Exposure: FotoFocus Biennial lifts up local artists and gives community unlimited access

Nearly ten years ago, Tina Gutierrez was on Fountain Square when she was drawn to a booth with a mesmerizing photograph on display. At the time, Gutierrez had been working with photography on her own for business purposes. The owner of a bridal shop for 24 years, she’d been unimpressed with the results she’d received from locally hired photographers. Gutierrez didn’t feel that they could accurately capture her vision, and she found she actually enjoyed doing the work herself.

A conversation at the booth that day led Gutierrez to become involved with FotoFocus – a local nonprofit centered around celebrating photography as a unique art form, and highlighting the relationship between the history of photography and contemporary lens-based art.

Gutierrez says she suddenly felt called to examine more artistic photographic pursuits, and credits FotoFocus with paving the way for her current place within the local arts community.

Enlarged eternal o273 underwater above Scott and Ramsey. Photography by Tina Gutierrez.“FotoFocus is probably one of the primary reasons I've been able to make fine art photography in Cincinnati. There are some grants, and then – it’s not traditional education, but it's education through exposure,” she explains.

According to Gutierrez, FotoFocus’ intention is to broaden knowledge through immersion and inspiration by providing unmatched access to the work and commentary of highly regarded artists in the field. The expert insiders at FotoFocus use their refined art sophistication and resources to selectively cater exhibitions of the world’s finest photography, locally. Through this involved process, they enrich Cincinnati’s arts by offering emerging artists (and the entire Greater Cincinnati community) an unparalleled opportunity for experience.

“They bring in photographers that we would maybe never have seen before, or would never know about. Kevin, the artistic director, he's just got his finger on the pulse. I just can't say enough,” adds Gutierrez, referring to FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore.

Established in 2010, FotoFocus has presented more than 750 exhibitions and programs since. Collaborating with curators, artists, academics and various organizations, the nonprofit hosts educational programs and exhibits intended to ignite the public’s interest in photography and support photographers – from locals to international artists. Since its inception it has awarded over 600 grants in support of photography, film and other photography-inspired art forms.

“When we see all those things, all those photographers that they're bringing in, we all learn. You can't create in a vacuum. So, you know…what is the opposite of a vacuum?” asks Gutierrez.

She thinks for a moment then answers her own question with a visual and metaphorical description: “It would be like a bubble – and this bubble is huge. The bigger your bubble is, the more things you have to draw from and create from. Your list of ingredients becomes longer. Without FotoFocus, it’s more, you know, ordinary food. But FotoFocus – they bring in all the spices.”

While the organization has relied on partner venues for its exhibitions and programs from the beginning, a new building is in the works. The FotoFocus Center, which will be erected at 228 East Liberty Street, is scheduled for completion in 2024. It will feature a distinctively modern design – paying homage to photography with window frames mimicking a camera’s viewfinder and other key embellishments. There will be two large galleries and an outdoor terrace for patrons to enjoy, as well as 2,200 square feet of office space.

More currently, this year’s FotoFocus Biennial Celebration begins with a bang the week of September 29th – October 8th. Opening celebrations across the region throughout the first week will set the scene with a spectacular procession of openings and parties. Then, throughout the month of October, FotoFocus exhibits by the more than 600 participating artists will continue to delight observers within venues spread across Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Dayton and Columbus.

This year, museums, galleries, universities and non-traditional spaces around the region will host speakers, exhibits and presentations centered on the selected FotoFocus biennial theme of World Record.

Per the FotoFocus website: “The theme considers photography’s extensive record of life on earth, humankind’s impact on the natural world, and the choices we now face as a global community.”

Participating artists have applied the World Record premise in a wide array of creative interpretations with their contributions. From collages mashing present with past to thoughtful takes on human and environmental issues via photos of different junk collections – anything goes.

A FotoFocus biennial passport available here offers access to keynote lectures, panel discussions, receptions, screenings and tours – as well as entry to exhibits throughout the month of October.

The best part about the passport is that it’s FREE thanks to the support of generous local and regional sponsors. Other perks include bus trips to FotoFocus venues in Columbus and Dayton, and discounted admission to the Cincinnati Zoo (another participating venue).

Tina Gutierrez & Larry Brown collaboration on view at Wash Park Art Gallery

According to Gutierrez, the passport is more than valuable even if just for the amazing spreads offered at many events.

