Photoville is arguably one of New York’s most interesting public art installations. For two weeks every September, 60+ shipping containers are turned into individual photo galleries in Brooklyn Bridge Park, all free and open to the public. National and international photographers both mid-career and in the big leagues, including more well-known players like National Geographic, ESPN, and the New York Times, vie for a chance to show their work at this outdoor event. Gallery themes range across the board, including exhibitions with images of war or transgender struggles, as well as adoptable animals photographed with flower crowns or a look at the making of the musical, Hamilton.
In the first year of Photoville, during a scorching heatwave in June 2012, the festival was a lot smaller than it is today, only 27 metal containers. Laura Roumanos, co-founder of United Photo Industries (UPI), who produce Photoville, says it started as a “small idea,” growing mostly out of necessity. She and her other two co-founders, Sam Barzilay and Dave Shelley, were originally offered a 20,000 square foot space amid construction sites in the soon-to-be beautified Brooklyn Bridge Park when a much larger, 80,000 square foot space opened up. “As the park evolved, we evolved. We responded to the space we were in,” Roumanos remembered.
During the first year, the trio was introduced to one of those mid-career photographers, Brooklyn-based Russell Frederick, by their partners at the New York Times. They had almost completed the curation of all the photo galleries but the Times editor insisted they needed to meet Frederick. He was a young artist from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn who photographed the people of his community. At this point in time, no one had heard of UPI or knew what a success Photoville was going to be. For many artists they approached, they had to say, “trust us” and then take a leap of faith. It was similar with Frederick, who was out of town until Photoville opened, so he had to hand over his work completely and trust that the UPI founders would do his show justice.
When opening day rolled around, Frederick was there to greet attendees. He shook the hand of everyone who entered his gallery. He came back the next day, and the next, until the day Photoville closed. The team of Photoville volunteers were all on “Russell duty” making sure he had water and bathroom breaks.
Just over 40,000 people attended Photoville in its inaugural year; in 2017 (year six of the festival) they have more than doubled their shipping container capacity and attendees count. More than 92,000 people strolled through Brooklyn Bridge Park taking in the various works last year. The trio of UPI co-founders have worked hard to push the envelope that is art in public spaces, making it more and more accessible. “Photoville is not just a gallery show, it’s about the community,” Barzilay says. And the community is exactly why Russell Frederick set the bar that year, and why United Photo Industries strives to reach that level of community and artist interaction with every iteration of Photoville. “That’s the bar that we set, you gotta show up, you gotta be there.”
The Fence, another UPI large-scale outdoor show, is made up of community-submitted photos in the form of a banner hung on a fence. It’s now in seven cities around the world with millions of viewers yearly and aims to spark conversations while increasing access to art. That conversation, along with education, has become an important facet to the UPI experience. From Photoville, which offers a huge educational programming component targeted toward schools, emerging photographers, and photo educators, to the Fence and also their gallery space in DUMBO, you don’t have to know anything about art or photography to be part of the conversation or to have a meaningful experience. Shelley remembers during the second or third year of Photoville when a group of tunnel construction workers approached him as he was shutting down for the night. They asked, “What’s going on in there?” After Shelley explained it was a free photo festival with food trucks and programming, he said, “These guys came back every night for a week, got food from the food trucks and saw every show.”
All three founders agree: “Some of the work at Photoville can be very heavy, and very challenging,” Barzilay remarked. And that challenge, that spark of conversation, is exactly why they do it. Shelley testifies, “[It’s] opened up the arts world to a whole audience of people who have never gone to a gallery or museum.” And with a growing Photoville audience, plus the millions who see The Fence every year, that’s a lot of reach.
Photoville VII will be back under the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018, dates to be announced soon. You can still catch their current gallery show IMAGINARIUM by Claire Rosen through February 24th.
Just a seven-minute walk from the NYC Ferry DUMBO location (via the East River or South Brooklyn routes), the UPI gallery is located at 16 Main Street, Brooklyn. Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 11 AM – 6 PM, Saturday 12 PM – 4 PM, or by appointment. UPI yearly membership packages are available which helps this small, not for profit, vibrant arts organization produce all of their outstanding programs. Perks even include a special edition calendar of Gilbert, the UPI pup!