of a deep exploration of the cause and effect of AI in technology, and it is a natural progression for there to be contrary or opposing views and debate. It only shows responsibility as leaders in technology.

Personally, I don’t have a position on AI yet, because I am still learning, researching, and acquiring information, but media tends to amplify or exaggerate hot topics to bring it into the news cycle. I have to commend both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg for participating in the debate and adding to the engagement of others. AI will also be democratized like the Internet.

I do recommend watching this video of Dr. Anastassia Lauterbach in her interview about being a board director and her viewpoints on AI in her upcoming book that will be out later this Fall.

Why was it important to you to go to Juilliard to study piano as an adult student? How has it impacted you professionally as well?

Music has been in my life since a very young age. It’s something that I’ve carried with me coming to the United States as an immigrant and learning how to adapt to my new homeland and expression. I was classically and competitively-trained. I stopped playing when I was 17 years old, and I found that even after I stopped to pursue more scientific and academic pursuits, I missed it. I would listen to music all the time, especially studying for exams. I work best with classical music, and I have had some of the most productive moments and best ideas sitting in on a New York Philharmonic rehearsal.

Studying at Juilliard came to me in the most fascinating of stories. It pretty much involved Daniel Barenboim, The Metropolitan Opera House, High Society patron Mercedes Bass, and The New York Times. It’s a story that’s told much better in person, and I am looking for a venue to give it. At the end, there were placement auditions, I auditioned and got accepted in the intermediate-advanced piano masterclass where we studied Beethoven and Chopin with professor Lisa Kovalik, and it was the most creative, artistic, and rewarding thing I could have done of myself as a young mom. Again, music was there when I needed it.

Juilliard itself has not impacted me professionally in a direct way, but my involvement with music and the performing arts has. The study of music gave me a foundation, fundamental knowledge, and language to describe the importance of the arts to society. It’s simply from my own love of all types of music that has led me to opportunities to serve on steering committees or boards on both coasts and overseas, or the years of training helped to really understand it at the highest levels. That time of service and engagement has opened doors professionally and, more importantly, the ability to leave a legacy in the work and conversations over the years. My daughter’s generation and beyond will benefit from it.

Who are your favorite pianists and piano composers?

My favorite pianists are Vladimir Horowitz, Yefim Bronfman who is incredibly kind and lovely. (I envy his big fingers!), Manny Ax whose equally generous and kind, and Alfred Brendel. But of all, I would wish to see Martha Argerich play Schumann one day.

My favorite piano composers are Mozart, who is like visiting with a childhood friend of mine when I hear his music, the “3 B’”s: Beethoven and his depth, Bach and his structure, and Brahms in his romantic period expressions, Chopin, and Schubert. Rachmaninoff is a beast, but my hands are too small to ever perform his music. And who doesn’t love Tchaikovsky? So many choices, but I also love jazz and pop music too. It’s universal, and it’s in my nature to be curious.

Tell us about the technology entrepreneurs whom you admire most.

Honestly, there are few tech entrepreneurs whom I truly admire. I respect them and their abilities to create and grow a company, but I admire more the scientists who created the foundations in which we can operate our tech. The Internet pioneers, some of whom I know and are friends or colleagues. So I guess Bill and Melinda Gates fall under that category and they’ve moved beyond tech to really make a difference with humanity. They also have true character. Entrepreneurs are people like everyone else. They are not gods. And if the U.S. Air Force decides to take down global GPS, then our smartphones would stop functioning as it is. Let’s just say, I’m grateful that we live in another age of creation and innovation across several sectors, energy, technology and humanity.

Please tell us about CLC Advisors. What kind of companies do you target, and what services do you provide? What would be an ideal client or investment for you?

So what is strategy? It is choosing a unique and valuable position rooted in systems of activities that are more difficult to match in the economic basis of competitive advantage to the level of the specific activities that a company performs. At CLC Advisors, our advisory and strategy consulting practice operates in strategic partnerships and knowledge sharing, we produce case studies, white papers, create bespoke innovation workshops and private salons globally during conference events bringing business and thought leaders together, social media consulting services, and I am often asked to speak at conferences across the globe from Boston to Beijing to Bulgaria.

I look for private investors, VCs, LPs, investment banks or private equity firms who are interested in investing in the global startup ecosystem, and I strategically align them with established entrepreneurs and founding teams of startups who are doing things with frontier technologies with the ability and talent to start, grow and scale great companies, all with a social impact component for the betterment and benefit of humanity. The startup stages are usually pre-seed, who have already raised $500,000 in capital in a “Friends & Family” round to Series B, often who are missing business management experience and need the expertise to bring them to the next level. Many startups lack the longer-term view on strategic growth and the ability to execute on business plans. That’s where we step in, and we also hold a board position as well.

