Highlighting the art of photography

BEIRUT: “There is a lack of quality art events embracing the people and not alienating them,” says Nino Azzi.

“The gallery system does that, it alienates some people,” he opines.

A fair, however, “can embrace more people, young and old, the talented and the experienced.”

For the past eight years Azzi has run Art Lounge, the well-known Karantina space devoted to entertainment and cultural production. Now Azzi has a new project, being the founder and curator of the Beirut Photo Fair.

The addition of an international photography fair to the cultural calendar completes an embryonic arts fair trifecta for the city. Joining the three-year-old Beirut Art Fair (nee MENASART) and the newborn Beirut Design Week, the Beirut Photo Fair offers itself up as a market-driven event for photographers.

The inaugural edition of the Beirut Photo Fair, which opens Friday, brings together the work of over 60 photographers from eight countries and exhibits them at the Artheum, a 1,500-square-meter space next door to Art Lounge.

Azzi says that, after over 14 years working in the arts, he has come to realize that “there is considerable demand [for a fair among] young photographers and more established ones that need to showcase their works. “You can’t accommodate everyone in a gallery,” he states. “A fair can fulfill that.”

Some evidence of this demand may be reflected in the response the Beirut Photo Fair got from its maiden call for participants – to which, he says, more than 150 photographers replied.

The fair accepted 80 percent of these applicants. Logistical and personal reasons prevented some of these artists from taking part, but, as Azzi explains, more than 60 remain.

Having chosen not to specify a theme for the inaugural fair, Azzi says the range of genres represented is quite wide, with “quality,” “originality” and the “strength of the concepts presented” being the core criteria.

A quick glance at the exhibition catalog affirms the diversity of the work to be shown. Portraiture lines up next to landscape works, abstraction next to realism, and vibrant color next to the cool precision of monochrome.

“There is a wide range of tools and genres exhibited,” Azzi elaborates. “You will find fully developed concepts, entire setups designed for the sake of the shot, purely aesthetic photography, nude photography, landscape arts, arbitrary shots, etc.”

Though it complements the city’s international art and design platforms, the Beirut Photo Fair doesn’t have quite the same breadth as those events.

Like other international art fairs, BAF this year complemented its fine art souk with roundtable discussions about artistic practice and the international market. For its part, BDW was more weighted toward talks and hands-on workshops than exhibitions per se.

The Beirut Photo Fair seems to have no such events program. As such, it sees its mission to be highlighting the art of photography and the people who produce it.

Contending that photography has been a “surprisingly uncelebrated media, particularly in the Middle East,” the fair’s literature states the event’s aim is to push “the boundaries of photographic practices by showcasing the best in contemporary photographic works.”

Where other types of visual arts have long received more attention, both within the region and around the world, Azzi argues, “photography is gaining ground and becoming ever more popular the last years.

“With the so-called Arab Spring,” he explains, “there has been a definite outburst of citizen photo journalists and with what technology is today, and it’s widespread, anyone can make use of it and discover the artist within and start doing outstanding photos.”

None of the photos that have emerged from “citizen journalism” will be on display at this year’s exhibition, though the curator says photographs of recent events in the region, taken by photo journalists, will be on display.

Azzi’s initiative isn’t the first to realize the need to draw attention to photography in the region. Last year, a photography component was folded into the Beirut Art Fair. Byblos Bank sponsored the exhibition of 15 shortlisted photographers at the event.

Yet Azzi felt a project focusing specifically on photography was needed. He adds that such a project as his is particularly suited to Beirut with its “dynamic ... and significant recent history” and as it is “a place that inspires lots of talented people.”

Azzi hopes that the Beirut Photo Fair will become an annual event on the city’s cultural calendar. As such it would be incorporated into Artheum’s already extensive fair program. The ambitious venue has plans to host a Furniture Fair in November, a Jewelry Design Week in February 2013, an International Contemporary Art Fair in March and other literature and fashion events at as yet unspecified dates.

The Beirut Photo Fair opens Friday, Sept. 14 at 4 p.m. in Artheum, Karantina, and runs until Sept. 30.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 14, 2012, on page 16.




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