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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.