There and Back Again…

Thursday, March 13th, 2008 | Uncategorized

…in which I talk about my amazing adventures in Houston and surrounding areas. (its gonna be a long one)

FotoFest. Yes, FotoFest. A two month, biannual festival dedicated to photography that takes over the entire city of Houston. As a burgeoning photographer, and MFA student in the same subject, I am highly encouraged to go every two years to this event. This time around, we were given an opportunity that sounded, and as you will read later truly was, incredible. At FotoFest, there is a portfolio review session available to have professionals in the photography and art world look at your work and offer you guidance, suggestion, and once in a while, a show or other commercially successful opportunities. The chance to attend this review, known as The Meeting Place, is accompanied by a $750 price tag. Between the unwieldy cost, and the fact that I do not yet feel like my work is ready to show, I have not taken advantage of The Meeting Place, but this year, our faculty were able to set up an incredible opportunity. This opportunity was both a blessing and a curse, however, to my Houston adventure.

I am a man with sorely little free time, and after my trip last weekend, I was already in dire need for a little time off. However, a month ago, we were told that we would have the chance to actually sit with one of the reviewers during a full day of portfolio reviews. Essentially, it was the chance to observe fourteen portfolio reviews from an objective standpoint. How awesome is that! What this meant, however, was that if I was going to go to FotoFest and participate in this portfolio review, I had to go on this one particular weekend. A weekend which happened to be, not only in the middle of a very stressful time at work, but also the weekend immediately following the weekend where we went up to Memphis. That’s two weekends in a row where I’m away from home, separated by a super stressful week at work and followed by an even more stressful week. But stress and hectics be damned, I was going to go!

I started planning my trip with two possibilities. If Heather and Ansel were going to go with me, I would try to stay with my friends Mike and Keri who live just outside of Houston, but if I went by myself, I intended to stay with my friends Julian and Chelsea who live in downtown Houston. Even though Ansel did marvelously on our trip to Memphis, Heather decided that she and Ansel needed a weekend at home, so I prepared myself to drive down to Houston and stay with Julian and Chelsea. It was around this time that Jeremy, one of my classmates, offered to carpool down there and spilt a hotel. Being frugal in nature more often lately, I decided this was a good idea, and offered up the option that we could probably both stay with friends of mine. I talked it over with Julian and we were all agreed, Jeremy and I would stay with him and his wife for the weekend. TreesSchedules were shared, plans were made, and by Thursday we were all ready to head out the following day. Then it started snowing. Giant two inch flakes fell from the sky. We worried about the condition of the roads, we wondered if this would be like our trip to Houston the previous year when the entire North Texas area was covered in two inches of sheet ice. I called Jeremy, who had already been in talks with some of the other students, and we had all decided that we’d still leave the next day, only we’d delay our departure by a few hours.


Through late starts and numerous errands, Jeremy and I were on the highway headed south no later than 11:00a on Friday morning. The drive down wasn’t too bad, as soon as we got to Corinth, there wasn’t even any signs that snow had fallen the day before. With a quick stop for lunch in Centerville where we not only ate an amazing BBQ Sandwich, but also bought bountiful quantities of beef jerky, the trip flew by with considerable ease. We pulled in to Houston at about 4:00p with a GPS Navigation system that was bound and determined to get us lost. It hadn’t worked the whole time, but at least we knew how to get to Houston, but getting around town was a bit trickier. As we stumbled around downtown, our GPS kicking in and out, my google maps searching for directions, I all of a sudden realized that my two-year old memories of Houston were not as forgotten as I expected and I determined that while I didn’t know which way to go to get to the FotoFest Headquarters, I knew that we were really close. My google maps confirmed that we were within 0.2 miles. Turning a corner, we were exposed to the building itself. Success!

Wandering around FotoFest Headquarters, it became obvious that they were not entirely prepared for visitors, but were also too busy preparing for the night’s opening gala to kick us out. We were able to look at several artists’ work (several of which still didn’t have their names applied to the walls) before we finally felt like maybe we were intruding and decided that we should go to the downtown headquarters instead. We took one last look around for the FotoFest catalog, which we would later use to figure out what we wanted to see while we were in Houston, but it was apparently a rare animal. We figured surely the downtown Headquarters would have a copy, so we hopped back in the car, snacked on some beef jerky, and headed for the Doubletree Hotel (where FotoFest has a downtown office and where The Meeting Place is held). After taking a little time out, the GPS worked just fine and got us all the way without error. Turns out, the downtown Headquarters also had no catalogues and we learned that they were actually late in shipping. They wouldn’t be available at all until Saturday, or possibly even Monday. Our hopes and dreams were dashed, but we pulled ourselves together and went ahead and checked out the exhibitions in the Doubletree Hotel.

The Doubletree presented three different bodies of work, all from historical Chinese photography, ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s. All the photos were reproduced from archived negatives and printed digitally. The quality was a bit questionable on some, but overall the content was very moving. Jeremy was particularly enamored by the work of Zhuang Xueben, while I was more moved by the Anti-Japanese War photos of Sha Fei. It was barely 6:00p and we already had 1/3 of our assignments in the bag (one of our assignments for FotoFest was to view and review three exhibitions). I called Chelsea and arranged for us to come over and hang out until the Opening Night Gala. Julian and Chelsea took us to Tacos a Go-Go for dinner and then all four of us headed off to the Gala. The party was pretty good, the space was packed and it was hard to move around. It almost felt like a night club, only instead of paying like $8 for a drink, they were all free (which some of our fellow photo crew were quite celebratory over). We looked at some more art (such as some really fun work by Zhuang Hui), chatted up some fellow grads, had a couple drinks, but by 11:00p, we were pretty exhausted and we headed back to the apartment. After a bit of chatting and some beef jerky, we were all asleep by about 1:00a.


