Photoville, New York’s annual open-air photography show, returns to the city for its 12th straight edition this weekend. On view through June 18, the free event offers more than 80 exhibitions across all five boroughs. On view will be work from hundreds of photographers—some up-and-comers, others award-winning artists and professionals.
More than 50 of the exhibitions will take place inside a series of shipping containers—the kind you see stacked like Legos on cargo ships—which will be laid out in Brooklyn Bridge Park for the first time since the 2019 edition of the event. (COVID precautions kept them from being used in the previous three years.) It feels right to have them back; the steel structures have become a symbol of the scrappy event and its aims.
Which is not to say that they’re perfect. Many are cramped and reverberant; some are dim and dilapidated from years of use. In other words, they look nothing like the sterile white cubes in which we’re used to seeing art photography.
That’s a good thing. For Photoville’s organizers, accessibility, not institutional polish, has always been the goal. They want to bring as many pictures to the public as possible, and the shipping containers—weather-ready, open 24-7—provide a simple solution.
“It’s about the stories,” said Laura Roumanos, one of Photoville’s three co-founders, ahead of this year’s event. “We could spend all this money on white walls and beautiful, multimillion-dollar installations or whatever. But that doesn’t matter.”
“It’s about the photography,” she continued. “It’s about the story. That is what’s important.”
Roumanos, a veteran event producer, said she had tears in her eyes when the first storage containers were laid back in 2012, for Photoville’s first edition. “It represented so much to us,” she recalled. “We fought so hard to make people realize that it was a really great place to show work.”
Back then, the show was modest. Roumanos and her fellow founders—Sam Barzilay and Dave Shelley—had, somewhat miraculously, been lent 80,000 square feet in Brooklyn Bridge Park for their nascent event, but the rest required work. So they launched a Kickstarter campaign and secured corporate sponsorships to raise the roughly $250,000 needed to get the festival off the ground. It opened with 20-some shows in a handful of containers.
But in the 12 years since then, Photoville has consistently grown: more artists, more exhibitions, more containers, more visitors. More boroughs, too: in 2020, the Brooklyn-centric show ballooned to the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. (The year before, Photoville’s organizers held an L.A. edition of the event, but the pandemic halted the expansion almost as soon as it started.)
This month’s show represents just how far Photoville has come. Going on display is a record number of exhibitions featuring the work of a record number of artists. The budget for the event exceeds $500,000, and visitor numbers are expected to top last year’s high mark of 1,000,000.
Crucially, the organizers haven’t cut moral corners in the name of growth. Photoville pays its staffers (there are no volunteers) and gives exhibiting artists honorariums. This year, it will finance “65 to 70 percent” of shows, according to Roumanos. The rest will be covered by sponsors—a group that includes , the Bronx Documentary Center, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among many others.
Inclusivity remains a major programming priority, even if the subject matter may alienate some. Many of the projects on view this year tackle big topics: gun control, gender identity, sex work, the environmental crisis.
A series of photographs by artist Stephanie Mei-Ling documents the impact of Child Protective Services investigations on families, while a body of work by Mackenzie Calle explores the historical exclusion of queer astronauts from the American space program. Jen White-Johnson’s “Autistic Joy” aims to give visibility to children of color in neurodiverse communities. “Guns, Love, Children, America” by Mel D. Cole depicts kids at an NRA convention wielding weapons like toys.
“We’re not just showing beautiful sculptures or paintings,” Roumanos said. “These are conversations.”