A Bigger Tent for Photography

by David Crossley

When Anne Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sent out a letter in 1981 asking many of the city's photographers to get together to talk about the state of photography in Houston, she was reacting in part to a crush of people asking her how we could exhibit more photographs locally. People were hungry for dialogue.

When we all got together at the Paradise Bar & Grill, there was a kind of desperation. We were passionate about photography and wanted to learn from each other and show people what photography was all about. We talked about founding a new organization, and the Houston Center for Photography was born.

That's us in the photo above, all lined up with our submissions for the first juried show, full of hope that we'd get a picture in it. A few of us were fairly well established as photographers in the world of exhibitions and academia. At least a couple were famous. A few more had had pictures in exhibitions or publications. Most of us, however, had other jobs, and were just ... hoping. Many of us were amateurs, in the best sense of the word.
For a few years, the community was the thing. Meetings were large, lectures were well-attended, and lots of people showed up to build things, paint walls, and hang the exhibitions. The place was half the size it is today, and we were all ambitious about the exhibitions, and the walls were usually densely hung.

We were also curious, so many of the exhibitions each year featured the work of people from far outside Houston. Indeed, early on in 1983, when photographers Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin were founding FotoFest, HCP patron Anne S. Brown funded a trip for two of us to see the model for FotoFest, Le Mois de la Photo (The Month of Photography), a Parisian biennial founded in 1980. HCP executive director Lynn McLanahan (now Herbert) and I spent a week in Paris, immersed in the work of the world's photographers. We both came back full of ideas and energy and began to talk about how the mix of local and global could work.

There was always a desire for HCP to be recognized on a national stage and beyond, but the initial goal was to educate and elevate the work of photographers in our region. Both history and new trends were important, and we struggled for a good mix. History is a little easier to explore than new ideas, of course, because time shapes ideas into understanding. The new, meanwhile, is often challenging to discover and comprehend. Nevertheless, together, the two reveal amazing things.

Today, in its twenty-sixth year, HCP has become a highly professional and respected organization, still seeking to find and display the fresh and new, particularly in the field of art. What we're seeing now seems to reflect our debased and violent culture. In all directions the exploration of human failure is portrayed, whether through observation of hard reality or through highly constructed concepts evoking difficult ideas.
Is there some means of relief? If all this reeks of despair, is there hope in some other realm? We've justrecentlyseen a photograph of the smallest DNA or whatever, and every day we get astonishing new pictures of the universe from the Hubble telescope. People use photography for much more than art, and some of what we're seeing is exciting, and hopeful.

My experience suggests the purpose of human life is to process information. Turning information into knowledge and even wisdom means putting forward summaries of vast stuff, and of course nothing condenses information like visual images. It seems to me that the challenge is to let us see more of the world - and of other worlds - see all of it, the science, the forbidden, the sports, the news.

Who would have thought, 26 years ago when HCP started, that the ridiculous debate about whether photography could be art would be turned on its head today, when we're so focused on photographic art that it feels as if we're missing a lot. If photography can be used to explore all possibilities, are we stretching enough, or are we spending too much energy and time in a dark, apocalyptic vision that seems to be self-fulfilling?