Cortona, Where Photography Brought A Town Back To Life

William Albert Allard, who for more than 50 years has graced the pages of National Geographic magazine with his vision, said that his exhibit at this year's Cortona On The Move photography festival "may be the best one ever." Photograph © 2014 by Donald R. Winslow
William Albert Allard, who for more than 50 years has graced the pages of National Geographic magazine with his vision, said that his exhibit at this year's Cortona On The Move photography festival "may be the best one ever." Photograph © 2014 by Donald R. Winslow

By Donald R. Winslow

CORTONA, ITALY (July 19, 2014) – Under the bask of the Tuscan sun it only took four years for the Cortona On The Move photography festival to become one of the world's most important, if not the most fun, annual events on the international photography scene.

It is important because of the photographers who are asked to speak, and because of the work that is shown, and for the respect the festival has for the photographs and how they are displayed. On the ramparts of ancient fortresses, inside vaulted-ceiling churches, through the wards of former mental hospitals, and on the walls of long climbing and twisting streets, contemporary work is shown alongside photographs by artists who have for decades earned the respect and admiration of the community.

It is fun because festival director and founder Antonio Carloni and artistic director Arianna Rinaldo, along with Albano Ricci and Nicola Tiezzi and the COTM staff, turn the provincial town of Cortona into a four-day photographic party that goes well into the morning hours. Quickly the gathered community feels like a family, not an audience or ticket holders, thanks to the deep hospitality of the staff as well as that of the townspeople. The shop keepers know very well that this town, almost dead only a few years ago, is very much alive today (and economically on more sound footing) thanks in great part to this annual photography gathering, created by Carloni in some way to combat the boredom of a dying town, but also to bring the photographic world to Cortona as a reason for himself to stay here and remain vibrant – instead of leaving, like most of Cortona's youth, for somewhere more exciting.

Carloni envisioned and created this festival from dust and an idea only four years ago. And then those serendipitous things happened that seem to only happen in best-selling books or Hollywood movies. Wait; it was, in fact, a book and then a movie. Frances Mayes wrote "Under The Tuscan Sun" in 1996 about discovering the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Hollywood snatched it up and massaged it into the 2003 romantic comedy by the same name (starring Diane Lane and directed by Audrey Wells). That same year the Tuscan Sun Festival of music and art was founded, and then Sting - yes, Sting – bought a villa down in the valley. American tourists, already flooding Italy every summer, quickly put Cortona on their itinerary. So by 2011, Cortona was fertile ground. And Carloni had the vision to plant just the right seed here: photography. 

What goes better in Italy than food, music, and photography? Rapidly COTM grew. And today it's a gathering where international photography editors do portfolio reviews for young photographers, students who in any other world would never have a chance to have their work critiqued by Kira Pollack, director of photography for Time magazine, or Lucy Conticello, photo director for M, the magazine of Le Monde in Paris, or Fiona Rogers of Magnum Photos, to name but a few. In the afternoons students sit in a piazza and share a beer or a snack with a legendary photographers like William Albert Allard, who for more than 50 years graced the pages of National Geographic magazine with the clarity and honesty of his vision, and who hesitates not a moment to share his wisdom gently, and laughingly, with the young ones. And then there are the exhibits, beautiful custom prints by photographers like Albert Bonsfills, Jacob Aue Sobol, Braschler & Fischer, Rob Honrstra and Arnold Van Bruggen, and Alvaro Laiz.

Speaking of exhibits, after five decades of having his photographs shown all around the globe, last night Allard stood staring at his large custom prints as they rested in hand-made frames on the walls of Fortezza Girifalco, a stone fortress high on the highest hilltop overlooking Cortona. "This may be the best exhibit I've ever had," Allard said to few friends. "Ever." It was a conclusion he shared again today during his presentation, which opened with some photographs from Paris dedicated to the late National Geographic photography department anchor Susan Smith, followed by a collection of images from his ventures into the American West. 

At 76, one cannot even begin to conclude that Allard's days behind a Leica are anywhere close to being finished. Watching him today, this is clearly a photographer (who is also a great writer) that has at least one – if not more – great stories that are yet to be told. He has a project in mind; no, he isn't ready to tell us about it yet. We will have to wait and watch.

Before a round of spirited applause Allard concluded his talk saying, "We're fortunate because we're trained, and can see things other people can't."

One of the festival's innovative and unique exhibits this year was Alessandro Penso's work about refugees. Its gallery was the interior walls of a tractor-trailer, an 18-wheel semi-truck. It was driven from Bari, in southeastern Italy, through Rome and other key European cities, to Brussels. "European Dream, Road to Bruxelles" literally and photographically told the refugees' tale, as at each stop the truck's back doors opened, stairs were attached, and the truck became COTM's mobile presentation. After Brussels it returned to Cortona to anchor the end of Via Nazionale, greeting new arrivals to town as the first photographs they could stop and see.

After two days of informative talks, the final panel discussion wrapped up today and featured Kira Pollack, Ben Lowy, and Time's latest addition to their photographic family, Olivier Laurent, who just left the British Journal of Photography to produce Time's LightBox photo feature on their Web site. They discussed mobile photography (yes, iPhones) and journalism, and Instagram and the lot, and where this might all be heading. The bottom line is that while today everyone behaves as if they are photographers, that doesn't necessarily make them journalists. They are, more accurately, witnesses. So there will always be a critical role for editors, as well as producers, but journalism in many respects depends on witnesses – but witnesses who can convey what they've seen back into the hands of competent journalists.

But back to the fun part. The big party tonight doesn't even start until 22h00, so it's a pretty safe bet that many of the crowd will actually see the Tuscan sun rising tomorrow as well.