The verticals that I operate in are under the Smart Cities umbrella, which can touch upon sustainability, green tech, energy, IoT and Big Data, as well as aerospace and aviation. Imagine, what would it take to get to Mars and then to survive on it? Can any of those things be done here on our own planet? There are a lot of big problems to solve before we get there, and thanks to Elon Musk—he is really driving new markets and another wave of entrepreneurship on a completely different level.

Lastly, diversity is a key criteria that I also look for. If there are no women or minorities in the company, I will pass on the startup or investor unless they demonstrate an earnest desire to change that ratio.

An ideal client is a private investor, group of investors, or VC who is interested in this space and who does not yet have the sector expert knowledge on what to look for. Many corporate VCs have entered into the venture capital realm and have a long runway time to learn, observe and research in the markets. I’ve been in this for years now and have spent the time in researching which geographical locations are working on these frontier technologies and are ahead of the rest. I hope to release a case study or white paper for clients on this soon.

How do you pack your bag for a seven-year, 22,000-mile international reporting assignment?

Paul Salopek is starting Out of Eden, a seven-year narrative trek “that anthropologists believe was the first path humans took out of Africa to populate the rest of the world,” says Nieman Lab.

But what will likely make the journey more immersive is the multimedia component. Using his video and audio equipment, Salopek said he wants to create a kind of continuous portrait of the world at this point in time. “I’m calling it a narrative transect: Every 100 miles, I’ll methodically take a series of narrative readings that do not vary along the path of the walk,” he said. The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

“By the end of seven years, I’ll have created an enduring portrait of a storytelling transect around the world at the end of the millennium,” he said.


Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews: Introduction

Traditional media continues to atrophy, but the need for content has not. If anything, there is a greater need for content than there has ever been. Columnists talk about the death of newspapers, but we are all reading more text, viewing more images and watching more video; we just happen to be doing more of it online. Talk to anyone under the age of 30, and chances are that they read few, if any, print publications.

It has become harder to make a living as a photographer, but easier to sell photographs. Online distribution has made media more easily available, but more media now sell at commodity prices. Photographers are no longer paid simply to make a technically competent photograph. Kodak roll cartridge film and Polaroid instant film popularized photography, but it is digital photography that has put the skills of making and developing properly-exposed photographs into many more amateur hands. That has caused deep concern among many aspiring professionals, who find themselves in an arms race with affluent consumers to buy more and more expensive equipment. The price of stock photographs has been driven down to the cellar; microstock photos sometimes sell for as little as a few dollars, or even a couple of dimes. Robert Lam got $30 for a Time magazine cover photo.


Simple Beauty, Living Simpler

Rick Jelliffe writes about how he lived “smaller” in 2008.

In Japan under the Shoguns, there were tight sumptuary laws that prevented ordinary people from such luxuries as chairs and tables. The result was a culture rich in fabric, ceramic, paper, paper, gardens, calligraphy and small objects that could be stored away. There is little stark about a simple traditional Japanese tatami room, which can be contrasted with the starkness of the ideological modesty of Shaker furniture, for example: indeed, the plainness of tatami room merely provides a frame which shows off the beauty of craftsmanship, design and display. So simplicity is not antagonistic to beauty.

Via Lifehacker.

Festival of the Photograph: Andrew Owen Interview

Andrew Owen is the operations manager for Look3: Festival of the Photograph, which will be hosted in Charlottesville, VA, from June 12 to 14. The photography festival will feature Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Peter-Witkin and James Nachtwey.

Wayne: You were the Festival’s first employee. How did you become involved with the Festival? How has your role evolved since last year?

Andrew: My involvement with the Festival began after I had been assisting for a few years with Will Kerner, a local photographer and one of the founding members of the Festival. When the Festival secured the partnerships and city support to make it a reality in the summer of 2006, Will passed me along to meet with Nick [Nichols] and Jessica [Nagle]. Jessica and my father had been long-time friends and had collaborated on many Charlottesville theater and art projects, so there was a connection there already that I could build off of. But Nick I had never met before. When we got together to chat for the first time, we talked about my studies at Georgetown and how I had written my thesis on the socio-economic impact to North Carolina of the American Chestnut blight. He saw me as someone who shared his values of conservation and had a strong education outside of photography. With our original group of five people, it was important that we all brought a unique perspective to the table but still shared some commonalities.

