Live Active Cultures

Last weekend, Orlando arts aficionados were faced with a choice of Sophie's proportions. They could attend the 19th annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, arguably the biggest event on our town's cultural calendar, next to the Florida Film Festival. Or, they could go Snap!

If you get your entertainment advice from this paper, but you don't know what Snap! was, you're forgiven: We highlighted aspects of the event, but couldn't give the project full preview coverage proportional to its enormous ambitions. According to the mission statement, Snap! is "a program of the Lucie Foundation, a national 501(c)(3) charitable foundation in its 8th year with the mission to celebrate master photographers, discover and cultivate emerging photographers and promote the appreciation of photography worldwide."

The multiple-day blowout was the brainchild of Patrick Kahn, a native of France who came to Orlando five years ago following an extended California layover. Being the founder of Los Angeles' high-profile The Book LA photography magazine, he looked around and found our art scene lacking in comparison to his former home. Instead of complaining, he decided to do something about it, approaching the Downtown Development Board with a multiyear plan to promote a major international photography event on the order of Miami's Art Basel. The result was four days of exhibits, lectures, parties and workshops celebrating the still image, put on with the support of more than 30 international artists and a dozen-plus big-name sponsors.

I took a few hours off from Fringe play-watching and beer-sipping to sit in on a speaking engagement with Douglas Kirkland, undisputed headliner of Snap! As Kahn is quick to say, you may not know Kirkland's name, but you know his iconic images of mega-celebrities shot over his 50-years-plus "love affair with photography." In an amazing, all-too-short 75-minute session last Saturday afternoon (May 22), the sprightly Kirkland ("I was corrupted before Photoshop") shared his instantly recognizable snapshots and the stories behind them with a standing-room-only crowd at the UCF Center for Emerging Media. We learned that, as a Toronto teen, Kirkland began shooting "babies and bar mitzvahs" with a Browning 1/16 camera held together by a rubber garter before he lucked into an assistant job under Vogue legend Irving Penn. At age 24, a Look magazine assignment landed him in Europe, photographing the likes of Art Buchwald and Liz Taylor, which led to a lifetime of documenting the famous and fabulous: Marilyn Monroe, Bridget Bardot and Audrey Hepburn all were captured by his lens, as were John Lennon, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger.

What makes Kirkland's work immortal isn't the stardom of his subjects as much as it is the unguarded humanity he draws out of them. His lecture included plenty of gadget geekery about 8-by-10 cameras and HP printers, but he'll be the first to say that equipment pales in importance to "how you are relating to the person in front of the lens." In his heyday, back before paparazzi were a problem, a magazine photographer could spend a month living with his subject in pursuit of a single perfect shot — try that on today's publishing budgets. Still, his main advice to photographers is to put down the camera: "Don't take pictures all the time." Spend time interacting with your subject without the constant "click," so that "when you do `take a picture` they won't be uncomfortable. Also, never throw away even "bad" photos because "what seems meaningless today can have value in decades."

Later Saturday night I stopped by the exhibit galleries installed in the old Church Street Exchange building. I briefly attended an upstairs reception for Kirkland, stealing sweets while my friend, who had been a student and nude subject of the photographer a decade ago, reintroduced himself. Kirkland didn't remember him, but his wife/partner, Francoise, sure did. That's when I figured out that the "L.A. flavor" Snap! wanted to bring to town was code for "slick" — red carpet at the entrance, clean white walls and professionally installed art inside, plus video projectors everywhere. It also meant "celebrity obsessed"; Kirkland's oeuvre aside, famous faces from Lionel Deluy, Terry O'Neill and Henry Diltz were featured. And the price tags were expensive — five figures for a numbered print is above-market in this area unless your name is Leibovitz.

I enjoyed my adventures at Snap! and look forward to the return next year, when hopefully it doesn't go head-to-head with Fringe again. The best thing about Snap! was that it temporarily brought life back to the Exchange. Far from the wreck I expected, the building is still beautiful inside and ripe for use as a year-round gallery and performance venue. Rather than letting it decay further from developer and government mismanagement, artists should declare "citizens' eminent domain" and take it over. If the Supreme Court can do it to Kelo in New London, Conn., for the "public use" of private corporations, why can't we in the name of culture?

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