Like most big ideas, the FRANK In Focus photography festival started small: a group show of contemporary work in Chapel Hill's FRANK Gallery, maybe a panel discussion or an artist talk. That seed of an idea bloomed into a garden of events and showings. Over the next two months, six exhibitions, 11 forums and artist talks, and several other special events with partner museums and organizations will take place throughout the Triangle. All events are free.
Documentarians will present work and describe far-flung projects. Hands-on practitioners will talk about processes dating to the origins of the medium. Gallery owners and collectors will discuss how to start your own contemporary collection on a budget. You can even submit your work to be projected onto a parking deck wall in an outdoor slideshow event. The festival schedule has offerings for the most gearheaded f-stop nerds as well as point-and-shoot novices.
From the start, artist and educator Barbara Tyroler, the primary organizer of FRANK In Focus, saw this snowball coming. When the board of the nearly three-year-old gallery suggested she curate a show of photography, she dodged the issue for a little while.
"They'd been asking me to do something with photography since it opened, and I've been a bit hesitant because I knew exactly what would happen, which is this festival," Tyroler says. "The expectations hadn't been a festival at all."
She'd seen it happen before. Before Tyroler returned to her native Chapel Hill in 2009, she had helped establish Washington, D.C.,'s annual FotoDC festival. Originally called FotoWeekDC, this initially modest event sprawled across the city once the idea caught on.
"At first, all the galleries were kind of competing with each other and didn't want to do it," Tyroler says. "And then finally we said, 'No! Just have a gallery walk.' And now we're in our third year up in Washington and it's just exploded. Like with LOOK3 in Charlottesville, it's very possible that [FRANK in Focus] may evolve into a recurring festival."
FRANK in Focus came into view after Tyroler encountered Charlotte-based photographer Bryce Lankard at Greensboro's Green Hill Center for N.C. Art's most recent winter show. Just as Tyroler had done in Washington with FotoDC, Lankard had helped found PhotoNOLA in New Orleans. "We ended up talking about how fun it would be to do a festival here. So everything kind of came together," Tyroler says.
Drawing on the wealth of photography programs, such as Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, as well as various programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and artists and institutions throughout the area, Tyroler and Lankard saw the festival's varied schedule expand, almost by itself. Grants from the Orange County Arts Commission and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership helped the momentum, too.
"Photography is a populist thing," she says. "People love photography and they take it really seriously. So I think it's just a matter of bringing them out and saying, 'Let's get together. Let's talk about our medium.'"
The festival opens with a closing reception for Tyroler's current Beijing Impressions show at UNC-Chapel Hill's FedEx Global Center on Sept. 5. The festival's central exhibition, Changing Focus: The Image in Flux, opens at FRANK with a huge party on Sept. 14, one night after the 11 artists in the show will crowd the gallery for a preview tour.
North Carolina Museum of Art chief curator Linda Dougherty leads a walk-through of A Discerning Eye: Julian T. Baker Jr. Photography Collection at the Raleigh museum on Sept. 21. The first month rounds out with Daylight Magazine's photo awards opening at the publication's project space in Hillsborough, an on-campus panel talk on trends in contemporary image-making featuring photographer and UNC art professor Jeff Whetstone. There will also be a forum at the Carolina Inn on how and why to collect photography, including Roylee Duvall of Durham's Through This Lens gallery, Durham-based collector Frank Konhaus and moderator Kelly McChesney of Raleigh's Flanders Gallery.
Two documentary offerings sandwich the final month of the festival, both at FRANK. On Oct. 4, Center for Documentary Studies instructor Christopher Sims talks about his work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vincent Joos presents his project on Haitian migrant work in Mt. Olive in a panel talk that will include Independent Weekly shooters D.L. Anderson and Jeremy M. Lange. A Nov. 1 talk on documentary and social change featuring Elena Rue and Catherine Orr of Carrboro-based StoryMineMedia closes the festival schedule.
Another intriguing event is a night of "Alternative and Legacy Processes" at FRANK on Oct. 11. Lankard, Alan Dehmer and Brady Lambert talk about handmade photographic methods and their historical connections. Dehmer will bring examples of his gum bichromate prints, which have such a painterly appearance that some people can't be convinced they're actually photographs. He's just finished his weeklong annual ritual of making a year's supply of photo paper by hand, one sheet at a time, in his home studio.
This kind of devotion to a process dating to the 19th century might seem obscure, but it's not. "When I first started doing gum bichromate, there were only one or two books. I had to go up to the Library of Congress to read them," Dehmer says. "What's happened since the advent of digital is this incredible explosion of books and interest in alternative photography. I think it's an aesthetic and artistic response to the lack of human touch in a digital image."
Dehmer produced a companion book to the Changing Focus exhibition, which will run at FRANK through the end of the festival, and events will be blogged as this unprecedented event occurs. Judging from the sheer number of artists, curators and collectors involved in FRANK In Focus, as well as the name photographers and scholars not on the docket this year, it might not be too late to add "first annual" to the festival's name.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Photography from every angle."