"An American Vision": The Annual Conference of the Society for Photographic Education Austin, TX - 2003

Article excerpt

The Society for Photographic Education was founded forty years ago in Chicago following the historical meeting of 1962 in Rochester at the George Eastman House. This March, SPE held its annual national conference in Austin (TX), under the theme An American Vision. A year and a half after the tragedy of the World Trade Center, after months that saw an unprecedented increase in flag sales, and while the country was "at war" on foreign soil, An American Vision was bound to raise questions and expectations. Moreover, in a period during which most of its founders retired, SPE could take this opportunity and reassess the impact of its members' work on the photographic scene. The chosen theme of the conference also provided an interesting platform to try and define what an "American vision" was in the field of photography; how idiosyncratic American photography was; what role and impact it had played internationally.

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In the words of Lawrence McFarland, this year's conference chair, "The idea of An American Vision was to explore the dreams that have made the continent of America unique." A quick look at the program would rapidly scale the statement down to what it really meant: the continent, there, except for an interesting panel of Cuban photographers, was limited to the United States. If any, there were very few traces of South American photography and none of Canadian photography. Regarding the subject of "dreams," the participants were in fact more confronted with the various realities of our time than asked to partake in any reinvestigation of the various myths and ideologies that built and were generated by this nation. As an example, most of the works that students showed was definitely anchored in digital technology. It addressed issues of identity, the students' identities, or questioned the very medium they were using. While Desert Storm II, the Return was raging, and the discontent of a good percentage of the population reverberated in the streets of many an American metropolis, including Austin, the conference proposed an unusual number of presentations on the various rivers of the country--from High Water by David Taylor, The River's Green Margins by Allen Hess and John Lawrence, A Delta Journey by Bruce West, to Riverwalk to Stillwater by William Wylie--, an interesting take on the idea of the eye of the hurricane. In spite of their somewhat paradoxical presence in times of trouble, the above-mentioned presentations could be seen as extensions of one central theme of American photography: landscape. In fact, American photographers, since the disappearance of the New York Photo League in the early nineteen fifties, have extended a long tradition. It originated on the West coast in the nineteenth century with artists such as Eadweard Muybridge, or Carleton Watkins, then was carried on by the Weston dynasty, Ansel Adams, and later Minor White. Whereas the post-WW II period in Europe, and especially in Paris, gave birth to numerous photo agencies specialized in social and political documentary (Rapho, Magnum, Gamma, Viva, ...,) the nineteen seventies gave us the New Topographics, Garry Winogrand, Eugene Atget (reborn), William Eggleston, more prints and portfolios, at a higher price, by Ansel Adams, as well as photographic education, and a growing fine-art photography market. One of the strong development that post-modernism brought to American photography was a new focus on feminism and multi-culturalism. As usual, the SPE conference embraced these with various caucuses that were variously attended.

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Going back to Lawrence McFarland's definition of An American Vision, only two events seemed to relate to the material that dreams are made of: Organic Magic by Keith Carter, an inspired, as well as entertaining and didactic lecture that legitimately drew an audience exceeding the capacity of the room in which it was scheduled, and Lady Warriors, a moving video documentary by John Goheen on seven Navajo teenage girls who won the Arizona cross-country running title. …