“They always serve good food!” says Gutierrez with an audible wink. “The food is good. Yeah... And it's plentiful, and it's usually free.”
For the upcoming biennial celebration, Gutierrez’s contribution will display further influence of the widening “bubble” of inspiration that has influenced her art through her continuing involvement with FotoFocus.

While Gutierrez’s work has evolved over the years to encompass portraiture, underwater photography, dance photography and social justice themes, she has taken a new direction for 2022. Her offering is a modern installation created in collaboration with her husband, writer Larry Brown.

Gutierrez will show time-lapsed videos on billowing fabric documenting the dissolving of antique photographs in water over time. The fabric screens will flank a display of her husband’s poetry, and will be accompanied by haunting music evoking the fading nature of memories lost to the passage of time.

The installation can be viewed in the basement of Wash Park Art Gallery, with an opening celebration September 30th from 5 to 8 pm.

Daesha Devón Harris, I want to cross over (I love those words…Liberty, Justice, Freedom), from Just Beyond the River, summer 2016. Video installation, 30 min 33 sec. © Daesha Devón Harris. Courtesy of the artist.Gutierrez personally recommends patrons of FotoFocus view the works on display at The Freedom Center, but adds that all of the exhibits are worth a look.

Gutierrez is also exhibiting at the Art Academy with her women’s photography club. An enormous botanical collage will cover the entire gallery, comprised of individual photographs of plants native to the Midwest. 

“That sort of fits in with the theme of World Record,” notes Gutierrez. “As in we're trying to make this giant collage to fit in the world record theme, and also recording plants from the Midwest.”

See work by J. Miles Wolf at Skirball Museum and 24/7 at locations around town

J. Miles Wolf is another local photographer pushing the boundaries of his work for FotoFocus 2022. Wolf also artistically incorporates collage, and will be drawing attention to buildings and memorable figures from Cincinnati’s past in two separate FotoFocus exhibits echoing the World Record theme.

“I got the idea to combine contemporary and historic photos. Then I came up with this technique featuring a location that is current today, so that it would make it easier for people to relate to where these locations are, and combining the historic with the contemporary,” says Wolf.

Wolf says he uses a lot of different methods – blending, overlapping, and fading digital images of historic photographs over his modern architectural shots of notable local buildings. One of his exhibits this year will grace the walls of the Skirball Museum, and pays tribute to Cincinnati’s rich tradition of Judaism – an often-overlooked facet of Cincinnati history.

Herman Zeller Haberdasher, 35 E. Sixth Street, Cincinnati, 1900–1904, 2021. Digital chromogenic print, 25 x 35 inches. @J.Miles Wolf. Courtesy of the artist.“It's just a really interesting story,” says Wolf, who was approached by Skirball Director Abby Schwartz to create the installation Jewish Cincinnati; A Photographic Record due to her familiarity with his architectural work.  “Cincinnati was really one of the centers of Judaism in the entire country. Outside of New York, it was probably the biggest center at the turn of the century. It was very influential, and so much of the story of Jewish Cincinnati is tied into historic images.”

Wolf’s second contribution this year is entitled Hometown Heroes and is an example of public art, a concept he adores. For this project he used the same collage techniques to create images depicting prominent figures from Cincinnati history, which are displayed in public view. He is grateful to 3CDC for securing the locations around town where his work graces the windows of several buildings and can be viewed at any hour of the day or night.

Nancy Ford Cones, The Old Witch, c. 1920. Multiple green gum print, image: 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 inches. Private collection, Tony Walsh PhotographyWolf looks forward to seeing Nancy Ford Cones at the Taft Museum this year. He also plans to venture to Dayton and Columbus to check out the exhibits there, and is jazzed about the CAC.

“The Contemporary Art Center always puts together great exhibits,” he says, based on past experience.

While Wolf admits he’s partial to the FotoFocus biennial events because he loves photography, he encourages all Cincinnatians to attend at least one portion of the celebration.

“They've done such a good job of bringing a group of photography exhibits here that we typically would not see,” notes Wolf. “It's just a unique opportunity to see photographers that would end up in New York or LA and not Cincinnati; but they're coming here because of FotoFocus’s reputation and their grants. Just what they've done for Cincinnati's art community is, I think, it's fantastic.”

