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For the past two years, I’ve attended the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago each September. For such a substantial and lively photography community, I have found Chicago’s festival and portfolio reviews to be remarkably warm and welcoming. Obviously, others feel the same way because it has had an amazing trajectory in its brief six-year history. The woman at the heart of this feat is photographer Sarah Hadley, the founder and Executive Director of Chicago’s Filter Photo Festival. I recently spoke to Sarah about how Filter Photo came to be, the keys to its success and her exciting plans for expanding it into the future.
As a native of Boston and member of a beloved art family in the city, would you briefly trace your steps from here to Chicago? What motivated you to become a photographer?
I grew up surrounded by art at the Gardner Museum and had always enjoyed painting and photography in school. I originally studied art history in college and then one summer I worked as an intern at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (back when it was in an old Fire Station on Boylston Street) and was blown away by a show of contemporary photography. That was definitely the turning point for me. It took me a few years, but I finally went back to school at the Corcoran College of Art and got a degree in photography. I worked at the National Gallery and the Library of Congress and as a photojournalist in Northern Virginia before moving to Chicago with my fiancé. He was from the Midwest and an aspiring actor and comedian, so that’s how we chose Chicago. I knew no one when I arrived and it was below freezing on the day we moved, but over the next 12 years, I came to love Chicago and especially the vibrant art scene.
How did you go from photographer to founding of the Chicago Filter Photo Festival? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
Two things really inspired me to start Filter: the first was that I kept going to portfolio reviews in other cities and couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t something similar happening in Chicago and the second was that I really struggled to find a photo community when I moved there. I finally opened a storefront gallery, which I ran for a few years and I met a lot of wonderful photographers and curators that way, but the Festival has really brought the community together.
What special role do you think the Festival plays in the large and vibrant Chicago photographic community?
The photo community embraced Filter from the beginning because there was a real need for something to bring all the different colleges, institutions, and photographers together. Almost everyone we reached out to was incredibly supportive and that helped us to gain momentum early on.
Would you describe what you do as Executive Director of Filter Photo Festival? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
I, along with my two co-directors, James Pepper Kelly (Managing Director) and Erin Hoyt (Director of Programming), all wear a lot of hats – from planning, strategizing and marketing to reaching out to VIPs, partners and sponsors. Now that we have 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit organization, I’m starting to work more on fundraising and membership to ensure the long-term sustainability of Filter. But glamorous as my title is, I still hammer the nails in the walls for most of the Filter exhibitions and pack lots of boxes at the end of every festival. The most fun for me is to meet photographers who come to the festival year after year and to see their projects evolve and careers blossom. It’s very gratifying when someone tells me an exhibition or book deal was the result of a meeting at Filter. Planning the festival is also enjoyable, as we try to invite new people each year and come up with interesting workshops and events we’d like to host. And I love finally getting to meet VIPs or photographers I’ve only known online.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake in undertaking Filter Photo Festival and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give to others who aspire to create a similar organization in their city?
I think no one understands just how much work goes into putting on a festival – there are just so many moving parts. Every year there are amazing things that happen that we don’t expect, and of course in 6 years, there have been occasional miscalculations on our part. I wouldn’t call them mistakes exactly, but there have been events that didn’t go exactly as planned and there have been things totally out of our control like weather delays, hotel issues and last minute schedule changes. Every year, we invite new reviewers, lecturers, and workshop teachers and we cook up new events, so there is no way to predict exactly how everything will go. In 6 years, we have learned a lot about what our attendees want to see and experience and how to manage the day-to-day operations so that the Festival runs smoothly. To anyone who wants to create a festival in their city I say, “Roll up your sleeves and the best of luck!”
What do you see as the advantages of a homegrown Festival over an organization such as the Magenta Foundation that comes into cities like New York, Boston and Pittsburgh to hold photography festivals?
I worked at both the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Terra Museum in Chicago and ran my own gallery before starting Filter, so I’ve known a lot of people in the Chicago photo community for almost 20 years now. I think it helps that we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the reviewers, sponsors and attendees and that we see them throughout the year at different events. We also try to highlight the exhibitions and accomplishments of our attendees, reviewers and cultural partners in our monthly newsletter and through social media. I have heard great things about the Flash Forward Festival, but I have no idea how the Magenta Foundation pulls it off in so many different cities.
There has been a rapid proliferation of photography festivals and associated portfolio reviews in the U.S. today. Reviews run the gamut from hoards of photographers and staggered reviews to the smaller juried venues. What function do the Filter Photo reviews serve in relation to others?
Filter is a medium-sized festival and one of our greatest strengths is that we really try to get to know everyone who comes to the festival personally and keep up with their careers and champion their successes. Because we three Directors are all photographers ourselves, I think we empathize with the struggle of making work and how hard it is to get it out in the world.
How do you juggle running the Chicago organization while living in Los Angeles? Do you ever envision expanding Filter Photo Festival to the West Coast? Or, do you think you’ll ever move back to Chicago?
The two other Directors, Pepper Kelly and Erin Hoyt handle the majority of things year round in Chicago and I go 3-4 times a year for several weeks at a time. I always say I started Filter as a way to keep me connected to Chicago and I’m there for at least 6 weeks every fall, so I still claim to be a part-time Chicagoan. I think living in LA gives me a good perspective on the national photo scene and has allowed me to foster relationships with some great reviewers and teachers on the West Coast. I also spread the word about Filter to all my photography friends here, who might not hear about it otherwise. I have no plans at the moment to create “Filter West” but you never know…
In its short 6-year history, Chicago Filter Photo Festival has gained enormous momentum. What effect has this region-wide embrace had on its evolution? In what directions is Filter Photo heading now?
Due to a very generous anonymous gift from a donor, we just opened Filter Space, a photo center in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in February, which we are sharing with LATITUDE (a fellow non-profit), so there are huge changes afoot. The photo community turned out in droves to “Context 2015”, our first opening a few weeks ago and I think they are as excited as we are to finally have a place to get together throughout the year. We are working on our events calendar now and plan to host exhibitions, workshops, artist talks, book signings, and other community events there.
For my review of the “Context 2015” exhibit, go to: http://elinspringphotography.com/blog/context-2015-filter-photo-chicago-filter-space-gallery-chicago/
For hours, directions and more information about the Context 2015” exhibition, which runs through March 27, 2015, go to: http://www.filterfestival.com/context-2015-2/
To learn more about Filter Photo Festival, go to: http://www.filterfestival.com/
Feature Image: J.K. Lavin talking to Executive Director Sarah Hadley (right) at the Filter Photo Festival Portfolio Walk (photo by Jeff Phillips).