Wisconsin photography exhibition highlights 10 Midwest photographers you need to know.
There's a rapidly-expiring misconception that in order to "make it" in the art and photography world, one has to live in New York City, London, Los Angeles or another dense metropolitan area. The most world-renowned museums, institutions and bluest of the blue-chip commercial galleries reside there alongside those who can afford to buy art and support artists' careers. The trope of the "art-world-hustle" is most commonly attributed to making it in New York City. In the United States specifically, with the exception of Chicago, there's often a "fly-over" attitude towards the Midwest.
For Wisconsin-born and raised producer, curator, founder of FlakPhoto and champion of all things photographic, Andy Adams, these assumptions – while first limiting – were not a problem, but an opportunity to fill a lack and make something new. Andy too, grew up thinking he'd need to make a pilgrimage to one of the coasts to find success but stayed put, using his various digitally-driven projects to build an influential community of photographers from around the world. This September, Adams narrows his focus to Midwest photographers with the exhibition at Madison Wisconsin's James Watrous Gallery aptly titled "New Midwest Photography." The show is a survey of 10 photographers living and working in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. It's a broad range of approaches and subject matter, but what brings them all together is the photographers' blending of, in Adam's words "personal observation and regional knowledge to produce photography that reflects the contemporary American Midwest."
The exhibition opens September 7th and is on view through October 28.
I emailed Andy to learn more about what's fueling this exhibition and his larger curatorial practice.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Andy Adams
Jon Feinstein: Can you give our readers a quick background on this show and its history?
Andy Adams: As you know, I organized a show of Midwest photography in 2014. I did that project on a lark at the invitation of an arts organization based in Madison, Wisconsin where I live. And, ironically, it was the first physical photography exhibition I’d ever produced. The FlakPhoto Midwest Print Show was an experiment - a way to see if I could do offline what I’d been doing online for a decade. The response to that exhibition was so overwhelmingly positive - and so much fun to do - that I walked away from it thinking that I’d like to do it again – that a FlakPhoto Midwest photography show should be a recurring thing.
Well, you know how it is, life gets in the way, things get busy and the next thing you know, it’s three years later and you get that itch to do another project. Fortunately, the James Watrous Gallery approached me last summer with an invitation to curate a photography show and when I pitched another Midwest show, they loved the idea. This exhibition is smaller than the first one but deeper in terms of the way it presents these photographers: New Midwest Photography features multiple works from 10 photographers from around the region.
The goal of these FlakPhoto Midwest exhibitions is to showcase the variety of talent living and working in this part of the world and, ultimately, to recognize the American Midwest as the vibrant hub of photographic practice that it is. And, of course, it gives me an opportunity to collaborate with creative people I admire which is always the best part of these projects. It’s a fun reason to party with photographers too.
Feinstein: I remember the last Midwest show you did vividly. Seems crazy that it’s been four years. Why is the Midwest so important to you right now?
Adams: When I was younger, I genuinely believed that you had to live on one of the coasts to find creative success. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and for most of my childhood I was certain that someday I would move far away, to a big city, to “make it.” Sticking around was a real struggle for me in my 20s and 30s. For a variety of reasons, I stayed, and, though it’s taken me a while to realize it, I’ve come to see that the Midwest is actually a perfect place to make a creative life.
When my wife, Kristen, and I decided to buy a house in Madison a few years ago, I realized that I had changed. All of a sudden, staying here made sense. My fourteen years of doing the FlakPhoto thing has led me to some incredibly talented artists based right here in the Midwest and exploring the photo culture that surrounds us has been an inspiring exercise. I’m hoping to do more photography programming in Wisconsin in the next few years.
Feinstein: How did you connect with the James Watrous Gallery? Tell me a bit about your process and relationship working with them.
Adams: The Watrous is an institution and a beautiful exhibition space located in the heart of downtown Madison. I’ve worked with the gallery on previous projects over the past 11 years and it’s a wonderful place for Wisconsin artists to show their work. The gallery typically curates its own exhibitions but director Jody Clowes and I have known each other for years and she generously invited me to produce a FlakPhoto show this summer. The Watrous team is top-notch and has been an amazing collaborator. I’m hoping this exhibition brings more photography people into the gallery. It’s a hidden gem.
Feinstein: You have some additional programming going on in conjunction with the show. Tell us about it.
Adams: One of my dreams is to program a photography festival so I decided to make the opening night a 3-part event. Can a festival be one night only? Maybe it's a microfestival... That's a weird idea but it might apply: I'm hosting the exhibition opening at the Watrous Gallery, a photography book talk with one of our exhibiting artists at the Madison Public Library, and a Midwest Art Party after that. All of these events are free and open to the public.
You know I’m a photobook geek so I’m especially excited about Barry Phipps’ talk following the reception. Barry is one of those creative polymaths who does a little bit of everything - music, fashion, photography. It turns out that he was in The Coctails, one of my favorite bands in college which was awesome to learn. We met on Instagram a few months ago and he sent me a copy of his new book, Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs, which is an excellent piece of work and one I’m eager for more people to hear about. The Wisconsin Book Festival is presenting this event and they’ve been very supportive.
Feinstein: In your selection process, were you looking for anything beyond geography? Do you see them as being a "snapshot" or representation of the Midwest?
Adams: As always, I put out an open call online and the results were terrific - hundreds of photographers from every Midwest state responded. My aim was simple: to find a small group of talented imagemakers living and working in this part of the world. There’s no theme to the exhibition. This show is about highlighting artists from around the region and it's not confined to photographers who make images of the Midwest though that’s the case in several instances. If I had more wall space I’d show more photographers! This is an amazingly talented group: 5 men, and 5 women from Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. Each of our them uses Instagram so their feeds are a perfect entrée to the exhibition. Read “10 Midwest Photographers You Should Follow”
Feinstein: Do you see any similar themes among artists?
Adams: I interviewed our contributors to learn what it was about the Midwest that compelled them to photograph here. Some common themes emerged: relationships, travel, memory, and family all play key roles in their works. These photographers are filled with an insatiable curiosity to understand the place they call home. Picture making is a critical part of how they have acclimated to and experience the towns and cities where they live. All of them use their camera to make sense of the people and places that inspire them. And each of them blends personal observation and regional knowledge to produce photography that uniquely reflects this place.
Feinstein: Define your curatorial practice in a haiku or tweet.
Adams: How's this?
If you've read this far, get yourself to the exhibition. Here's a recap:
New Midwest Photography presents the work of ten artists who blend personal observation and regional knowledge to produce photography that reflects the contemporary American Midwest. The exhibition will be on view at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin from September 7 - October 28, 2018, with an opening, book talk and after party, all happening Friday, September 7th. Questions about the show? Email Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org