We woke up in time to get cleaned up a bit, ignored the beef jerky still in the car and stopped by Shipley’s for some donuts before setting off to the Doubletree for The Meeting Place. We checked in at the office, got our badges and were corralled into the conference room. Waiting at our tables, the reviewers gradually rolled in from breakfast and we were able to chat a little bit before the flood gates opened and 8 hours of madness commenced. I had the pleasure of sitting with Leslie K. Brown of the Photographic Resource Center. We got along quite well and found that we had several things in common. We saw some good work, some bad, some great work, and some horrible. We sat through pleasant presentations and grueling, and some that were simply awkward. One photographer that I would suggest keeping an eye on is Nelson Chan, who stunned both Leslie Brown and I with the quality of his work, as well as his pleasant personality and professional presentation. We were both floored to find out that he had only recently received his BFA and had not yet attended Graduate School, even. But as much as I would like to say I learned a lot about what you should do at a portfolio review of this kind, I learned a lot more about what you shouldn’t do.

  • Don’t bring your photos in a one hour photo envelope.
  • Don’t sit down and immediately comment on how the previous reviewer wouldn’t even look at your work
  • Don’t show up 20 minutes early for your review and interrupt the reviewer, insisting that you’re late.
  • Pay attention to the reviewer’s social cues; if she looks bored and you have three bodies of work to show, skip to the next one.
  • Don’t assume the reviewer knows who you are if she doesn’t let on immediately that she does.
  • If the reviewer specifically said in her bio that she doesn’t want to view nudes, don’t show up with a book of nudes.
  • Have all your materials prepared, don’t just dump it all on the table and try to make sense of it right there.
  • Know what and why you’re photographing.
  • And finally, be confident and assertive, but also be flexible. Don’t be pushy and argumentative.

After the reviews, we finished off the beef jerky and went to drink a couple beers with Beau Comeaux, a former UNT grad and good friend, whom we just happened to run into as the reviews were winding down. With a bit of alcohol in us, we decided we’d try to hit up a couple of exhibits before we headed back to Julian and Chelsea’s for a dinner reservation, but it turned out that we’d screwed around long enough that all the galleries were closed already. Tired and hungry, we went back to the apartment to regroup for the trip north to Mike and Keri’s house, with whom we were all going to dinner. The drive was longer than a thought, and we kind of chatted and napped off and on over the 30 minute commute to The Woodlands.

Mike and Keri took us out to a Iron Chef America winning restaurant, Jasper’s, and announced that, due to a huge promotion he just got at work, Mike was paying for all six of us at this fantastic restaurant. The food was Ah. Maz. Ing. We started with drinks and appetizers that consisted of several specialty martinis and a bottle of wine; fried shrimp and fried calamari. For my entree, I chose the barbecued pork tenderloin which smelled exactly like the sweet smoke of a wood fire. It smelled so good, I almost thought I could just breathe it in and not even take a bite. The table also ordered some family style sides: steamed spinach, roasted mushrooms, and mac & cheese. I didn’t get to try the mac & cheese, but the mushrooms were really good, though nothing at the table compared to the pork tenderloin. I will remember that pork for years to come, and nothing will compare. We finished up with some “loaded” coffees and a couple of deserts to share. I don’t know how much Mike spent that night, but he would accept no recompense and just proved once again how great my friends are, even the ones that have moved away and have limited contact with anymore. It was so great to just sit and spend some time with these friends who have moved way, to recall all the good old times, and catch up on the exciting new times. I did wish that Heather and Ansel could have come, but Jeremy was a good date, even if he wouldn’t hold my hand under the table. After a walk around the village and a good long chat back at the house, Julian, Chelsea, Jeremy and I all piled back in the car and made the long drive back. Sleep followed soon after.


We finally get to sleep in, and between several late nights in a row, and the time travel experiment that is Daylight Savings Time, we dragged out of the apartment by 11:00a. Jeremy and I had two items on our agenda: we were going to visit the Houston Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibition on Pompeii that Chelsea had been working on for the past two months, as well as a couple of photo exhibits; and then stop by The Menil Collection to see William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans. After a nice brunch and the House of Té (yes, I got coffee at a tea house), and a great guided tour of Pompeii by the assistant curator, we realized we’d spent far too long in the MFAH. We were both so exhausted and missed our respective loved ones, we just wanted to be home and begrudgingly skipped the Menil. Hugs were shared and hands were shaken, and then we piled into the car for our final drive. The GPS flaked out again, so we had to do a couple random loops to figure out how to get out of Houston, but finally we were on our way home. We did, however, make a quick detour to Woody’s Smokehouse in Centerville for some more jerky. I bought some thick buffalo jerky that is fantastic, along with a bit of boudain to see if its as good as I remember. The drive was peaceful and relaxing, however, the best part was rolling back into Denton, getting to the house, and just being able to sit and relive the story with Heather as I held Ansel close to me. That’s the one thing that’s always true about travel. No matter how good the trip is, it seems like the best part is always getting home.


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March 2008
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