Monday, July 6, 2009

West Fest Revisited: Houston Photographer releases book chronicling the historic Houston festival

posted by Free Press Houston @ 9:51 AM





By Shiraz Ahmed
Photos By Charles Tatum


A complete, unbiased account of the history of our city cannot be written with out the inclusion of West Fest, or its' latest incarnation, the Westheimer Block Party. The infamous music-and-art street festival that dominated Montrose twice a year began as an offshoot of the diverse-bohemian-alternative community that called the neighborhood home in the early 70's, and evolved in to what can only be called one of the largest, most exciting street festivals to have ever occurred in Houston. Local, self-taught photographer Charles Tatum II began attending and chronicling West Fest in the mid-nineties and continued through today capturing images at the most recent Westheimer Block Party. Last month he released his first solo-book project, "West Fest: Portrait of a Street Festival," containing over 400 full-color photos featuring the wildness and quirkiness that makes up Westheimer.
“West Fest is a great people-watching event, and four days a year (originally) and two days a year now, folks can come out and see their neighbors,” commented Tatum. “It's a big party, a big celebration.” The book certainly shows the spirit of Montrose and the wilder days of the festival, what Tatum refers to as the “vintage” West Fest photos. Flipping through, these images stand as hallmarks of the old days: a drag queen dressed as Tina Turner, a Pee Wee Herman impersonator, a man balancing a flaming chair on top of his head. “I wanted to create something to bring some of that wild Montrose spirit back to the fore - when high-dollar town homes started moving in, Montrose became a little more bland. I want to see more chicks in leopard-skin clothes. I want to see more spiked green hair.”
The book is a testimony to Tatum’s own talent as much as it is to the festival. Published through Blurb Publishers, Tatum was in complete control of every aspect of the book start to finish. “Everything you see in the book – the cover design, the commentaries, the layouts, the type selection, reviews of hundreds of photos, everything – all that is my work.” The evolution of Tatum’s book from film to final print is to be admired as an artist forging his own path in the world. The collection started out as just “a bunch of photos I took because I was having fun capturing all this wild, wacky color on film.” Long before Facebook and Myspace existed, amateur artists had to find other ways to release their art to the community. Tatum created his own website and then approached neighborhood hangouts to feature his work: Dietrich’s Coffee, Southmore House, 11th Street Café. Eventually, Tatum discovered Blurb Publishers at SXSW, a company that does on-demand publishing where the creation of the book is done entirely online. “I saw samples at their booth at the SXSW trade show and was blown away. I figured, let's do this. It's been much easier and freeing to control every aspect of the book myself. Why should I deal with sleazy hangers-on?”
The topsy-turvy tale of West Fest is well known throughout Montrose. “West Fest: Portrait of a Street Festival,” depicts the rise through community support, the fall due to tighter City control and property owner complaints, and the eventual triumphant resurrection as the Westheimer Block Party by Free Press Houston. The book also serves as a calling to bring the festival back to its former glory. “I guess the thing I've noticed about West Fest since its incarnation as the Block Party is that it's not as wild as it was during the 90's when I went. No drag queens. Almost no guys walking around shirtless. No reptiles. What happened to all that?” The book can be previewed and bought online at www.blurb.com for $94.95. Although the asking price may seem steep, 95% of it goes in to the printing of the actual book, and increased support of the book could lead to wider release. Maybe another small way to support the community and pay tribute to the past? “It's kind of like this: imagine I've taken all these cool photos and put them in a photo album. I give you the photo album to leaf through and you say you really like it. Then I tell you that you can keep the album. That's what this book is; it's a kind of neighborhood photo album covering a very special event.”

Check out Charles Tatum's work at www.ctphotoartist.com, and click here to purchase the book.

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