Artistic relief: Cleveland Photo Fest brings cutting-edge photography exhibits to the city

After a year of uncertainty, a team of local photographers are bringing artistic relief to Cleveland with the 2021 Cleveland Photo Fest (CPF). “Unity Through Photography”is the perfect motto for CPF, as the event aims to bring professional and amateur photographers together in artistic expression. After a year of planning, Laura D'Alessandro, Jim Szudy, and Herb Ascherman, Jr. are finally staging CPF. 

<span class="content-image-text">Jim Szudy - Sam Norton</span>Jim Szudy - Sam NortonThe festival is set to begin with its first event on Saturday, May 1st, followed by a calendar full of differently-themed photography exhibits, interactive media installations, and other socially-distanced events. CPF runs through Wednesday, June 30. 

The announcement of this year’s CPF garnered several hundred submissions, says Ascherman. “It was a major effort, of which we are extremely appreciative,” he says. The Botwick Design Art Initiative, 2729 Prospect Ave., is the anchor location for CPF Photothon, which includes the exhibits I Identify As—"Where participants photograph a randomly selected partner of a different racial background;”  Furtography—“a show for the dogs, in their noblest and most elegant;” Dear Diary—"show us your secrets, for women only;” and Deja Nude—“Upbeat, enlightened, and just plain fun nudity.” The exhibits will run the length of CPF.  

In addition to the Botwick, more than 40 venues will also host installations and works of art throughout the festival’s eight-week run. 

Venues include Prama Art Studio in Parma, The Bonfoey Gallery downtown, BayArts in Bay Village, and the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland on Detroit Avenue. Special events and guest speakers are scheduled at the Botwick every Thursday night

Coinciding with the special Thursday night programs, multimedia artists will also be showcased with experimental music soundscapes, and projections of 2D and 3D imagery throughout the Botwick gallery spaces. “Another dynamic aspect [is] we are involving different local artists that wouldn’t usually have that platform to showcase their artistry—encompassing more and more as we go along,” explains Szudy of the musicians and sound technicians involved. 

In 2019, the CPF team came together after photographer and educator D'Alessandro felt that Cleveland needed more photography exhibitions and asked herself, “Where is all of the photography? We need to bring the community together.”

<span class="content-image-text">Karen Novak - Sadie</span>Karen Novak - SadieD’Alessandro then approached Ascherman—a stalwart in the photography world for decades who started the first nonprofit photography gallery in Cleveland in the 1970s. After an exchange of ideas and the common desire to bring the arts community together, D'Alessandro and Ascherman agreed something needed to be done. 

Through mutual friends in the art world, Szudy came on board to assist. A photographer, a multimedia technician, and a musician, Szudy was a perfect fit for the trio. The first CPF exploded on the scene within six months when it launched in 2019.  “The organization had 21 exhibitions throughout the city at 16 different locations, and 256 different photographers,” says Ascherman.

From CPF’s founding, the team was flooded with support from art galleries, curators, and even print houses offering their services. Then came the COVID-19 Pandemic. “Our biggest hurdle and factor was the unknown,” reflects Ascherman of just how the team navigated getting CPF off the ground for the 2021 event.

This year’s festival has grown even bigger with multiple locations throughout the Cleveland area. The team says they believe in Cleveland and they want to bring the city together in the celebration of art. “We are a city-promoting organization,” says Szudy.  “We have Cleveland at our forethought and our concept.”  

While art show openings typically include food and beverages, the current times call for things to operate a bit differently. “There will be none of the accessories to major gallery openings,” says Ascherman, describing the different feel of the upcoming events without the cocktail party additions. “We are really concentrating on the art. There is definitely a new paradigm in the art world.” 

As the openings approach, the team feels that with the proper protocols of mask mandates and distancing within the galleries, the events will be a safe and welcome respite. “People really want to get out,” says Ascherman. “And if we can do this in a socially responsible manner, we can all do this as a community social event.”

Rebecca Groynom
Rebecca Groynom

About the Author: Rebecca Groynom

Rebecca Groynom is a freelance writer, photographer, and resident of Cleveland Heights. In addition to writing for Fresh Water Cleveland, she has been published in several scientific journals, and her photography has been showcased in exhibitions throughout the US.