Then and Now: The Festival in Photographs
My first introduction to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was as a child in the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. The program that got me hooked was Working at the Smithsonian in 1996: I remember it was one of the most interactive and informative exhibits I had ever seen, presented in such an engaging way that I knew I would be back. In 2010 I returned as a volunteer photographer, then as a summer intern, and now as a digital imaging specialist.
In October 2014 I was hired to work in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections to digitize twenty-five years’ worth of 35mm color positive sides from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Records, covering 1967 to 2003. The task was immense: there were over a hundred binders filled with thousands slides. I processed 31,956 of those, which needed tender care and archival rehousing before they could be digitized.
Going through the collection, I noticed that documentation increasingly become a major part of the Festival production. In the early years, there were some Smithsonian photographers as well as outside contractors photographing the Festival. Eventually the Smithsonian’s Office of Photographic Protective Services was responsible for documentation, leading to some of the best captured moments in Festival history. Today we have a team of volunteer photographers and a team of digital media specialists who help to preserve and promote the materials.
What is important to distinguish about these photographs from other collections is that this represents documentation—not photojournalism. The collection follows traditional methods of ethnographic fieldwork to present a clear representation of the Festival, the communities participating, and the cultures they represent. The photographs collectively have a timeless quality that sets them apart from a customary festival, as they contain introductory fieldwork, initial production and site development, and engagement between audience, participants, and curators.
I have always considered myself a traditional-style photographer, influenced by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. While working at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I have looked at over 150,000 digital image files, and they have made a significant impact on how I view life through the lens.
I notice that I position people differently in the frame, focusing on getting as much information in the photograph as possible. I’ve shifted what my primary subject is when it comes to documenting festivals, to capture interactions between audiences and performers. Capturing those memorable moments ensure that the people and cultures preserved in the archives for as long as conceivably possible.
The photographs from this collection have been used over the years in education materials, research publications, and now in social media. I have no doubt that in another 50 years, the materials and the cultures documented and presented at the Folklife Festival will still be an invaluable resource.
Even after examining so many images, I am still astounded by what we capture each year. It just goes to show that with the hard work of all of the staff and volunteers, the Folklife Festival truly does demonstrate the timeless traditions and cultures which make this country and all communities of the world simply amazing.
Josh Weilepp is a digital imaging specialist contractor in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is also the photo documentation coordinator for the Folklife Festival.