FotoFest 2012
Fotofest 2012

The story behind FotoFest: How a "poke" in the ground led to the largest international photography festival in America

The story behind FotoFest: How a "poke" in the ground led to the largest international photography festival in America

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FotoFest 1992 Biennial at the George R. Brown Convention Center Courtesy of FotoFest
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Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss editing slides in their home dark-room in 1981, soon after their arrival in Houston Courtesy of FotoFest
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FotoFest co-founders Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss installing an exhibition during the first FotoFest in 1986 Courtesy of FotoFest
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Fred Baldwin in China for the FotoFest Meeting Place Beijing 2007 Courtesy of FotoFest
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In 1994 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, FotoFest staged the first public exhibition in decades of the “first photograph” by Niecephore Niepce. The piece was transported from the Ransom Center in Austin in an armored car and was accompanied by armed guards. Courtesy of FotoFest
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Wendy Watriss and master Czech photographer Pavel Banka in 2004 Courtesy of FotoFest
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Wendy Watriss, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1983-1986, silver gelatin print Photo by Wendy Watriss
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While photographing rural Texas counties for their book, Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss lived in a small trailer towed by Fred’s Mercedes convertible and parked often in an obliging farmer’s pasture, 1971-1972. Here, they parked along side the road in rural Grimes County, Texas. Courtesy of FotoFest
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Editor's Note: As the 14th FotoFest Biennial gets underway, we asked co-founder Fred Baldwin to reminisce on how it got started.

When Wendy Watriss came to Houston in 1980, we had a choice — go back to New York and finish the book we had done on the Texas Hill Country or find a place to live in Texas where we could finish our work. We knew Dominique de Menil because she had given us an exhibition at her museum at Rice in 1975, prior to building the current Menil Collection. She offered to rent us one of her houses across from the Rothko Chapel.

We accepted and moved in. It's been home ever since. Wendy continued freelancing and I became a professor at the University of Houston teaching photojournalism. 

Wendy was the first woman to win the World Press Prize and the Oskar Barnack Award for a photo essay in Life magazine on Agent Orange in 1982. We went to Amsterdam to receive Wendy's prize from Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands and later were later invited to the world's first photography festival the Arles Rencontre in the south of France. There we met a lot of old friends and participated in an informal portfolio review that resulted in exhibits, assignments and print sales.

 This informal, delightful experience was special to Arles at that time and sparked an idea that changed our lives. Coming home on the plane we thought, "Why don't we do something like this in the U.S., in Houston?"

 This informal, delightful experience was special to Arles at that time and sparked an idea that changed our lives. Coming home on the plane we thought, "Why don't we do something like this in the U.S., in Houston?"

Shortly thereafter, we learned that in 1980, the Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac had created Le Mois de la Photo, a citywide exhibition of photography held every two years in all the museums and art spaces owned by the city of Paris. We combined ideas from Arles and Paris to create what would eventually become FotoFest.

Apart from our collaboration with Dominique de Menil, Wendy and I were newcomers to Houston but we came with a network of national and international relationships, and this was Houston. We proceeded by drawing on lessons that we had learned surviving as international freelance photographers.

We developed relationships, thought out of the box, took risks and worked very hard. It turned out we were in the right place. Houston was a city where early entrepreneurs learned to poke holes in the ground — a million dollars a poke until they went broke or became multi-millionaires.

Entrepreneurial ideas were welcome in Houston. To launch our idea and become better known, we drew on our main resource – worldwide contacts with photographers and international experience.  We teamed up with German gallery owner Petra Benteler and began looking for colleagues who we thought might be delighted with the outsized Texas spirit.

We rounded up Ikko Narahara (Japan), Franco Fontana (Italy), William Klein (Paris), and Helmut Newton (Monaco) to photograph Houston's Livestock Show and Rodeo. We provided air tickets and found places for them to stay. Newton created a social stampede.

Wendy and I and the other photographers followed a platoon of TV cameras and society reporters from one dinner party to the next for two weeks. Their photography was also a huge success and we donated the results of this extravaganza to the Museum of Fine Arts. That was our first "poke" in the ground. 

Poke two: Impress the French

Poke two was designed along different lines. We invited Jean-Luc Monterosso, the director of the Month of Photography to come to Houston to describe what he was doing in Paris to possible funders. There was one problem. We didn't know a lot of businessmen, foundations executives or city officials. However, this was Houston. 

Wendy and I got on the phone and called Mayor Kathy Whitmire and Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley, Roy Cullen and developer John Hansen, explaining that Paris had a good idea and they needed to know about it because it was good for the city.

 When Monterosso returned to Paris he was convinced that we lived in a city where streets were paved in gold and that we were major power players.

 When Monterosso arrived he was given the keys to the city by the mayor. Tinsley hosted a luncheon and our new business friends listened with interest. When Monterosso returned to Paris he was convinced that we lived in a city where streets were paved in gold and that we were major power players.

Poke three: Winning a grant

There was one last hole to poke in the ground. We used our remaining overburdened credit card to give a cocktail party at the Meridian Hotel (now Doubletree) for 400 prestigious guests and the Consular Corps. Mayor Chirac sent a congratulatory telegram. Thirty days after our American Express bill arrived, FotoFest received its first grant from the Wortham Foundation, and we didn't go broke or land in jail.  

This is the background that made the first FotoFest possible and it couldn't have happened anywhere except Houston. The first Biennial was huge with 61 exhibits and two weeks of free portfolio reviews of artists' work by prominent curators. Local, national and international press coverage was enthusiastic. Newsweek, the Boston Globe, Japanese TV, the BBC, Italian and Finish radio, among others covered the first international photography festival in the USA.

The 14th FotoFest opens today and, like Houston, it's much more sophisticated than it was in 1986. Also like Houston, we have worldwide influence in our field; we have launched thousands of artists and broken new ground all over the world by being involved with and traveling to over 50 countries since 1986.

This Biennial features Russian photography and we are also bringing 30 Russian artists and cultural leaders to Houston, using the occasion to collaborate with the Russian American Chamber of Commerce and the mayor's office to assure that cultural and business opportunities will be added to the mix. We feel that future entrepreneurial pokes needs to be more sophisticated in the future, utilizing the city's considerable cultural assets from all the arts to enhance Houston's reputation.

On a recent trip to New York, a top gallery director dealing with high-end art photography, said that Houston is now considered to be second only to New York in this area due to Anne Tucker's extraordinary successes at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and our founding of FotoFest. This would have been unimaginable in 1986.