If it is September in San Antonio, it is once again time for Fotoseptiembre USA, a photography exhibit that hosts both local and international work in various venues around San Antonio and online. Now in its 21st season, this celebration of the art of photography is the brainchild of Michael Mehl and Ann Kinser. For many, Fotoseptiembre has come to define the general exhibition of photography in the city. A relative honor, but also a considerable misnomer.
Mehl and Kinser operate an independent entity. Fotoseptiembre USA accepts no grants from nonprofit organizations, nor any money from the City of San Antonio. It is a privately run exhibition structure and the mores of the organization begin and end with Mehl and Kinser.
“One thing that we encounter every year is the notion that Fotoseptiembre exists for the common good. We do this because we want to do it. We get no funding and we derive no salary from it. And it is a lot of work,” Mehl said. “People assume these things just happen. People assume that because something is there, they can just have ownership of it.”
This is an ironic side effect of their success. When people feel that they can appropriate the brand of Fotoseptiembre without being an official event, this is an act of willful ignorance. Mehl said there is never an excuse for willful ignorance.
Let me back up a bit. I have had an association with Fotoseptiembre dating back to the mid-noughties (2000’s) when I had a contemporary art gallery representing all media in beautiful downtown Boerne. I had learned of the organization and thought that this would be a great opportunity for our local cadre of galleries to reach toward San Antonio. My efforts included gathering galleries and photographers to participate, as well as curating multiple events in addition to our own gallery. Fast forward to 2015, and my partner Page Graham and I are having our own Fotoseptiembre exhibit, “Under Construction: Havana 2015.”
Working with professionals like Mehl and Kinser is an invigorating breath of fresh air. They not only promote all events to an international audience online, but back in the day, they even made the trek to Boerne with an international group of visitors in tow. They make the trek to each and every exhibition. A significant aspect of their strength and staying power is their enthusiasm for the art form. They embrace new media and encourage participation regardless of who you are or what you may have done before.
“In more colloquial terms, we provide enough rope for everyone to either elevate themselves or hang themselves. That is exactly what we have always wanted for Fotoseptiembre. It is always meant to be egalitarian,” Mehl said.
Everybody is on equal footing, Mehl said, we avoid entities paying for more exposure.
“It isn’t that we think everyone is equal, but we believe that everyone deserves an equal opportunity,” he said.
Within the wide range of work presented, “not all of it is good, but that’s fine.”
We had a broad conversation recently during which Mehl spoke frankly about Fotoseptiembre and the arts in San Antonio. One observance about Mehl is that he rarely blinks. He says what is on his mind without artifice. This leads to conversation that advances understanding.
Mehl said the the photography exhibit surprises him every year.
“It’s never run of the mill. Every year has its own particular tone and personality,” he said. “This could be the actual nature of the exhibits themselves, the people who participate, the energy.”
He said since the start of Fotoseptiembre 21 years ago, two or three years turned out to be non-performing years, meaning they “were not up to snuff.”
“This year there seems to be a renewed interest from the people who are participating and it has to do with everything from how people respond in their registrations, the effort in how they carry out their promotions, down to social media and all that,” he said.
Mehl and Kinser engage in an interesting dance. Fotoseptiembre is open to anyone who registers and pays the entry fee on time, no exceptions. This egalitarian approach is a risky one, which is familiar to anyone who has ever curated an event. However, it is a model that works for Fotoseptiembre. This is no accident, but a purposeful massaging of the event, making adjustments based on acute observation for years at a time.
“We are essentially a community-based festival. That is our reason for being. We have no desire to be an exclusive elitist, non-eclectic festival,” he said.
Fotoseptiembre embraces the community as a whole, meaning the festival accepts work from not only professionals, but beginners, Mehl said.
“Having said that, we are always trying to elevate standards one way or the other. For many years we had the option of free listings in an effort to allow everyone to participate, but we discovered that this bred a certain level of complacency,” he said. “When people have no level of investment or commitment, the downside would often not be a very good exhibit, or even no exhibit at all.”
After years of trial and error, Mehl and Kinser settled on a $100 entrance fee.
“This helps to maintain a certain standard, not because the $100 makes a lot of difference, but because it shows a certain commitment,” he said.
Mehl is particularly complimentary toward several individuals so far this year. In this forum, those who go the extra mile with regards to presentation garner his attention.
“There are several who have stepped up and for beginners they are doing really good stuff. I have to say, from the beginning, Fotoseptiembre has really been a women’s festival,” he said. “Typically, we have seen that it has mostly been the women who have taken the big steps, if you will.”
He said Amanda Dominguez at Digital Pro Lab, Alexandra Nelipa at Mercury Project, and Michelle Lorentzen at Freight Gallery have taken a more professional approach to how they are promoting their exhibits.
The Choice Awards are another element of Fotoseptiembre that recognizes the crafts of the artists, curators, and exhibition organizers who participate in the festival. Click here to see the recipients of the 2014 Choice Awards.
Mehl said one of the recognized practices is the promotion of the exhibit within the context of Fotoseptiembre.
“This is important when you are trying to achieve a positive critical mass in anything you are trying to do, especially in San Antonio,” he said. “That is a big issue for us.
“There is that renewed impetus that we are seeing, especially now that people are more conversant and comfortable with social media. SAY Sí and a few others have always been good with that. … We are seeing a much more comprehensive, professional approach to how people are presenting the exhibits.”
From an online perspective, Mehl said the exhibits look very professional this year.
“We don’t know what they are going to end up looking like once they are on the wall in any of these spaces, but in terms of what we see as the producers of Fotoseptiembre, on paper, this looks really good,” he said.
In 2015, there are 33 exhibits with an additional four in the SAFOTO Web Galleries. By rough estimate, there are 250 – 300 individual photographers who are participating in these events. At the end of the day, Mehl would like for the viewing public to reconsider referring to Fotoseptiembre as the festival that we have become accustomed to, in favor of another mode.
“We are really a platform focusing on the presentation and dissemination of photographic images,” he said. “We have a good number of viewers from all over the world and we are constantly amazed by that. We have an archive. We have a legacy. This is what amplifies and magnifies the impact we have internationally.”
Fotoseptiembre USA has a comprehensive online presence. Visit the website, www.fotoseptiembreusa.com to view the catalogue of participants and make a point of downloading the 2015 Exhibitions & Events Quick Sheet. This is a complete listing that will prove indispensable in any game plan to tackle the numerous opportunities to view great photography in the San Antonio metropolitan area and beyond.
*Featured/top image: Absolute Resolution – A Participatory Photography exhibition at Digital Pro Lab. Photo by Alice Smeets.