CONTACT Photography Festival

CONTACT Photography Festival Pre-Preview

The 2009 edition of the CONTACT Photography Festival is still a few weeks away, but that didn't stop the organizers from unveiling the full schedule on their web site last week. Like past years, there is simply a ton of exhibits, installations, films, workshops and parties to check out, so to help me sort through it all, I recently connected with the Executive Director of CONTACT, Darcy Killeen, who filled me in on some of his picks. Here's our Q&A.

CONTACT is now the world's largest photography festival. What's been the secret to its success and what has made Toronto such a great host city for it?

CONTACT stimulates excitement and discussion among a diverse audience that has grown to over 1,000,000 visitors. It is focused on cultivating an increasing interest and participation in photography every year. The festival's success, to a great degree, is a result of the open call for exhibitions and this continues to provide an opportunity for emerging artists to contribute unexpected and memorable encounters with photography throughout the city, alongside leading professionals in the field.

CONTACT delivers democratic participation of exhibits. Staff of the festival believes that the festival's success has resulted from the ability to satisfy an open-call to exhibit to all artists, as part of the festival. This unique open-call ability provides a much-needed and appreciated opportunity for all artists, including emerging photographers, to display and contribute to a unique visitor encounter with photography throughout Toronto. Emerging artists are likely to exhibit alongside leading professionals.

To make sure that the quality of the exhibition stays at the highest level, Festival staff, since 2002, have focused on juried highlights of the festival and curated programming. This unique approach to the festival has lead, to the unprecedented success of CONTACT, and this mix has now become a central focus of development for future festivals.

Public Installations, introduced in 2003, allows many additional people in the city to enjoy the festival. The public installations, usually in high profile public space such as Subway platforms in Toronto's most traveled subway stations, include images by leading Canadian and international artists. They are reproduced as posters or billboards in high profile advertising displays, capturing the attention of both the general public and arts audiences alike. According to CBS Viacom, the audience circulation in 2006 for these displays reached over 13 million unique impressions.

To further focus interest in CONTACT, staff introduced an annual theme in 2005. The theme provides a critical focus to enrich and expand programming and a critical basis from which the festival can structure open-call exhibitions. Issues related to the annual theme are explored through public installations, feature exhibitions, lectures and events.

The festival is very large. To respond to an audience wish to concentrate on a smaller number of worthwhile venues, Feature Exhibitions selected by CONTACT were introduced in 2002. These Feature exhibitions have now become a central aspect of the festival. The features allow focusing on partnerships with dealers, communities, and themes from which the festival draws media and audience interest.

Feature Exhibitions have allowed the development of community relationships and specific programming partnerships. It also established the foundation for a two-tired exhibition structure along with the development of the annual theme, separating "feature" exhibitions from general "open" exhibition listings in the magazine and web site. This has allowed two benefits. The first is establishing critical mass around important exhibits, and fostered a desire for many to find interesting less well-promoted venues from which to base media and other interest. These distinctions have encouraged higher standards for all exhibitors, and also fostered greater innovation through the pursuit of featured distinction.

Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, has truly embraced CONTACT's democratic and grassroots nature, to make it the largest festival in the world.

The festival is now in its 13th year. Do you ever get the itch to try something that's a radical departure from years past? Or is the formula pretty solid at this point?

The formula of CONTACT has been very successful and this years festival will continue in the path of the last few years. The biggest issue with radical departures is funding. CONTACT presents the festival on the backs of four full time employees. Other similar festivals have five times as many employees!!! In order to make drastic changes we would need resources - both human and monetary. However, get ready for something new and radical in the next 18 months!!!

CONTACT is perhaps most known for all the photography exhibits, but there's also a significant film component. Have you seen audiences grow for the film screenings over the years? What are 2-3 of the films that are must-sees this year?

You wanted drastic change - you will get it in the Film Program this year! Our Film Program has been selling out the NFB for years and in order to reach a bigger audience we will be presenting the program on TVO this year. This new exciting partnership will allow us to significantly increase our audience and present programming during the entire month.

The entire series will be introduced by CONTACT board member Edward Burtynsky. My 3 not to miss are - Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz and Stars by Helmet Newton.

With more than 220 venues participating in this year's festival, it can be a bit of a challenge to navigate them all. What are some of the exhibits you're most looking forward to?

1. Still Revolution: Suspended in Time (MOCCA)
2. Magnum Photos: States of Conflict (CONTACT Gallery)
3. War Zone Graffiti (Queen West Area and Ace Lane)
4. Le Grand Fatras (MOCCA Courtyard)
5. The Drunken Bride, Russia Unveiled (Pikto Gallery)
6. 3,653 Self Portraits (Brookfield Place)
7. Regular 8 (Wynick/Tuck)
8. Every Building in the City of Toronto (Prefix)
9. Longing and Belonging (Board of Directors)
10. Don't See Don't Hear Don't Speak (Harbourfront Centre)

I'm sure if Darcy was to add one more to the list it would be 50 Artists, 50 Photos at Barbershop Gallery. This is an exhibit we're putting on this year in collaboration with Sam Javanrouh, Rannie Turingan and Istoica. You can add the event for our opening night party (May 7th) on Facebook.

Photo by Jeff Harris

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