EXHIBITION

October 16, 2020

CITY OF IMAGES

Photography and words | Karin Svadlenak Gomez

For the third year in a row, the small town of Baden near Vienna has become an outdoor photography gallery. Billed as the largest European photography festival, the exhibitions are spread all across downtown Baden's streets and parks. In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, there could not be a more ideal setting for a "museum visit" than to stroll around in the open air, enjoying the outstanding photography and the greenery, stopping in between for coffee and cake in one of Baden's many coffee houses. I visited on a warm September afternoon, when people were still lounging about on picnic blankets and in outdoor cafes.

Baden is a small town just 26 km south of Vienna with a long history as a spa town because of natural thermal springs in the area. Architecturally the old part of town is also very pretty, featuring villas and buildings built largely during the Biedermeier period, after a fire in 1812 destroyed much of the old city. Because of the hot springs and the woods surrounding it, it has always been a popular destination for recreation seekers coming from Vienna, including the imperial family. In the 19th century, a railway connection was built to Vienna, making it easily accessible for thousands of Viennese, and this connection is still running today. The tram-like Badner-Bahn makes it from the Vienna Opera to downtown Baden in about an hour.

But apart from the pleasant hiking, walking, and bathing opportunities, once a year in the summer, the city itself becomes a work of art. The photo festival La Gacilly-Baden turns Baden's already quite pretty streets, squares and parks into a veritable feast for the eyes.

The Baden photo festival is now in its third year, originated by Lois Lammerhuber, one of the most important contemporary photographers in Austria, as a twin exhibition to the one held at La Gacilly in Bretagne, France every year. In La Gacilly, this photo festival has been celebrated since 2004. The photos shown in Baden are those shown in La Gacilly the previous year.

This year's motto in Baden is "Never Give Up" - could there have been a better title for an exhibition in this pandemic year 2020?! The motto includes two narrative circles: “Renaissance” and “All Eyes East”. Renaissance or rebirth stands for the commitment and awareness of the exhibiting photographers to dedicate their work to our planet, but also for hope: the hope for change, for a better world. The view towards the East (East from Europe, that is, and also the political "East"), refers to the remarkable creative turnout of contemporary photography in Russia and former Soviet Union states. The displays of the exhibition provide insights into the diverse and historically rich east of Europe.

With a plea for peace, tolerance and togetherness, the two festival narratives are visualised by 31 photographers, a photography collective of the Lower Austrian State photography guild and 13 schools. There are 2000 photographs on display, and I can show only a small fraction here.

The French festival originator Jacques Rocher is the son of Yves Rocher, who managed to create a global cosmetic brand with organic products with his company based near the village of La Gacilly. Back in 2004 Jacques Rocher realised his idea of a photo festival in La Gacilly, dedicated to the subject of people and the environment. "Major environmental and social challenges lie at the heart of the La Gacilly Photo Festival and have shaped its programme for 17 years now, raising awareness and enlightening the world through the photographer’s lens," says Jacques.

The exhibited photo series have a strong humanistic orientation, showing humans in their home environment, but also showing the impact humans have on earth, often in quite disturbing ways. The images are a socially relevant merging of artistic photography and photojournalism.

Apart from the high quality artwork and the topical interest, the photo festival is so delightful because of the way the art is integrated into and interacts with constructed and natural elements of the city. A tree shadow falling on a building-sized photograph, filtered sunlight illuminating exhibition paths, and coffee shops and picnic spots throughout the city, from which the viewer can admire the photography and take in the special ambience at leisure. To see all of the exhibitions takes several hours, and so it is a good idea to take it in small doses and return, a second, perhaps a third time, to absorb it all. The festival extends over a length of 7 kilometres, divided into a “garden route” and a “town route”, so you had better put your walking shoes on.

Embedded into the lovely rose garden, right next to the Orangerie at Doblhoff park, are amazing large reproduction of colour photographs taken in tsarist Russia. The rose garden itself is also worth a visit during the flowering season, with some 900 species of roses blooming at different times.

Apart from the work of well established photographers, the festival also makes room for contributions of some emerging talents in partnership with Fisheye Magazine. This initiative is showcasing new photographic output on the theme of New Frontiers. There are also works of local amateurs from Lower Austrian schools and from the guild of photographers on view.

One of the homegrown contributions to the festival is the exhibition DU BIST KUNST. Using the hashtag #dubistkunst (you are art), an Austrian art TV programme (kulturMontag) teamed up with renowned Austrian art museums and called on photographers to join with their creations. A set of quirky reinterpretations of classic masterpieces is exhibited in Doblhoffpark. Think Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and co.

The photo festival La Gacilly-Baden is on view until 26 October 2020. It is open air and free of charge to visit. For anyone in or around Vienna, or near the original location in France, I highly recommend a visit. You will be astonished, impressed, saddened, delighted, and amused.