2nd annual San Francisco Bay International Photography Exhibition honors hoofed, winged, human subjects

Diane Varner/Courtesy

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Two years ago, David Garnick noticed a curious absence. After living in the Bay Area for about eight years, the photographer realized that San Francisco — a city of seemingly infinite nooks, crannies and spaces for celebrations of every type — lacked a vein of artistic dedication so basic that it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that one wasn’t already in place.

The event in question was a month of photography, so Garnick promptly took it upon himself to institute a San Franciscan and international photography show. 2018, the first year of the event under his tutelage, featured a similar competition and selection process, with winning works shown at 25 venues across the Bay Area. This year, the project’s scope has expanded to 45 locations, centering around Berkeley’s ACCI Gallery.

The exhibition held its opening reception Friday and had a turnout of artists and local art enthusiasts that granted the intimate venue the attendance that it deserves. Although the exhibition itself physically spans no more than a single open room and a few extra walls, it represents a project of a much broader scale. Garnick proudly explained to viewers that original submissions numbered about 1,900. From this pool, he and three other judges selected 100 pieces. It’s from this exclusive cluster that Garnick curated the 27 printed works on proud display hanging on the ACCI Gallery walls, with the remaining 73 playing on a slideshow pulled up on a monitor in the room.

The pieces themselves, as in almost any gallery show, are far-reaching and highly variable. Uniquely, however, this show is not oriented around any central theme. “Jurors had to judge each work on its own merit based on artistry, technical expertise and ‘impact’: the wild factor, how much it pulls you in,” Garnick said.

Almost every work on the walls tells its story in a singular manner, with some delivering an emotional impact that even an eye untrained to photographic technicalities can appreciate. Yet without the unifying string of a central subject, it’s easy for some of the selections to lose a sense of relevance — especially the more abstract and heavily doctored images, which are numerous in this show.

Garnick did note, however, that each one of this year’s top three competition winners highlights human subjects, which is a trend less surprising than one might think when considering the intrinsic appeal of portraiture. There’s a certain accessibility to such photographs, because these photographs serve as an open invitation for the viewer to connect to, and see themselves in, the fellow human who is frozen in time by the click of a camera.

The first place winner, R.J. Kern’s “Kenzi and Hootie,” depicts its namesakes. The former is a willowy young woman clad in khakis and a white button-up; the latter is a goat standing at Kenzi’s side. There’s a firmness and determination to Kenzi’s stance — she tugs Hootie’s collar close to her hip and positions the goat’s front legs just so by holding them in place with her boot. Her chin is lifted, one hand on her hip, and she gazes slightly down at the viewer as if to challenge them to question her.

“I photographed the last place contenders at 10 county fairs in Minnesota,” Kern said, explaining the context for the curious shot. Each of his subjects, including Kenzi, was fresh off the judging line. “I told them, ‘Show me what next year’s champion looks like,’ ” he recounted.

Kern’s work shines with an air of authenticity and the sense of access to a rare and shining moment of self-assurance. Other artists featured in the gallery take a different route: one concerned more with the obscuration of the context of their subject matter, rather than the revelation of such. Diane Varner’s “My Raven Companion No. 1,” the poster child of the event, provides a pertinent example of this technique. What’s so remarkable about this work, as Varner explained at the opening, is its deceivingly immaculate appearance. “The raven’s from Pacifica; the flower from Half Moon Bay; the fence from a studio in Princeton,” Varner said. She pieced all the disparate aspects together in photoshop.

While well-attended, the reception admittedly attracted a homogeneously older crowd. What Garnick sees in the show, though, precludes not a narrowing of the pool of photography appreciators, but a widening one. “What I love about photography these days is that technology and the lowering of prices has democratized it. It’s rare to meet somebody who doesn’t see themselves as somehow a photographer,” Garnick said. And the implications of this shift, in his mind, are not small. “More and more people are looking at the world artistically,” he noted. Photography, he said, “changed how I viewed the world.”

From miniscule moments of gleaming confidence to those pieced together to create a thought-provoking composite whole, the photography on view at the ACCI Gallery certainly presents a buffet of worldviews. It’s simply up to you as the viewer to choose which ones to spend the most time with.

The San Francisco Bay International Photography Exhibition will be showing at the ACCI Gallery in Berkeley through Sept. 28. 

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].