COVER- Picture this!: Festival of the photograph comes into focus

When the Hook last left photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols, in 2004, he was relaxing in a camp chair by the Moorman's River, discussing an elaborate book project documenting his trans-Africa trek with ecologist J. Michael Fay, and describing his next National Geographic assignment to the Grand Canyon. As he looked across the water, Nichols also mused that someday he'd like to start a festival of the photograph in Charlottesville.

Three years later, that Grand Canyon assignment has not only appeared inside the yellow bordered monthly but also arrived on bookshelves as The Last Place on Earth. And now Nichols, elbows resting on his kitchen table, is leaning forward with a phone at his ear and studying an open laptop computer. If all goes according to plan, his musings will come to life as "Look 3: Festival of the Photograph" transforms downtown Charlottesville into an ode to the still image.

The seed that sprouted into what Nichols says will be "three days of peace, love, and photography" (June 7-9) lies in Nichols' tradition of holding open-mic-style slideshows in his backyard. As a young photographer, he started hosting the gatherings in his Berkeley, California, apartment. He and his wife, Reba Peck, shifted the parties outside after moving to Charlottesville in 1989.

"Every time it was great because you'd have the really famous photographers and some up-and-coming photographers," he says. "And then out would come the baby pictures and vacation shots."

Such an egalitarian approach occasionally had its downside– like one year's "painful" spectacle of slide after slide of dripping water. Also, because invitation was by word-of-mouth, every year the party expanded— to the point where Nichols and his friends began fund-raising just to finance it. At Nichols' last slideshow in 2005, approximately 500 people turned up on his doorstep. 

Local photographer Jon Golden, who offered technical support to the last few backyard bashes, urged Nichols to consider using the party's momentum to create something similar to "Visa pour l'Image," a two-week-long photojournalism festival held in Perpignan, France.

But Nichols resisted. He knew he lacked the business acumen, and he feared such an undertaking would distract from his own photographic pursuits. "It was so much work to have that party that to think of taking it to a formal state was just too scary," says Nichols.

Enter SNL co-founder Jessica Nagle, who was one of the guests at Nichols' 2005 slideshow. Although not a photographer, she was wowed by what she found in his backyard. "What appealed to me was the sharing of the work," she says, "the fact that there was a give and take among all these artists." 

When Nichols learned of Nagle's interest, the two met and soon put together a tentative budget for a festival. They approached Virginia National Bank for seed money. "When they said yes," Nagle recalls, "I said, ‘Uh-oh, here we go.' And then it went to mach speed, and everything cranked up."

A year and a half later, Nichols says, "We're on the home stretch enough to know we're actually going to pull this off."

 When June 7-9 finally arrives, Look3's planners hope to have turned downtown Charlottesville into a "living image." Nichols' wildlife photographs will loom in the trees, giant images will flash on the sides of buildings, and storefront windows will light up from dusk to late night with photographs from publications around the world. 

The Festival of the Photograph's major gallery shows— William Albert Allard's "Five Decades" retrospective at Les Yeux du Monde, Sally Mann's "The Given: Studio Work" at Second Street Gallery, and Eugene Richards' "Thirteen Books" at the McGuffey Art Center— will open June 1, along with peripheral exhibitions by Steve McCurry (he who snapped National Geographic's immortal photo of a young Afghan girl) at the Charlottesville Transit Center, and by Rebecca Norris Webb at the Charlottesville Community Design Center. In addition, Lynn Johnson's poignant photos exploring hate crimes will hang in one of the downtown parks.

Supplementing these public events, Look3 pass and ticket holders will have access to successive evenings of interviews with Allard, Mann, and Richards, conducted by NPR's Alex Chadwick in the Paramount Theater. The Festival will also offer master classes, video screenings, and other midday events. Plus a venue entitled "YourSpace" will allow those who feel creative to upload, print, and display their own work (provided it addresses the unofficial festival theme, "serendipity"), continuing the anybody-can-show spirit of Nichols' backyard parties.

On June 8, the Ix Building will host "Shots," a "mammoth screening/bash" presenting the work of selected emerging photographers. And the Festival will conclude Saturday night at the Pavilion with "Works," showcasing cutting-edge international photographers and featuring music by the Hackensaw Boys.

For his part, Nichols is exhausted and says, in the future, "I think we have to accomplish things with about 90 percent less energy and angst." But then he smiles, noting, "Compromise can lead to mediocrity. We're making something that's worthy of the town.

"If we can come out of it with everybody feeling like there was a moment of time there in Charlottesville where we all came together," he says, "it will all be worth it."

For more information about Look3: Festival of the Photograph and/or to purchase tickets or festival passes, visit


Festival of the Photograph Board of Advisors David Griffin (Director of Photography National Geographic), Kathy Ryan (Photo Editor NY Times Sunday Magazine),and Melissa Harris (Editor Aperture magazine)meeting in Charlottesville October 2006.
Photo by Ian Nichols



Due to a run-on sentence I wrote with a lack of key punctuation, in editing the two-volume THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH became conflated with the National Geographic article about the Grand Canyon, "The Unexpected Canyon." They are two completely separate project. THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH deals strictly with Fay's and Nichols' African Megatransect. Again, I am sorry for the confusing writing that led to the mistake.