Themes and Multitudes: Cleveland Photo Fest
Having opened the first Cleveland Photo Fest Photothon in October 2019, just 9 months after conceiving it, founders Herb Ascherman, Laura DelAssandro and Jim Szudy immediately began to look ahead to a second series of exhibits the following year. Plans were interrupted by the Pandemic. As anyone who plans periodic events knows now, a forced hiatus can be either a blessing or a curse. On the cursed side, it can interrupt momentum. On the heels of its inaugural events, Photofest certainly had some of that. But on the side of blessing, a forced break allows more time for vision and planning. The second iteration of Cleveland Photo Fest shows that Ascherman, DelAssandro, and Szudy used the time well.
First, it’s worth a nod to the venue that anchors the whole series. Bostwick Design Center, on Prospect Avenue, has long served as a gallery—most famously, for years by William Busta, and then most recently by Lauren Davies. Since then, owner Bob Bostwick has made arrangements with several artists or groups of them to use the space as a pop-up venue. The building has four distinct, white-walled gallery spaces, two of which are quite large, in addition to its generous foyer. The central, largest space is easy to divide into sections with distinct bodies of work. Photofest used all the spaces with a variety of exhibits designed to appeal to diverse tastes.
There is a dog show, called Furtography, which features dozens of admiring portraits of happy dogs caught in the act of being cute, snapping treats out of the air, and doing what dogs do. In the most distant of the small galleries—a veritable back room, complete with an “adult content” warning sign on the door–there is an exhibit of nudes. Photo Fest director Herb Ascherman is a well-known lover of dogs, and has a long practice of photographic nudes, and clearly has made his mark on the direction of the fest.
Another room is dedicated to a revolving series of exhibits, which would bring new energy and varied events to the fest throughout its two-month run. Opening weekend in that room brought Lydia Bailey’s Portraits of Homelessness, which portrayed both homeless people and people who work in that community at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Men’s Shelter, each accompanied by a first person account. They were captivating as portraits of people, a window on their humanity, and also as a window on the varied socioeconomic realities that make homelessness a problem. We read every text and peered into the eyes of every one.
With the exception of the room dedicated to revolving exhibits, and one other that we’ll get to shortly, these are all group shows. A multitude of photographers are involved. That makes it more about the themes than about the individual photographer. And the portraiture shows tap into skills practiced in the routine work of commercial photographers.
One of the portraiture shows—I Identify As—has the capture and appreciation of identity as a stated goal. The portraits were shot by people who often (if not in every case) had not previously met, who came somehow from different segments of the population—especially different races–and agreed to take a photograph of another person, to capture their identity, and have someone else reciprocate. Ascherman says this was conceived 6 months before the murder of George Floyd, and that he had this idea for making personal connections before the nation took up the last 14 months of intense conversation about the need for equity and for building trust. However and whenever it came about, the exhibit created a structure for people to meet and work with others who do not look like them. I Identify As fills the first of the large galleries, and is a highlight of the show. There are varied photo techniques, and varied ways of revealing personality—from intense gaze into the subject’s eyes, to focus on the setting, or the pose, or clothes or other elements. Some are traditional and formal, such as the portrait of Abdelmasih Markus, by Martin Johnson, or Markus’s portrait of Bruce Mitchell. Others are playful, such as Maria Puma Perme’s portrait of Georgio Sabino. Others make telling allusions, such as the portrait of CAN trustee Gina Washington wearing a resplendent skirt, her arms spread in a welcoming gesture: Gina Washington: I Identify As A Child Of The Universe alludes to Max Ehrmann’s 1927 poem, Desiderata, which contains the line “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars,” and was made into a hit spoken word recording by Les Crane, in the early seventies. There are more than 50 photographers in this room alone, each of them having trusted someone they didn’t know, and who doesn’t look like them, with creation of their portrait.
Another highlight is the exhibit of photo collage by Randy Norfus. Norfus has been chief photographer at Nighttown and Karamu, among a long record of other journalistic and commercial work. At Photothon, he is showing not journalistic skills, but artistic expression through photo collages, cut the old fashioned way to visually compose using figures cut free of their surroundings. Each one is packed with detail. Some are made from elements of his music photography, while others are more personal. There are major stars, like Dizzy Gillespie and Bootsie Collins, and in the collages that feature them, they are the largest, dominant element. But the nature of collage makes them about much more than the stars represented. Norfus talked about his process one afternoon early in the run of the show: he cuts out some elements and lays them on a table in front of him, and puts something in place. There’s no more plan than that, and no advanced sketches. He looks at the work in progress, and the available materials, and decides what they need in a manner very much like the improvisation that defines jazz. The results are like visual incarnations of the music, with lots of diverse action surrounding and responding to a clear soloist, keeping your eyes moving around to explore. The whole Cleveland Photofest series is a bit like that. At the time of this writing, you’ve got ten more days to check it out.
Cleveland Photo Fest Photothon is open May 1 – June 30, 2021. Hours are noon to 8 pm Thursday and Friday, and 11 to 5 Saturday and Sunday. Bostwick Design Center is at 2729 Prospect Ave. Go to Clevelandphotofest.org for details.