This year's Photo LA had record-breaking attendance with an enthusiastic crowd joining host Graham Nash for its opening reception for the benefit of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Dealers typically reported mixed results, despite the heavy crowds.
Among those who reported positive results, Tucson dealer Terry Etherton told me, "We did fairly well at the show, better than last year and better than I expected. Among the photographs we sold were O. Winston Link's Hot Shot Eastbound, Danny Lyon's Crossing the Ohio, Joel-Peter Witkin's The Invention of Milk, Harry Callahan's color dye transfer of Eleanor and Barbara, Richard Misrach's prints from the Golden Gate Series, a group of platinum prints of Zoo Babies by Michael O'Neill, and an Elliott Erwitt of Valenica, Spain."
Etherton reported, "The material that sold best was classic images by well known photographers for the most part. We do have a sale or two pending. As for the audience, I think the LA crowd is not quick to make a purchase. We found that most buyers need to ponder the purchase for a while before they finally pull the trigger.
Etherton told me, "My most interesting pieces at the show that went unsold were: a unique Joel-Peter Witkin encaustic entitled "Abundance"--in my opinion, the best piece by Witkin I have ever owned. A stellar orotone by Edward Curtis entitled "The Old Well at Acoma." Pristine, bright, great frame. $20,000. A very nice group of contemporary tintypes by Robb Kendrick. They are all full-plate portraits of working cowboys. Stunning. Graham Nash and Weston Naef both liked them but we did not sell any. $2,800 each."
Bookseller Vincent Borrelli said, "Photo LA was very busy and catching up has been difficult this week. Overall, a really great show, in terms of attendance and sales."
Massachusett's dealer Mack Lee reported that he did "very well. Sales were strong. We saw a number of collectors, dealers, and curators that we've known, and we met some new collectors. We sold a mix of 19th-century American and European, Photo-secessionist prints, and 20th-century American including three color photos from the 1970s. We still have three or four sales pending. Contrary to the hoopla in the art and photography press, classic, vintage photographs by well-known photographers are selling better than ever. I showed six mammouth plate albumen prints by Watkins and two by Muybridge and I'm pleased with the response. I was glad to see a strong showing of local collectors, dealers, and curators as well as a number of buyers from the Midwest, and East coast."
At our own booth, Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd., we did not have our typical show. Sales at the show itself were relatively weak and mostly to other photo dealers, who could recognize a bargain and act on it. We had great feedback from the attendees, who often stopped to say that the work (especially Lisa Holden's big contemporary pieces) was the "some of the best" or "most interesting" at the fair. And we have three or four major pieces that are still pending sale. If they do ultimately sell (as I hope they will), then we had a well-above-average show. I did meet some good new collectors, but a number of important local collectors did not make it to the show. The media coverage was strong, and several publications used our booth and artists for illustrating stories.
Among the photos that we sold at the show were images by Ansel Adams, Eugene Smith, Brassai, Garry Winogrand and Elliot Erwitt. Classic work seemed to do best here, although we also sold Marcus Doyle's color contemporary prints and had tremendous interest in Lisa Holden's new color work.
Still available were some of my favorite classic choices, including two great Irving Penn's (that I thought at least a half dozen people would come back and buy), two Edward Steichen masterworks (Marion Moorehouse and May Pole), a unique vintage print of Horst's 'Barefoot', Man Ray's little gem ' Kiki behind a Giacometti Sculpture' (plus two other great Man Rays), two Lewis Carroll photographs, Francois Kollar's stunning Double-Impression of the Eiffel Tower, several Le Gray naval images, Carleton Watkins' mammoth-plate print of 'The Devil's Canyon Geysers', André Kertész vintage contact prints and oversized prints, a vintage and published 1938 Manuel Alvarez Bravo, several very reasonably priced Eugene Cuveliers, including a unique and published salt print (wait until you see the prices at Sotheby's on Cuveliers in April), a great vintage Edouard Boubat of "Jeune Fille Aux Fleurs (Lella)", strong vintage Brassai photos, and many other such important pieces.
L.A. artist and dealer Norman Kulkin told me, "I had a pretty good show in some ways. I sold 52 pieces. The 52 pieces went to 27 clients, some new, some old. My vernacular sold the best, especially since 98% of my inventory is in that category. The other 2% were my own--photograms and photographs from the past and present. It may seem like a lot of material that I sold, but the price range was mostly in the $50-100 range. I did sell two pieces at $800 each--one choice vernacular piece that was good enough to be a page in a book and one of my "photograms" from a few years ago."
New York dealer Tom Gitterman noted: "It is always a pleasure to be in Santa Monica in January. We did okay this year but not much to write home about. We sold to collectors that we have already sold to before and didn't make that many new potential clients. However, it is always good to re-connect in person with clients. We sold a few prints by some of our artists like Debbie Fleming Caffery and Arthur Aubry, but it was higher end vintage material like Cunningham and Atget that continues to support the business. We had a lot of admiration for the group of nine Charles Traub prints we hung in the center of our booth as well as our vintage FSA print of Walker Evans Cherokee Garage, our Jackson mammoth plate of Glenwood Canyon, CO, our Stieglitz large format gravure of Winter Fifth Avenue, our Le Gray of the Great Wave, our Tabard photogram and our Weston Dune from 1934."
Florence Penault of Gallery 19/21 confided that "the LA fair was not as good this year as it was last year. But who knows, next year it could win an OSCAR! Consistency is not a trait of this slippery city. We mostly sold contemporary black and white prints, and we expect more sales after the fair. And--we are crossing our fingers--there is still some interest in our European vintage prints.
California dealer Barry Singer was a little more blunt about his assessment of the show: "8,500 people came through--all the wrong ones." While I don't totally agree with Barry, I do understand his frustration. From a dealer's point of view the numbers that are the most important are sales, not audience.
French dealer Serge Plantureux, who was doing the show for the first time, posed the question, "After this show, should we advise young people to take this career? Or instead apply for a waiter's job at the Starbuck's cafe in Malibu?" Despite his sense of black humor, he did tell me that he sold over 20 prints, "mostly Greene, Man Ray, Blumenfeld Giacomelli and Cinema images." He also said that he felt there was a lack of organization about the show that needed to be improved a bit.
Numerous other dealers mentioned the unprofessional look of the Ace Gallery booth, which was still setting up while the show opened and which simply stacked oversized photographs 10 and 12 deep across two booths facing each other across an aisle, prompting some to draw unfavorable comparisons to discount stores (although the prices in this booth were certainly NOT inexpensive).
That, plus show management's choice of image to promote and market the show, drew lots of dealer ire in their responses to my email request for input. A number of clients also mentioned both situations.
But, all in all, it was a typical photography show, even in its erratic quality.