Wolf studied photography in college, but left before completing his degree and struck out on his own. “That was 1979 and I've been exhibiting and selling my own work ever since and never, never looked back,” says Wolf.

He advises aspiring photographers to attend FotoFocus as a platform for jumpstarting their careers.

“I would recommend seeing as many exhibits as possible, and then maybe finding an exhibit that's somewhat similar to the type of photography they'd like to do,” says Wolf, “and then either approaching the gallery that’s showing the exhibit or the group sponsoring it and trying to get involved for for the next round of FotoFocus.”

As for technique, he counsels budding photographers to preview their results immediately, plotting a path towards the angles, lighting and other variances that create the desired effect. He encourages being experimental without fear or hesitation.

“Try different things. Use a tripod for long exposures. Do night photos, you know, whatever. Yes, try different things and see what works,” says Wolf.

He mentions Instagram as a valuable modern platform for collecting data on one’s art, although he admits he doesn’t use it much himself.

“Instagram is a great tool or for putting work out there and getting people to respond to it. And it is kind of a way to gauge public response to work,” offers Wolf.

5-person committee champions local artists' representation

Photographer Helen Adams says she is slammed this time of year as it’s peak season for clients requesting her renowned portraiture, but that she intends to make time to attend as many FotoFocus biennial events as possible.

Adams will be also exhibiting as part of the group Local Eyes 513. She is another tried and true Cincinnati photographer who has been involved with FotoFocus from the very first celebration. Her debut FotoFocus exhibit was part of a group showing in which local photographers drew one another’s names from a hat and took pictures of each other. She and her cohorts wanted to turn the lens on themselves as a fun experiment, noting “photographers are never on the other side of the camera.”

Helen Adams, Photographers X Photographers. @Tony Arrasmith. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“It was called Photographers X Photographers, and we had the exhibit at Xavier University's art gallery and it was a blast. It was just the greatest,” recounts Adams, who also works as a photography professor at University of Cincinnati.

In light of the success of this initial appearance, Adams became an original champion of local artists’ representation in the following years of FotoFocus’s biennial events.

“What came from that was we decided that our committee’s mission would be to bring local photographers some kind of representation. FotoFocus’ goals – they're very focused on what they want, and I think they really would like this to become an international draw,” explains Adams. “They really are getting world class photographers from all over the world, but we didn't want to lose that local flavor.”

“Our committee’s exhibit is at Kennedy Heights Art Center this year. And the committee is Melvin Greer, Samantha Greer and Jimmy Bolden from Art Beyond Boundaries. Traditionally Ann Segal was part of our committee, but now we have Amanda Cawdrey as a new member. Our exhibit is called What’s Left Behind,” says Adams.

What's Left Behind is sort of about consumerism and collecting and hoard. It's about the garbage that’s all over the place – couches left on the side of the road. And also, it's about what people leave behind when they die,” explains Adams, conveying her groups very intentional interpretation of this year’s theme. “And, you know, at some point, almost everybody has the job of cleaning out their parents’ house or something like that. And then, there are hoarders who just have that compulsion to collect. We're thinking about the overconsumption, the collecting. I was thinking a lot about archeological digs. Thousands of years from now, are we going to have this archaeological dig of all this plastic?”

As for the highlights on her list, Adams throws out the Weston Art Gallery as a not-to-be-missed location. Cincinnati photographer Michael Coppage will be displaying his works there.

“There's so much. Tina Gutierrez, there's one that I really want to see,” says Adams in genuine support of her fellow local artist. The two are to be featured together in the botanical exhibit at the Art Academy.

“I am also looking forward to an exhibit at the Off Ludlow Gallery by Steve Plattner. He has traveled all around the country and photographed the strangest people with their collections. I mean, it is fascinating,” says Adams, admiringly.

She also points to Ukrainian artist Guennadi Maslov, another Cincinnati photographer who will be exhibiting at Wash Park.

Adam’s true love of photography comes through in her poignant comments about the artistic medium, its applications, and its value to society in general. She echoes the World Record theme with her words: “Photography has changed the world. Photography ended child labor in this country. Photography ended wars. It's such a powerful medium. My students don't remember a world without it. I don't either, but I'm on the edge of that. Photography is such a new, young thing. And now it's become this insanely ubiquitous medium. I like to be shown things in a new way, you know, it makes me think. It opens my mind to go see these things.”
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.