Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Unlikely International Photography Scene and How It Came to Be Is Examined In New Book

The Inside Story of the Visionaries Who Made It Happen

BY Haley Berkman Karren // 07.10.23

1970s Houston may have seemed like an unlikely place for an international photography community to develop — but according to Tracy Xavia Karner, it was a dream waiting to come to fruition.

Karner’s new book titled Making a Scene! How Visionary Individuals Created an International Photography Scene in Houston, Texas (Schilt Publishing) tells the story of how Houston became a top city for creating, collecting and exhibiting photography.

In particular, the book focuses on Anne Wilkes Tucker‘s curation of a world-renowned collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin’s founding of FotoFest, now an internationally recognized festival and how a small cooperative of artists grew Houston Center for Photography into a model nonprofit. All this and more is detailed through in-depth interviews with members of the arts community, paired with archival documents and photographs.

I chatted with Karner, an associate professor and department chair at the University of Houston’s sociology department and an expert on visual media, to learn more.

The front cover of <em>Making a Scene!</em> shows opening night of the FotoFest Biennial 2020 exhibition "African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other," at Silver Street Studios. (Photo by Os Galindo, courtesy FotoFest) DISPLAY SETTINGS
The front cover of Making a Scene! shows opening night of the FotoFest Biennial 2020 exhibition “African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other,” at Silver Street Studios. (Photo by Os Galindo, courtesy FotoFest)

Haley Berkman Karren: This book is a love letter to the photography scene in Houston. What inspired you to write it?

Tracy Xavia Karner: I found the scene when it was in ‘full flower’ — around 2005. It was a vibrant, active community of talented photographers, committed donors and passionate collectors. As a visual sociologist, I’ve always been drawn to photography, so this community was an instant fit for me. I joined Photo Forum, the photography support group at the MFAH, and the Advisory Council at HCP, and attended all the photography events I could. 

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When Anne began talking about retiring, and then Wendy and Fred stepped back from FotoFest, it occurred to me that we might lose the oral history of how this amazing community came to be. I had just finished a project, and thought this might be a good one for me to take on.

Little did I know it would take me 10 years to do so. But if I’d waited any longer, I might not have been able to interview Fred Baldwin, Clint Willour and Petra Benteler, who have since passed, and their stories would have been lost. 

What made you the right person to tell the narrative of the past half-century of the photography scene in Houston?

As a sociologist, I’m trained to study communities — how ‘scenes’ develop and either flourish or whither.

When I came to Houston and discovered FotoFest, the photography department at the MFAH, and Houston Center for Photography, I was impressed and intrigued because Houston seemed like an unlikely place for such an important photography community to develop. Anne Tucker arrived in Houston in 1975, and Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin moved here in 1980.

Somehow they had a vision and made it happen.

Initial FotoFest staff members: Petra Benteler, Fred Baldwin, Harla Kaplan, and Susie Morgan at Benteler Gallery, 1985 (Courtesy Harla Kaplan)
Initial FotoFest staff members: Petra Benteler, Fred Baldwin, Harla Kaplan, and Susie Morgan at Benteler Gallery, 1985 (Courtesy Harla Kaplan)

What was the writing process like? 

It was fascinating. It was like unraveling a mystery as I searched for how this photography community developed. I wanted to trace ‘who did what and when’ to make it successful. I began by interviewing Anne Tucker, and then continued to interview anyone I could find that had been involved in the early days of promoting photography in Houston.

I also spent hours in the MFAH archives reading through Anne’s early correspondence with photographers and galleries, and her curatorial and exhibition notes. I loved finding the wall text from a companion exhibition to Anne’s first Target Collection of American Photography exhibition that attempted to explain the difference between photography and art photography. That is a conversation that is still going on, and it was wonderful to see how it was articulated in the 1970s. 

I also spent time at the Menil Collection archives, where I was able to find a lot of the FotoFest materials. Not only were they very interesting, but they showed how well Wendy and Fred kept their supporters informed. There were long handwritten letters, sometimes on fancy hotel stationary, from Fred to Dominique de Menil. 

I went through boxes in the back room of Houston Center for Photography, where I found exhibition files including images from the infamous NASA exhibition and fundraiser that all the astronauts attended. Archives are this amazing view into the past.

For me, they are like a treasure hunt. You never know exactly what you will find, but the hunt is exhilarating.

