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Andy Warhol (hands in front of face) © Duane Michals

What if you invited Martin Parr, Joel-Peter Witkin and Duane Michals to hang out and they all said ‘yes’?

For this photography lover, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime

Joe Newman
May 14, 2018 · 5 min read

2010, Professional Photographer magazine published a list of what it dubbed were the “100 Most Influential Photographers of All Time.” Of course, lists like this spawn endless debates about who deserves inclusion and who doesn’t. How does Matthew Brady not make the list? Would Terry Richardson still make it if the list were put together today, post #MeToo?

Still, as lists go, this one was thoughtful and has stood up well over the past eight years.

All of which kind of blows my mind when I think about this next part: Three of the top 50 photographers on that list are appearing next month at a little thing that myself and a few friends are throwing in Washington, D.C., June 7–10.

Martin Parr (№10), Joel-Peter Witkin (№41) and Duane Michals (№45) are all speaking at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival, a festival that you can be excused for having never heard of as it existed only in my imagination at this time last year.

When festival co-founders Shamila Chaudhary, Chris Suspect and I first started talking about putting together a weekend of photography, I figured we’d do a couple panels with some notable local photographers and call it a weekend.

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O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, Ireland, October 1991. From ‘Bad Weather’ © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

I wasn’t thinking that Parr, one of the great documentary photographers of our time, would be one of the first three photographers to commit to our, at that point, very conceptual event. The other two, British music photographer Brian Griffin and American photojournalist Maggie Steber, are no slouches in their own right. You could even make a strong argument that Griffin should have been included somewhere on that top 100 list.

All the credit for that early coup goes to Suspect, an internationally-recognized street photographer who lives in the D.C. area, and who knew Parr, Griffin and Steber, personally.

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Meeting the Celebrity Silhouette cruise ship, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2016 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

And once you have a starting trio of that stature, it instantly ups your credibility.

Now, just a few weeks before the festival, our speaker list stands at more than 30 celebrated, award-winning photographers. It’s an impressive list for any festival, let alone one that boasts only one full-time staff member (me).

As a lover of photography, seeing Parr, Witkin and Michals show their work and talk about it, will be up there with being able to say I saw Michael Jordan play basketball in person or Tom Petty in concert (coincidently, both at the long demolished Miami Arena). It was pretty cool at the time but it means even more now knowing that the opportunity will never come again.

Parr, 65, is renowned for documenting the social classes of the United Kingdom, often humorously. He is a past president of the prestigious Magnum Photos collective and has published more than 100 photo books of his own and edited another 30. These days, he also leads a foundation that is curating the essential photographic works of the British Isles.

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The Great Masturbator and the Country He Rode in On © Joel-Peter Witkin

Witkin, 78, has been hailed as a master of surrealistic photography. Some of his most famous work makes use of body parts and cadavers and is the stuff that haunts your dreams. Yet, his genius is hard to deny. His work is held in the world’s top museums, including the Louvre and MoMA.

Michals, 86, is a pioneer in creating photographic narratives by using sequential frames and incorporating text with his images. A successful commercial photographer, he’s famous for making portraits of famous people, including Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, René Magritte and Maya Angelou.

As the years pass, we’ll have fewer of these opportunities when it comes to meeting some of the legendary photographers on that top 100 list.

Consider that of the top 50 names on the list, 23 are no longer with us; two of them — Mary Ellen Mark and Corrine Day — passed away after the list was published. Of the 28 who remain [photographers Mert Alaş and Marcus Piggott who collaborate under the name Mert & Marcus are on the list at №49 as one entry], six are older than 80, including two in their 90s. Another nine are in their 70s.

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This Photograph is My Proof © Duane Michals

As an organizer of the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival, I’ll get the chance to meet Parr, Witkin and Michals. But, actually, so will a lot of the people who attend the festival. They’re speaking in a room that seats about 300 people, so it’s a much more intimate setting than you might expect.

I won’t promise that they’ll pose for selfies with you but I’m not going to stop you from asking, if that’s your thing. I know I’m going to be less organizer and more fan boy when the time comes.

After Parr speaks, he’ll be signing books. You can be sure, I’ll be there with my copy of Life’s a Beach in hand.

Joe Newman is the CEO of the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. To register for the festival, CLICK HERE.

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