Charlottesville, VA----Downtown Charlottesville, Virginia was transformed into a living image earlier this summer with the debut of a new photography event called "Look3, The Festival of the Photograph," dubbed as three days of peace, love and photography. This backyard barbecue-turned public festival was the brainchild of Michael Nichols, a photographer for National Geographic who decided his 20-year photo-sharing gathering was just getting too big.
Indeed Charlottesville, a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., is a great choice for the intimate venue. The quaint college town with a cobblestone-like artistic downtown was an ideal setting to capture that spirit of creativity, sharing and passion for photography that infused those gatherings over the years, said organizers. Nichols now serves as the event's co-director with local leader Jessica Nagle.
"Created both for photographers and those who love the still image, this festival's dynamic programming is designed purely to inspire," said Nichols. "We hope that these three days leave everybody feeling like there was a moment in time here in Charlottesville when it all came together."
Nichols' own photography hung in the outdoor exhibit, "Trees," featuring banner-sized photographs suspended from the limbs of trees, lining the city's downtown pedestrian mall.
It was particularly endearing that organizers warned reporters that this was the event's inaugural year as they cautioned of the event's grassroots, all-volunteer nature. But they had nothing to worry about.
Each day was filled with scheduled events as well as plenty of free time to wander down the winding streets to various formal exhibits throughout town and informal photo presentations in storefronts and in windows of area businesses. However, this year's event focused on the work of three hand-picked photographers-William Albert Allard, Sally Mann and Eugene Richards, who were there in the flesh for those three days with events planned around them.
The town's newly-refurbished historic Paramount Theater served as the centerpiece for many of the live events and the site for each evening's "Insight Conversation." Here, one of the headliners was interviewed by National Public Radio's Alex Chadwick in an "Inside the Actor's Studio" format, with their images projected on a movie screen.
Friday's event was host to Mann. "It's not about the technology," for Mann, "but about intimacy and connection and what you say about family and place and time," said Chadwick to a full theater audience, including local resident, actress Sissy Spacek. "She summons the spirit of place and charms the spirit of time," added Chadwick.
Armed with antiquated technology and processes, like wet plate and black glass, Mann's photographic journey seems to follow her real life experiences and struggles. In the early years, she switched from 5x7 to an 8x10 viewfinder and never turned back. At times, she has been controversial: whether over nude photos of her own children at various stages of development or her Body Farm collection, which explores nature's relationship to human decomposition. She's been accused of posing her subjects too.
A quiet, thoughtful, diminutive lady with composure and an inner strength, she explained there is always some serendipity in her photos, such as in images of her children at home, a farm in Lexington, Virginia, not too far from the festival's location.
"I will take a picture over and over and get it just right- when there is a germ of truth in it," said Mann, adding that these are not posed pictures. She revealed her "wait and see" style to shooting, like waiting for the wind to blow laundry for instance.
Her creative process: set up her large format just in case. "If I set up the camera and something happens, I will see it. If not, nothing will happen. I won't see it."
Chadwick asked if she viewed her book, Immediate Family and collection of images of her children naked as making them vulnerable. "Everyone is vulnerable, no?" she asked, adding that it was very natural for her children to run around naked in the summer. The property has no neighbors for miles, she added.
She spoke of her latest project photographing her husband naked in her studio as he lives with muscular dystrophy, a disease where one loses muscle mass. "It is such a selfless thing for him to do. I am interested in a woman taking pictures of a man in this way. It really hasn't been done. Women are not supposed to look at men. If they do alone, it's seen as being provocative," she said. Currently, she is photographing black men in her studio for a similar project.