It is safe to say that the photography revolution began with Anne Tucker, who is heavily profiled and quoted in your book. What was it like spending extensive time with her, and even going through her letters, personal photos, and archival documents? 

Spending time with Anne and learning about her life was a pleasure. I had, of course, admired her accomplishments and knew her socially from photography events.

Interviewing Anne was an insightful experience, particularly about her early life. Perhaps most striking was the fact she had been raised by a blind nanny who was always asking her to describe what things looked like. This fostered Anne’s skill of attending to visual elements and retaining them for recall, which she used throughout her career. 

One of my favorite moments with Anne was when she invited me to go through her personal archive of photos to select images for the book. We sat side-by-side, looking through her flat files, seeing some photographs she made, her family photos and images of her by numerous photographers — including the contact sheet from her sitting with Irving Penn.

Anne Wilkes Tucker, 1984 (Courtesy Gay Block)
Anne Wilkes Tucker, 1984 (Courtesy Gay Block)

Who did you enjoy interviewing the most? Are there any fun interview stories that you would like to share?

I enjoyed talking with everyone I interviewed. They were all such interesting people with varied backgrounds and different careers. 

While I interviewed Anne the most times, I had the longest interviews of my entire career with Wendy and Fred. They had both had so many adventures in life and photography with so many stories to tell. I was just riveted. 

I was so lucky to interview Fred, Clint Willour and Petra Beneteler before they passed. They each played an important role in the photography community. I was able to travel to Germany and interview Petra in her home. She was so gracious and just delightful. We spent three days together going through her memories of her gallery in Houston and her involvement with starting FotoFest. Petra still had all the press clippings from the first FotoFest biennial in 1986 — a testament to how important that time was to her.

The MFAH organized a fantastic book launch and panel with Anne Tucker, Wendy Watriss and you. It was incredible to see these dynamic women speaking about how they nurtured the photography scene. What do they think of the book?

They have both been quite complimentary and have talked about how good it is to have this community documented in a well-researched book. I did ask them both to read early drafts for accuracy, so they were integral to the process all along. The book really is a collaborative work. Anne and Wendy nurtured and created the Houston photography scene — I just documented it.

What surprised you the most about writing this book? 

There was so much about the early days that I had been unaware of. 

When I was starting the process, I told Wendy that I wanted to write about this community built by women  — her and Anne. Wendy quickly disabused me of that notion. And indeed, after doing the research, it became clear that FotoFest was originally Fred’s project. Wendy was always involved, but more in the background, until the mid 1990s when she took a more active role. 

I was also unaware of how important Petra Benteler had been to the beginning of FotoFest, and that she had opened what is thought to be the first European photography gallery in the US in Houston in 1980. Reading all the newsletters and interviewing all the early Houston Center for Photography members made it seem like such a tight group of friends, eager and hungry to know more and do more with photography. I felt such a passion for the medium come through the early writings.

And, it surprised me a bit how much I enjoyed doing archival research. This is my first project to use archives so extensively, and I’m totally hooked now.

Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin in their Houston darkroom looking at slides in their Menil Collection house, 1980s (Courtesy Wendy Watriss)
Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin in their Houston darkroom looking at slides in their Menil Collection house, 1980s (Courtesy Wendy Watriss)

What is the biggest lesson you learned from writing this book?

The importance of events. When people gather around a common shared interest, magic can happen. 

Many of the turning points in the story happened because people were in the same space at the right time. Anne’s mother came to a talk at the MFAH that led to Beaumont Newhall recommending her daughter to the director. Wendy and Fred met at a party. Donors came forward after attending an impressive exhibition at the MFAH and FotoFest. Many of the early HCP folks met in photography classes taught by Geoff Winningham at Rice or George Krause, Ed Hill, or Suzanne Bloom at University of Houston. 

Given the COVID-related shutdown and social isolation, I think this lesson is even more poignant now. I hope Houston will have more events and parties that bring people together. . . and of course, I hope lots of them will focus on photography, as I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Making a Scene! How Visionary Individuals Created an International Photography Scene in Houston, Texas by Tracy Xavia Karner is published by Schilt Publishing, and is available in stores and online for $40. 

Author’s note: Haley Berkman Karren is an independent curator and writer as well as an art advisor and appraiser with Karren Art Advisory. She focuses on modern and contemporary art, photography and digital art. She is a former curatorial assistant at the Menil Collection and has contributed to Houston Center for Photography’s Spot Magazine and juried the HCP exhibition Learning Curve 11.

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