- Chang Chaotang
- Fotoseptiembre 2015 director Michael Mehl reflects on the festival's 20th anniversary.
For 20 years, Fotoseptiembre, through its various incarnations, has been a bright spot in San Antonio arts, exhibiting photographic work from a geographically and aesthetically diverse cast of photographers. As we get set to once again enjoy the fruits of this homegrown festival of all things visual —now with a true international reach — the San Antonio Current caught up with Fotoseptiembre founder and Festival Director Michael Mehl to talk shop.
What was the initial spark that created Fotoseptiembre?
Being an exhibiting artist myself, it was always frustrating to go through the whole production process and expense of putting together an exhibit, only to find that when the exhibit was over there was no contextual record of it, no legacy, no contextual archive.
In terms of legacy and archive, you haave to consider that when we started in 1995, the internet was not what it is today and having a web site was not immediately accessible to most folks. That meant we had to produce physical catalogs every year. Even though we implemented our web site in 2002, we were still printing catalogs until, I believe, 2010.
Back then, we were one of maybe a dozen annual festivals worldwide. And considering the festival context of the time, where it was important to be selective and exclusive (norms that for the most part still prevail today), I wanted to produce an eclectic, inclusive festival, open to everyone (so long as they followed our guidelines).
Tell me about what you see as the value of photography/photo manipulation work. In what ways do you think this kind of work, which essentially can present an altered reality to viewers, is enriching or important?
Reality is always subjective. There is never a neutral point of view, especially now, when every aspect of our daily lives has become politicized and everyone thinks their politics — and by extension, their aesthetic — is better than yours. The purported objectivity of traditional documentary photography has always been blown way out of proportion by interested parties. Every photographic image you have seen has been finessed to a certain point, either by making minor adjustments to lighting and tone or by the settings on a camera or the lens chosen for the photo. And even the basic subject matter a photographer chooses to focus on.
Personally, I have never been a purist and as a festival director, it is impossible to be a purist. You risk anachronizing yourself out of relevance by upholding rigid views on anything.
Photography and the digital iterations of photography are equally legitimate vehicles of artistic self-expression as any other art form. Whether art is ultimately enriching or important is a discussion I prefer to leave for academics.
Can you sum up the trajectory of Fotoseptiembre's growth and reach?
In the beginning, like every immature newbie, we thought size was important. We did not actively search for the growth, it just happened organically because artists wanted a festival context in which to exhibit their work. And we were proud of that growth. Still are. But the fact of the matter is that all along, we wanted a localized festival/platform because that's what makes sense if you want to cultivate a unique identity and a community appreciation for the festival. There can be no real ownership if it is spread out all over the place. So once we figured that out, we gradually brought it back down to its current size. Thirty to forty exhibits is what we find best for an annual festival within the San Antonio/Hill Country metro area.
It seems like once the festival kicks into full swing. we see a lot of "unofficial" shows using the heading Fotoseptiembre but they're not actually under the festival umbrella. Do local artists and galleries just not understand the process of submitting shows and work to the festival?
My answer is probably going to get me in hot water, but there's no escaping the facts. This is a problem unique and exclusive to San Antonio; I have not encountered this anywhere else. Many factors come into play. In no particular order, there's a sense that things just happen here, for the general good, like it's all heaven-sent. There's a lack of understanding about what it takes to put together something like Fotoseptiembre, year after year. There are educational problems, there are motivational problems and there are serious problems with professionalism.
Our registration process is very simple. All it requires is being able to read and write, make a deadline and send a check for $100.
We used to have free listings, to allow for those with economic hardship to join the festival. Turns out, since there was no skin in the game, people could flake out at the last minute, leaving us with egg on our face when our public would show up at a posted opening reception only to find a closed door. And this was not just the smaller players.
Some are new to town or unaware but many of the folks you mention are freeloaders not capable of taking initiatives, of self-discipline, or doing anything other than join a party already in progress.
By any of these standards, it's practically useless to explain trademark ownership, copyrights and intellectual property rights.
In terms of organization, is there a team working together or is Fotoseptiembre more of a one-man operation?
There are three of us on a regular basis: myself, the original hack; my wife Ann, quality control; and Paul Vaughn, our chief technologist. As I mentioned, because of our website, we are more of a platform than a festival. We are a technology service company with a focus on presenting photographic images. In that context, Paul manages the server side of our presence and our Facebook site, I manage the content and client side and Ann keeps it all in check.
Plus I do most of the curating.
There's almost always some sort of nude (or at least risqué) component to Fotoseptiembre. Is that intentional or accidental?
Any plans to significantly expand the event in the future? With that, what are your ultimate hopes for its legacy?
As I mentioned before, expanding is neither important nor desirable. Every year, our goal is the same: Adapt to changing circumstances and maintain relevancy.