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Photo 2021: Best in show?

We gave the launch of the inaugural Photo 2021 International Festival of Photography exhibition program the editorial coverage it warranted a few weeks back, but queried whether its claim to be ‘Australia’s largest and most significant photography festival’ wasn’t a tad conceited, given it didn’t actually exist yet.
When you have witnessed the achievements over many years of the Head On Festival in Sydney, driven by photographer Moshe Rosenzveig and the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, particularly under the direction of photographer Jeff Moorfoot, you bridle at that kind of claim. The talented Will Pucovski might well turn out to be the the ‘most significant’ Australian cricketer since Donald Bradman, but so far he hasn’t proven his potential in the field, so to speak. So it is with curator Elias Redstone and Photo 2021.

‘Yes it’s true, Covid meant the festival hasn’t even been held as yet!’ we were told by Photo 2021’s PR consultant, Fiona Brook. ‘One of the rationales behind the statement of “largest” is the number of organisations across the state that are participating, and the amount of work that has been commissioned by the festival is extensive.’

The Photo 2020-now-2021 organisers initially described the event as a ‘world leading’ festival and compared it to the venerable Rencontres d’Arles, establised in 1970. So the description, ‘Australia’s largest and most significant photography festival’ is actually turning down the arrogance knob a notch or two.

As the aforementioned Jeff Moorfoot noted at the time: ‘Just a bit premature in announcing yourself as a “World leading festival” before a single print has been hung on a single wall. Does anyone recall Vivid in Canberra in 2008? …It was all the big institutions, the NGA, National Library, National Museum, etc. etc, joining together to bring the biggest photo exhibition since ever….. a cautionary tale!’

Redstone also described Melbourne as Australia’s capital of photography, another claim worth investigating given he acknowledged Melbourne has, well, never even actually hosted a major international photo festival. Does the truth actually matter any more, or as Photo 2021 seems to argue, there as many ‘truths’ as their are people in the world. Perhaps Redstone’s ‘lived experience’ is that Photo 2021 is the most significant photographic exhibition ever to be mounted in Australia, and that’s all that matters.

So far it hasn’t set the world on fire. There have been a few Zoom-platformed artist’s interviews which garnered viewing numbers in the low hundreds. (Tip to organisers: maybe provide a link to the videos from the website). By comparison, the Head On online events were massively well-supported, thanks to years of carving out a dedicated local and global audience of people passionately interested in photographs. It had 13,000 tickets (visitors) to its live sessions, and the website garnered 80,000 visitors. And they also had a physical show of 54 exhibitons, and showed work at Pingyao in China. Yet Moshe Rosenzveig has time to chat with the likes of Inside Imaging, and seems to value the link we provide to people who are for one reason or another, genuinely interested in photography.

Marketing of the Photo 2021 show seems so far to be entirely via social media and frankly, judging by the level of engagement from punters (Likes and Comments, etc) it’s just not getting the cut-through it needs just a matter of weeks out from launch. The website is a visual abomination and pretty well un-navigible, with dead links all over the shop. (So it must have cost a bomb!) Communication to and encouragement of what you might loosely describe as the photographic community has been desultory at best. There are some real gems in the program, shows we are happy to encourage people to get along to. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Ruth Maddison is up to these days, for instance. And disappointed Bill Henson has apparently either dropped out or been dropped. Too ‘problematic’ perhaps? While there will be plenty to engage devotees of the printed image, overall, this looks like a post-modernist, identitarian visual arts festival rather than a full-blooded celebration of photography in its own right.

If you disagree, the Readers Comments section is just below!
– Keith Shipton

(Following feedback from Photo 2021 relating to our initial story, we invited Photo 2021 to provide an article of its choosing, which we offered to publish in full and unedited. It did not respond either way, which is a tad annoying.  The only ‘bespoke’ input we have been able to tease out of the Photo 2021 organisers has been this exercise in corporatese. )




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