In anticipation of the annual celebration of photography, we caught up with festival director Michael Mehl, who detailed his growing satisfaction with Fotoseptiembre’s trajectory, mused about city pride and explained the need to balance the local with the global.
What’s particularly/uniquely exciting for you about this year’s Fotoseptiembre?
Within the last few years, we have seen a solid trend where exhibitions have developed from being random showings of personal artistic expression, into a more professional context of exhibitions as curatorial statements. Undertaken either by artists or by a nascent group of curatorial aspirants, we see this process as a sign of maturity from our art community. We would like to think that this comes from an appreciation of the higher standards put forth by Fotoseptiembre with our curated exhibitions and our Choice Awards.
Several exhibits this year seem to reflect a renewed sense of San Antonio pride. Any particular plans for what Fotoseptiembre might look like in 2018 for the city’s Tricentennial?
We are seeing a definite renewal in a sense of pride about San Antonio. This has to do with several factors: population growth, demographic shifts, a more pervasive sense of history (not necessarily a better understanding of history) derived from the Missions being designated a World Heritage Site, as well as an incremental understanding of the importance of pride of place in creating community. For years, we have been told that we could be a better community if only we could emulate other cities. Fotoseptiembre has always maintained that our community cannot and should not emulate other entities. We have our own strengths and weaknesses like every other place on earth. The sooner we embrace this, the quicker we will have our own, singular identity — and I don’t mean the ersatz Mexican party experience touted by our tourism industry … We learned many years ago that setting themes for a community-based festival like Fotoseptiembre is counterproductive. Every year, two, three or more thematic strings flow out naturally and organically from Fotoseptiembre participants. We have seen that in this respect, the zeitgeist is well attuned to current events and prevailing mindsets. Regarding the Tricentennial, no, we will not define that as being a specific signifier for Fotoseptiembre 2018, but the truth of the matter is that the notion of the Tricentennial is already showing up in this year’s exhibitions and will most likely gain traction as we approach 2018. What’s important to us is to keep the “organic-ness” of Fotoseptiembre alive and well, and let it express itself fully as a community-based festival.
Tell me a bit about how you manage all of the partnerships and collaborations that you have going on.
After 22 years, Fotoseptiembre is fully integrated into the fabric of our community. We have learned how to streamline the process of producing and presenting Fotoseptiembre, and engaging with our community is second nature to us. We manage by being efficient, effective and diligent about our procedures. What also helps is the general understanding that we are a fundamental festival — ultimately, what matters are the exhibits on display. You can have all the parties, food trucks and social media raves in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s the work on the walls that counts. We strive to keep it that way … What’s also important to understand is that there are two communities we engage, each one with a distinct set of requirements. One is the community that comprises artists, organizations and venues from the metro San Antonio/Hill Country/Austin area. The other is our international community of associates (festivals, curators, photography organizations, foundations, etc.), which require a much higher standard of interaction. Sometimes, under the right circumstances, we manage to integrate our two disparate communities with interesting outcomes.
Tell me a bit about the push to get younger folks involved in Fotoseptiembre.
We identify potential talent and reach out to young artists every year. We have seen how the fundamental values of Fotoseptiembre have made an impact on younger artists and curators. Our guess is that by experiencing our exhibits in past years, they realize that they too can contribute their personal views and tastes to the roster of Fotoseptiembre exhibits, which we encourage. The benefits are significant: More viewpoints, diverse viewpoints, more energy, more adoption of technology to present, promote and inform, and of course, a growing constituency.
How did the exhibits by the photographic societies come about and what do they bring to the table?
In the case of the Texas Photographic Society and the Photographic Society of America, both are presenting juried exhibits of images made by their charter members. Even though juried exhibitions or competitions are antithetical to Fotoseptiembre (we favor curated exhibitions), these efforts are always interesting and are a welcome addition to our exhibitions roster. Plus, we get to see interesting work from different contexts, which is always one of our main sources of satisfaction.