My original role at the Festival, as the first and only employee, was to keep an eye on everything: it all went through me at some stage. But as we became busier and busier, the amount of people to email and projects to build became more difficult to manage and keep track of with so small a staff. So we brought on a few more people including Gina Martin who works in the Image Collection at [The National Geographic Society ] in DC, and this has really laid the groundwork for how we operate this year. We have more people with specific project responsibilities, rather than having a small group involved in everything. My role in 2008 has changed slightly in that I’m launching our LOOK3 Workshops in addition to helping with marketing and other planning logistics. It’s been a very different year than the previous one because we don’t have to build everything from scratch. Although the workshops are new, at least I know what the other pieces of the puzzle are going to look like. That’s a big help.

Wayne: How have your interests in the environment intersected with your photographic interests? How has your photography evolved since your involvement with the Festival?

Andrew: As a photographer, the Festival has definitely pushed me creatively. For one thing, photography is always on my mind, and I’m continually surrounded by photographers. I spend much of the day thinking, seeing, or talking about pictures. I am continually interacting with images and that helps me think about the kinds of images I like to create. But working with the Festival has also led to shooting opportunities through new friendships. Whenever I have wanted to pursue a new project, I have great support with equipment and advice from the network of photographers around me.

Wayne: The Festival has its roots in Nick’s informal outdoor gatherings. What have you done to try and keep that vibe?

Andrew: With not even two years under our belt, it’s difficult to predict exactly what LOOK3 will become. But as you know, we have a strong precedent that not only guides us but also serves as our foundation. Nick’s one night a year “Hotshots” parties, historically hosted in his backyard in the sweltering summer heat, essentially outgrew itself. As a result, the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph was born and given inheritance to two decades of momentum. This 20-year legacy of gatherings is the LOOK3 wellspring. But at the core of Nick’s parties, and now the Festival, is the deeply human obsession for communicating and sharing ideas through images. What Nicked has gifted us is the means to harness this energy, to take it in, to process it, and then give it back as something beautiful and powerful.

Wayne: Nick has also talked about the influence of Perpignan on the Festival. What other photography or art festivals have influenced you, and what have you tried to draw from them?

Andrew: Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan is certainly a festival we look to for inspiration, and Jean-Francois Leroy is a friend and mentor. We also share with Perpignan the wonderful features of a walkable town. It’s incredible how much cars and traffic can interfere with human connectivity. It was highly valuable for me to be in France this past September to see what an established photography festival looks like from a patron’s perspective. But I wouldn’t say at this point that we draw too many influences from other festivals.The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is one that I keep in mind when I’m thinking about how to build social networks or developing web content. I’m also interested to learn more about Sundance and the business model that has driven them to such impressive success. But more or less, we’re happy and quite busy pulling on our own bootstraps.

Wayne: What were your greatest successes and failures in the first year? You mentioned that you are pushing harder on the Look3 workshops. How so? Since last year was the inauguration of the formal festival, what handicaps did you have last year that you don’t this year?

Andrew: Pulling together the first year of LOOK3 was indeed a feat, and there are so many things to be proud of from last year’s inaugural festival. But from my perspective as the operations manager, the number of compliments we received on how well the Festival was run and the degree of professionalism executed in all the shows and events was immensely gratifying. No one was really quite sure what to expect in our first year. We generated a lot of buzz with our marketing and promotions, but I think few people, besides us, were ready for the quality of the entire production. Even with the little resources we had, we knew there were some things we couldn’t skimp on. We had to have the best artists and we had to have the best projectors. Along with the legacy artists, “the big three,” the projections are our lifeblood. When it got dark enough to flip on the projectors, it was clear that the money had been well spent.

What was also a great success were the INsight Conversations with our legacy artists. Being part of the audience that first night when Bill Allard took the stage and regaled us with two hours of his best pictures and stories was absolutely magical. And then to watch Sally Mann the following afternoon, and Eugene Richards on Saturday, I was blown away three separate times. There is no formula for these talks and the results are going to be different and revealing in new ways every time. And part of what I think we’re hoping to accomplish is to bridge the older generation with the younger generation. The three legacy artists are at the core of this agenda.

But we’re also moving in that direction by offering the LOOK3 Workshops. The demand for the masterclasses last year was super high, and we sold out the classes. But compressing full days classes with all the events of the Festival weekend proved too overwhelming. So this year we decided to launch shooting-specific workshops during the week capped with the three days of the Festival weekend. For workshop participants, the learning experience becomes much more comprehensive and rewarding when they are able to combine their own development over the five days with the Festival’s rich mix of gallery shows, nightly projections, book displays, master lectures, and interviews with our legacy artists. Add that the instructors are three legends—Harvey, Allard, Richards—and the result is a dynamic and awesome opportunity for photographers.

Wayne: Last year, Festival organizers found it important to have a venue in which a wide array of photographers could show their work. How are you trying to accomplish that this year? And what kind of publications might we see come out of the Festival?

