Cortona on the Move 2014

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As far as I can tell, small and/or new photography festivals are the best. Not having had the chance to turn into a circus might just be the best thing for any festival. I probably shouldn’t even write about Cortona on the Move (COTM), so it can remain the precious gem it is. Featuring exhibitions, portfolio reviews, workshops, and talks/presentations, all in what must be one of the most beautiful settings on this planet, COTM is fully centered on looking at and enjoying photography (and not on buying/collecting or on trying to define the medium in some way that stops making sense the day after).

Having been invited to give a talk, I had the chance to see this year’s festival in person. Much like PhotoIreland, COTM utilizes various buildings all over town to showcase the photography chosen by the curators. The town of Cortona is fairly small, so it’s easy to simply walk around and visit the different venues. Many of side streets provide rather steep climbs – who knew looking at photography can be part of a healthy dose of exercising?

Much to the credit of the organizers of the festival, careful attention was being paid to the presentation of the work – something I always look out for. An exhibition, after all, is not just a set of pictures on a wall (just like a photobook isn’t just a collections of pictures on paper). You have to do work to engage with the viewers, meaning you have to pick the right materials (surfaces to print on, frames, etc.), and you then have to display the images in such a way that they are being shown in the best possible light.

In Cortona, each of the exhibitions was set up basically perfectly, whether it was, say, Jacob Aue Sobol‘s work in an old church or The Sochi Project in an old disused hospital (see images). Some photographs would be pinned to the wall, others would find themselves in frames. Part of Anastasia Taylor-Lind‘s photographs were shown in light boxes on the floor. Large images of Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer‘s portraits from China could be seen all over town.

There was only one exhibition that fell woefully short of the high standard, and that was Goin’ Mobile, curated by Kathy Ryan and Scott Thode, a collection of photographs from the Instagram accounts of five photographers. There’s nothing wrong per se with lifting images off Instagram and using them elsewhere, the editorial and/news contexts being prime examples. But the moment you put such images on the wall of an art exhibition as a curator you better realize there’s a higher bar. Those images better be able to hold their own weight. Sadly, most if the work in Goin’ Mobile failed almost spectacularly to do that. Just like in the case of probably 99% of all Instagram images, the maxim might just be: what is on Instagram should stay on Instagram. Those photographs can be enjoyed on tiny phone displays, all those pictures of food and cats and selfies (incl., of course, this author’s) and “unselfies.” In Cortona, I caught myself trying to swipe things away, just like on my phone, where what amuses me for a second is gone the moment after. But on those unforgiving walls, there was no swiping. Instead, each and every picture that didn’t hold up to more than a spilt second of scrutiny looked worse and worse and worse as time went by. As I said, what is on Instagram probably better stay there.

An exhibition I particularly enjoyed was Alessandro Penso‘s European Dream – Road to Bruxelles. The story of refugees trying to enter the safe and wealthy haven that is the European Union, the photographs were displayed in a container on a truck. The truck itself was driven across Europe – an art exhibitions on the go. I just love this idea. What better way to get more people interested in photography than bringing it to them – instead of waiting for them to come? It’s about time we got art photography out of the Augean Stables that are museums charging $25 admission fees and high-falutin’ galleries catering to the rich! Load photographs on a truck and drive that truck around so as many people as possible can see and experience the power of photographs!

It’s not that I needed my faith in photography to be renewed. Unlike many people, I am thoroughly enjoying what might be photography’s golden age. But COTM reminded me what can happen with photographs when they are given the best possible attention, to be presented to everybody who might be interested – all of that in a wonderfully easygoing atmosphere of a little Tuscan village.