Terry Grimley reports on Birmingham's international photography event, Rhubarb-Rhubarb.
An exhibition now showing at the Mailbox, provocatively titled Photography is Dead, reflects the progress of a remarkable institution over the last decade.
Rhubarb-Rhubarb is a Digbeth-based photographic agency which organises an annual portfolio review under the same name. Photographers can show their work to a range of top international professionals who deal in some way with images, whether as editors, publishers, agents, curators or gallery owners.
After making its debut ten years ago, the event quickly established itself on the international scene and its reputation in the relatively small, but globally-spread, world of art photography has continued to grow. In essence, it’s a place where a photographer from Korea can have face-to-face meetings with New Yorker magazine, a Swedish gallery and a British publisher in a single day, just by changing tables in a room in Birmingham.
This year’s event, which took place at Aston Business School over the weekend, brought together 120 photographers with 50 reviewers. The tenth anniversary has been marked with a busy programme of exhibitions, led by the high-profile Obama’s People at the Museum & Art Gallery, Photography is Dead at the Mailbox (also the title of this year’s Rhubarb debate) and other related shows at St Martin’s Church and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
“The festival is bigger this year with the Obama show and all the shows around it,” says Rhonda Wilson, Rhubarb’s founder and creative director.
“We think 500,000 people will have seen the work across all the venues from April to August. The festival in its entirety has gathered £200,000 worth of publicity for the city.
“There are reviewers from New York, Houston, Toronto, Sydney, Perth – it’s the first time we’ve ever had anyone from Australia – Germany, Denmark, Sweden and quite a lot of people from London.
“There are people from Korea who have come to interview us because Koreans love Rhubarb-Rhubarb. I’ve just come back from Korea, so it’s like circles going round the world.
“We have four people from New York this time. Each year, we have a special focus – it was mainland Europe last year.”
One reviewer who has been a regular at Rhubarb-Rhubarb since the early days is Wendy Watriss, co-founder of FotoFest in Houston, Texas.
“I’ve known Rhonda since the early 90s through an exciting magazine called 10.8, which was published out of Birmingham and which we still miss in the photography world because it was smart and well-written and dealing with important issues,” she told me.
“FotoFest has become one of the big biennial festivals in the world, and Rhonda came with the idea of starting something in Birmingham. This kind of portfolio review was not really known in Europe.
“I think I have been eight times and I regard Rhubarb as one of the best portfolio events in the world. It’s one of maybe four or five.”
Wendy thinks Birmingham’s proximity to London is crucial because so many overseas photographers come there to study but the distance from London may be equally important according to Mark Foxwell, who is based in the capital.
His company, Genesis Digital Imaging, has done much of Rhubarb’s printing, including the giant Obama’s People prints. He was making his debut as a reviewer this year and was also on the panel which selected ten young photographers (five from the West Midlands, five from elsewhere in the United Kingdom) to take part in this year’s review.
“It runs so smoothly and I like this venue,” he said. “But I find Birmingham people very friendly. I used to do a lot at the National Exhibition Centre with my wife at the Antiques Fair and the organisational skills were just excellent.
“This event is run brilliantly. I don’t think we could do this in London, in all honesty. With the speed and pace of London, I think it would feel a lot cooler, whereas the friendliness of Birmingham makes it a very professional but casual and enjoyable experience. I’m reviewing for the first time this year, but I used to come and hang out, just for the hell of it. It’s just nice to hang out with these photographers and be part of it.”
While the international scope of the event is impressive, the basic format is extremely simple. There is a room with rows of tables at which the reviewers sit and photographers have 20-minute slots to show their work in pre-booked appointments.
“The photographers are from all over the world – China, Japan, America, Holland, Italy, Turkey – all over the place,” says Rhonda Wilson.
“They really like this review and they think we have really good reviewers. These are very, very intense, ambitious photographers who come here because they want to get published or represented by an international agency. It’s not about advice and development – they’re all pretty much past that.”
At the Mailbox, Photography is Dead features personal favourites of past reviewers, who have each nominated an outstanding image they discovered at Rhubarb during its first nine years.
The impressively-mounted exhibition – Three White Walls looks as businesslike as any West End gallery – also documents the benefits the photographers gained from showing at Rhubarb. For example, Andy Lock’s ghostly projected and re-photographed image was the choice of Alison Nordstrom from George Eastman House, New York, who gave him a show there.
Chino Otsuka’s digitally manipulated double self-portrait, chosen by Johan Sjostrom of the Gothenburg Art Museum, was featured in a group show of British photography in Sweden, while two photographers have had work bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum as a direct result of attending Rhubarb.
Rhonda Wilson’s own choice for the exhibition was an image from the series City of Ambition, photographs of the mist-shrouded Chinese city of Chongqing by Switzerland-based Ferit Kuyas, who was in Birmingham at the weekend for his third Rhubarb.
He said: “I was wondering whether it was worth coming back, but this has become a social event – meeting people, some of whom are very good friends already, some who are completely new.
“There are many factors. First of all, it is very well organised and they are generous. The organisers at some events don’t make you feel welcome. The online booking system means you know exactly who you will be seeing, so you can meet a lot of people.
“I had eight meetings today and one free slot. They don’t like to keep their reviewers idle, so they give away the free slot where others would try to sell it. That’s what I mean about them being generous.”
Bill Kouwenhoven, who used to run a photography magazine in San Francisco and is now international editor of HotShoe magazine based in Berlin, was attending his fourth Rhubarb.
“I come here for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First, the quality of work is good enough that almost no time is wasted. I look at work we can publish in the magazine and I look to place work at other festivals.
“A lot of people don’t understand anything about galleries or publications, which is what interests me rather than stock photography or fashion photography. I would be able to tell people about the tastes of three dozen galleries between Moscow and California. Similarly, with festivals and magazines.”
Just in case this was starting to sound too glamorous, Bill pointed out that there is very little money in art photography – and the recession is making things tougher.
“Small magazines are getting killed, galleries are closing, people are being forced to be their own promoters and find other means of income short of armed robbery,” he said.
And while Berlin may be a contender for Europe’s most fashionable cultural centre, there is one potent force making it attractive to artists and cultural entrepreneurs – it has never had a real-estate boom and living there is “dirt cheap”.
Rhubarb has had a number of different homes during its lifetime, having started out at the Orange Studio and been held in Curzon Street Station three years ago, but it now looks at home after its second year at Aston Business School.
“Curzon Street finished us off in terms of taking on empty venues – it was very tiring,” says Rhonda Wilson. “Aston offers us a really great partnership. They understand what we want, they’ve given us a project manager, and we can concentrate on working with our guests.
“We like the way that something that is so interesting and cultural is in a place called a Business School, because this is cultural business.”