Andrew: During an interview last year about LOOK3, Nick was discussing our program and got onto the subject of throwing projections onto the huge screen. He said, “the power is there, the luminescence of projected images… This is a tribal thing.” I love that Nick used the word “tribal.” It’s a word that begins to capture the spirit, the energy, the sense of kinship, and the devotion that characterized Nick’s backyard parties and now the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. With Nick’s backyard shows, everyone was welcome. But “being welcome” meant much more than just anyone could attend. It meant that you were invited to show your own work and be part of the family, the “tribe”, the community of people who had come to one place to share in something special. As we’ve moved from Nick’s backyard into downtown Charlottesville that spirit of family, the feeling of kinship, and that absence of anonymity is still at the heart of our identity. Ours is not a faceless or voiceless festival. At Nick’s everyone could show work, and at LOOK3 we still believe in that tradition. The people’s exhibition space that we created at “YourSpace” fulfills that core value.

LOOK3 is also not a huge festival, nor is Charlottesville, one-tenth the size of a huge city like New York or Miami. We reach capacity at 1,000 passes, and all the events and shows are located along the ten leafy blocks of the historic Downtown Mall. So within this beautiful outdoor corridor, where the art spills out of buildings and actually becomes texture to the social experience, we still capture the intimacy of when Nick was showing images out in the woods behind his house to a few hundred people. That we are able to transition from the backyard setting of Sugar Hollow to the urban landscape of Charlottesville with so much intact is amazing. In fact, I think LOOK3 is a more full expression of Nick’s original intentions, and having moved into town,we are only just scratching at our potential.

September 11 Remembrance

One weekend my wife and I walked into a gallery to find photographs of September 11: survivors were coated in dust; firemen stood in the forefront of rubble, their gold safety stripes gleamed incongruously against the ruins.

The photos hung like laundry from wire strung across the gallery. Others had been framed and placed on the walls. A crowd sifted through the bins or piles that had been put directly on the tables. I told my wife that I needed to walk out. The event still seemed too immediate to me to see its characters embalmed in these photos.

My family and friends wrote to me frantically on and after that day the planes hit the towers, knowing only that my wife and I lived in New York and that we both worked in finance. Their emails filled our in-boxes. Our close friends and relatives rang us once the switchboards became clear. A lot of people outside our industry mistakenly assume that nearly everyone in the New York financial world worked in those towers.

I was in Rockefeller Center that day, when my wife called to tell me that a plane had hit the towers. Like everyone else I thought she meant a small propeller plane. Little did I suspect that I would later see television images of two 747s striking the World Trade Center, images so horrific and unreal. As we evacuated our buildings, the streets were filled with people milling around, more confused than alarmed, while smoke could be seen billowing from the southern part of the city. Our cell phones were useless. I remember the fighter jets screaming overhead later that day, when I was in a line that snaked around the New York Blood Center so long that they had to turn nearly all of us a way, even those of us with O-type blood, as helpless New Yorkers tried to think of gestures, no matter how small, that they could make to help.

The scenes seemed eerily familiar. I had seen them before in Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day and Towering Inferno, so I could only walk around in disbelief as those movie scenes came to life. I tried to chide myself for making such outrageous comparisons, but I kept thinking of walking through the subways underneath the now buried World Trade Center, or the decimated hulk of the World Financial Center, just South of the towers, where I used to often grab coffee with friends of mine. My wife once worked with a man who visited the New York offices of their company in the World Trade Center once a year: 9/11 was that day that year. What more do you need to know to understand the concept of fate? Or that evil can befall the most innocent among us?

Until then, my generation has never really had an event that irrevocably changed our lives, though there have been shocking incidents that have happened along the way: the assasination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the Iraq Gulf War. But never had there been an incident that changed our ideas about what it meant to be safe in our homes, to be safe in our hometowns, to be safe in the United States. War and terrorism had reached our shores.

I believe the attack is to our generation what Pearl Harbor was to the Great Generation: startling, naked shock and surprise that our distant shores could be attacked. Yet writers of that generation ultimately became caught up in the war. Many short stories and novels focused on the bloody battles fought and the service which a generation of Americans provided. Where that war affected most Americans directly because so many volunteered or were drafted, our war seems so different, one fought solely by professional soldiers, in skirmishes by highly trained professionals, distant from our everyday lives.

In the early days after September 11, I remember an evening when my wife and I walked down to Union Square. Most of Southern Manhattan had been closed off to people, so Union Square was the southernmost, still accessible public gathering place in the city. You could see the gleaming long-stemmed and votive candles gathered into small shrines that dotted the square, illuminating faces that were hovering over the many letters and poems that had been placed in tribute to the fallen and their families. We were blown away by what was heartfelt.

Flashes of the Other World

My friend Julie Ann Shapiro has come out with her short story collection Flashes of the Other World.