Theo Adamstein: Photo Enthusiast for FotoWeek DC

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In a time when everyone is seen as being passionate about something, be it ever so trivial, it’s not difficult to resist using the word.

But when it comes to Theo Adamstein and photography—specifically Foto DC and FotoWeek DC, which is set for its fourth annual  festival and celebration of all things photo Nov. 5 through 12—the characterization fits. 

It’s not as if Adamstein doesn’t have many manifold interests and talents— he’s been a high-profile architect, a very busy cultural promoter and activist in D.C., a busy businessman and owner of Dodge Chrome, Inc., a highly original custom photo and high-end imaging lab with locations in Silver Spring and Georgetown.

Mostly, these days, he is the executive director and founder of FotoWeek DC and Foto DC, which, as he readily admits, has consumed him. “Right now,” he said near the end of an interview at the Foto DC year-round headquarters in Adams Morgan, “I am not a practicing architect. This has taken over my life.”

This being FotoWeek DC, which, like many  recent cultural celebrations and festivals like the Fringe Festival and Passport DC, has gained a firm foothold in the city and gained national and international attention. It’s grown like topsy, not bad for a non-profit endeavor which yearly seems to find itself in an ever-growing and ever-changing series of venues with an expanding mission and every more particpants in its competitive portions.

Four years ago, Adamstein, a man with several careers under his belt and some influence on the cultural scene with board membership on several institutions, noticed that Washington seemed bereft of any major competitive and celebratory photography festivals.

“There just wasn’t anything,” he said. “I know we had and have numerous talented and gifted photographers and photojournalists,  in the Washington area, but no festival, no major marketing tool, nothing much.” Pulling together enthusiastic friends and people he knew in the Washington cultural and photography circles and from his architectural world, Adamstein founded FotoWeek DC, which included a competition, primarily for local photographers, workshops, lectures and an array of exhibitions. And with it’s high-profile launching and the presence of museums and galleries, FotoWeek DC was a major success. It made a splash in the photography world here and echoed elsewhere.

For Adamstein, who’s no dilettante when it comes to photography,  the world of photography is rich, diverse and serious. “It was my major interest when I was a young boy and it remained so, even though I ventured into other careers,” Adamstein, a native of South Africa, said. “I pursued photography seriously and with passion, and I still do.  I specialize in landscapes. I’ve had shows and exhibitions.”

Photography, of course, embraces many arenas, interests and genres and occupies the talents of all sorts of photographers and photography from photojournalism, to art photography, to the professional photographers who work for newspapers and slick magazines,  the portraitists and fashion photographers and the documentarians.

“We’ve tended to promote and exhibit work with a certain view, in the arena of justice, environmentalism, social and green issues, there’s a documentarian theme to some of it,  but not all of what we do,” Adamstein said.

In fact, speaking with Adamstein in the Adams Morgan DC Foto Space—a big, airy space once occupied by a high-ended furniture store—illustrates much of what he’s talking about. He’s dressed in gray black, a man with a strong, empathic face and an expansive, energetic way of talking tinged with a hint of South African accent. He’s got a suitable dose of charisma necessary for a pioneering type. He talks big-picture, encompassing not only the festival and its growth, but also the explosion of changes that have occurred in photography itself.

“Digital imaging has changed everything,” he said. “It changes the way a photographer looks through the lens. It’s fast, its malleable and it’s both cheap and expensive. Photographers can do more in the environment of the computer culture, but they’re also faced with more choices and decisions. It’s a process, and it’s ongoing. So, we try to stay on top of it.”

FotoWeek DC, in fact, has become the capstone celebration and effort of what is now a living institution.  “There’s a permanence now,” Adamstein said. “We do things the year round—the Cherry Blossom Festival competition, the project with the Crystal City Business Improvement District and so on.  We’re very fortunate to have this space here.”

If you look at this year’s festival, you see a large effort with a focus on both competition and celebration, opportuned with critical components such as cross-fertilization, partnerships and partnering, promotion and education. “You have to get everybody involved,” Adamstein said. “We’ve had support from the business and commercial community. You work hard the year round trying to get grants, and you get the international community involved on Embassy Row. We have ways for individual, local photographers to be involved, not just in competition, but with links to resources. What you’re doing is creating a community of photography.”

“Here’s a great thing,” he said. “Chicago doesn’t have anything like this. New York doesn’t really have a major festival. We do, and to me that’s exciting. There’s so much potential for growth.”

The venue and space challenge is always there, every year. “The thing is you have to have exhibition space—and we’re lucky this year again to have the Corcoran Gallery of Art participating. We have this space, where we’ll have our night visions component, and we have Pepco’s Edison Place Gallery, and, of course, we have FotoWeek Central on L Street.

That’s a 50,000-square-foot  space, site of the former Borders Bookstore, donated to FotoWeek by Somerset Partners LLC, which will be housing 14 (yes, 14) exhibitions alone and will be a co-site of the launch party along with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

“We live in a very unique city with unique opportunities,” he said. Listening to him, you can hear the sounds of the future of photography in his voice.  His enthusiasm—his passion, if you will—is boundless.          

“The competition aspect has expanded. It’s gone international,” Adamstein said. “But that’s a good thing. We in the city will be able to see the works of photographers whom we might not otherwise see. Conversely, our photographers will have a chance to have their work seen by the world.

“I believe in partners, in linking up, that’s what the new digital age lets us do.  I believe in bringing this to our young people in the schools. [There is a project donating digital cameras to students.] And I believe we can be a resource for photographers. 

“And this—FotoWeek DC—is a celebration of photography.” 

FotoWeek DC Highlights November 5-November 12

FotoWeek Central, 1800 L Street NW

■International League of Conservation Photographers, RAVE Retrospective

■Flash Forward for 2011 from the Magenta Foundation

■Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Beyond Witness

■2011 FotoWeekDC International Awards Competition Winners

■2011 FotoWeekDC Thumbnail Show

■2011 FotoDC Uncover/Discover Series

■PhotoPhilanthropy: Witnessing Change

■Facing Change: Documenting America

■Women Photojournalists of Washington, 2011 Annual Juried Exhibition

■Embassy of Spain, Alberto Shommer Retrospectiva 1952-2009

■FotoWeekDC Youth Contest Winners

■Critical Exposure

■2011 FotoWeekDC Cherry Blossom Contest Winners Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design

■The Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design will be free to the public Nov. 5 through 12 in celebration of FotoWeekDC. Free noon lectures by Stephanie Sinclair, Amy Yenkin, Trevor Paglen and others as well as portfolio reviews by renowned curators, educators and critics will take place Nov. 21.

George Washington University Kogan Plaza

■NightGallery’s digital HD exterior projections on the south façade of GW’s Lisner Auditorium Nov. 7 through Nov. 19.

Pepco’s Edison Place Gallery, 702 8th ST NW

■“Colors of Life” from its 2011 International Photography Contest organized with “Every Child Matters.” Also: vintage photography from the 1920s, 30s and 40s from former National Geographic photographers B. Anthony Stewart and J. Baylor Roberts.

FotoWeek DC Launch Parties.
■Nov. 4 from 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. at FotoWeek Central and the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design.

For further information and details about FotoWeekDC events, go to fotoweekdc.org.

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