Confessions of a FotoFest Neophyte

by Phil Harris

Day One: Cattle call. Moooo. Bright-eyed neophytes, haggard already at dawn. No coffee. Bewildered FotoFest virgins all mixed in with hard-eyed vet­erans. Everyone dressed better than me. Feel like the only pair of cutoffs in a roomful of Diors. Portfolio cases the size of dining room tables. Their clothes match their portfolios, black on black on black. Wicked. Never saw anything like this back in Omaha.

Nervous shuffling for what seems like hours, then the lot­tery. All hands clutching reviewer bio listings, mum­bling over them like religious tracts on the Titanic, marking and scribbling and crossing out, the way they do with racing forms at the dog track. Numbers booming out over the PA, anxious faces, shuffling through the roped-in labyrinth.
Movie tickets with numbers — now we're numbers without names, shuffling forward under the watchful eyes of the trustees. Johnny Cash, where are you now? One number called over and over — necks crane, but no dice — the mum­ble rises—he slept through his first pick! General clucking and glad-it's not-me-ing. At the front of the line, hesitations, last-minute second-guessing, then the resigned or triumphant commitment. Done! Then, looking back over the shoulder ... was that the right one ...?

First round over, last number spills over into first, second round of picks starts right in. Strategizing. Scanning the Big Board for winners and losers. My number comes around again for the sec­ond time. Easier now, the System is becoming familiar, and there are fewer choices. Oh well, guess I'll see the woman from the Murmansk Museum of Bivalve Culture. Feel myself becoming One with the System.
Various bodily sound effects say it's breakfast time — but no food. A worker ant discovers vending machines in the basement, but there's nothing that can be called food there either. The crowd parts as a rolling cart of pastries, fruit and the life-affirming aroma of coffee glides by — for the reviewers. Much muttering amid the tottering.
Day Two: Things bound to look up today. Dis­covered outside food source and brought a bundle of rations. Pulled a piece of fresh fruit out of a bag and heard someone gasp. Yesterday's reviews just a vague memory. Saw four people, all responded, some positively. Many cards exchanged, resumes absorbed into piles, notes taken, it was a pleasure, a pleasure, a pleasure. Twenty minutes worth of attention and enthusiasm; could be that's that(?).

Lottery very serious today, determi­nation to see the right people. Only two days to go. Some reviewers already fold­ed their tents. Crowd like the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade — rumors and opinions matter, moods swing, word on the street says see the man from the Delaware Archive of Visu­al Arcana — he gives great review. He likes your work, he may publish you in their biannual jour­nal Glut.

Making new friends among the fellow-bewildered. J. says one museum reviewer yesterday liked her work so much she asked for a donation of six pieces on the spot. No mention of purchasing said work or even paying the postage. J. said she'd get back to her. L. says his reviewer objected to being shown horizontals and verticals in the same portfolio. "Too scattered." P. is walking on air because she got the email and cell number of a Big Fish, who wants to use her work to plug a sudden hole in his gallery's pres­tigious schedule. First brush with a potential Big Break at FotoFest. We're all becoming veterans now.

After lunch (foraged from afar), I see Reviewer T., a friend, an ally and anchor in the madness. She's racing from one unofficial viewing to another but pauses long enough to tell me about being chased across the parking lot by hungry photographers, like autograph hounds on the scent. She says the crowning inci­dent was being cornered in the ladies' room and having slides pushed over the top of the stall while she attempted to have a private moment. Unable to con­vey her feelings in words, she stops with a meaningful look. Another reviewer said after a full day of looking at pictures (16 people), a man ran up to her table, no preamble, slapped down a bunch of ad shots, and said "Here y'are!", stood back and folded his arms, waiting. Mon-eymaking Idea: FotoFest Etiquette Acad­emy?

Day Three: Beginning to have deja vu all over again. Events day and night, gallery openings in unseasonably cold weather, saw a fellow first-timer from Chicago last night, hadn't bothered to bring a coat, shivering and gulping wine: "Of course I didn't bring wool — it's Texas, for God's sake." Inside the tiny galleries, more wall-to-wall fur than pre-revolutionary Russia, everyone hustling from door to door, then lingering, chat­ting, backs to the art, until they warm up. Then, resolutely, on; mine is a stoic tribe.

Next day, notables notably blearier. Some reviewers bowing out, others stepping in. New rounds of speculation among the hoi polloi: who to see now? More and more action off the floor, in the lounges and the cafeteria tables. Cross pollination, discovering some common threads ("Oh, she trashed your work too?"), more card exchanges. One man showing his colossal kaleidoscopic digital images to anyone who'll hold up the other end of his living room suite-sized portfolio with him.

Saw the last of the top-rung people on my much-battered list. Several asked for donations and said they might show my work in 2008. Now down to showing my work to free-lance curators from Papua, New Guinea, and people who've wandered in off the street, looking for directions to Galveston. Saw a collector, briefly, who was collecting one of every­thing in sight until she saw my work — then it was time to plug her meter. Did score an offer to teach a workshop in Papua, New Guinea, if I were willing to pay my way, and donate a print.

Day Four: Participants stroll in two minutes before their number comes up. Frenzy of days past is all but forgotten in the indolent ease and surfeit. Having conquered the System, it's too much trouble to ... finish a sentence. All our work has been scrutinized, criticized, calipered, computed, disputed and refut­ed. We've all told our stories so many times now, we could go on for Spalding Grey if he had the grippe and couldn't perform.

Weather's warm, sun, grackles are out in force, it's looking more like the South. Many people draped over the furniture lizardlike, leafing through books at the press area, staring off into space. Fest Fatigue, clear cut case. Indications: hot baths and cold turkey, alternating with vice versa. Reviewers plowing on, turn­ing over prints, mm-hmming, asking whether photographer intends to make a career of this. More handshakes, more cards exchanged, more best-of-lucks. Oh, and by the way, we would be willing to accept some of your work, as a dona­tion ... Next!

Phil Harris is a Portland, Oregon-based photographer. He actually had a darned good time at FotoFest, where he donated a few prints. Having learned a thing or two about shameless self-promotion at the feet of the masters, his work can now be viewed at

These photos by Frank Armstrong represent informal discussions and reviews that took place in the lobby at meeting place during FotoFest 2002.