Issue #156  2/6/2009
Photo LA Kicks Off 2009 With a Large, Enthusiastic Crowd, But Moderate Sales

By Alex Novak

Photo LA is always the first major show of the year for the photography market, and, as such, provides a bit of a bellwether indicator of future business. This year, despite the general economic woes, the show drew very large audiences over its four-day run. Kicking off with a charity opening reception for the LACMA photography department, the exhibition drew what appeared to be many more important collectors than in a number of years, although several regulars were missing.

Despite the large (the exception was the Friday weekday) and enthusiastic crowds, sales were somewhat slow, although some dealers, including ourselves, reported better results than last year's show. Many dealers did say that buyers were taking their time in making decisions. They reported more Sunday sales and after-show activity than normal. While the feeding frenzy at art and photography shows seems to have died down, the actual buying is still there though, albeit at a more studied and serious pace.

Held this year, as it was last year, in the relatively new venue of the Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica airport, the show looked very professional and many dealers felt that the new location was an improvement.

Some dealers did reduce prices a bit and/or brought lower priced items; and most were willing to work with collectors creatively on terms, etc.

As Newport Beach dealer Susan Spiritus told me, "I actually did quite well and sold lots of my artists' works. My gallery was well situated and, as always in years past, had crowds all the time. People complained that my booth was always so filled with people that at times they couldn't get in. My most popular artists from my booth whose work drew most interest and sales were Cara Barer, Dar Spain and Camille Seaman. Additionally the work by Robert Turner sold well, as it always does, and also work by Roman Loranc, Jeffrey Becom and Cara Weston, granddaughter to Edward.

"I did sense that there was tremendous interest, but many were not buying due to the economy. In consideration of the economy, I did bring lower priced point items and did reduce some prices to make them more appealing for a faster sale. I also offer lay-away plans to my clients, which is attractive to some. I did not have high sales expectations for this year, so as not to be disappointed, but that proved not to be the case; and I left on Sunday with a result that made me very happy and satisfied. I did like the fair this year and love the new venue."

Mark Pinsukanjana of Modernbook Gallery said that "anything over $2,000 is harder to move due to the economic climate." He still did well, selling 30-40 photographs and over 50 books. Contemporary work and items under $1,000 were his big sellers. Pinsukanjana's final judgment on Photo LA? "It was a great fair."

Tom Gitterman was another dealer pleasantly surprised by the show. He said, "I can't believe I am saying this, but it was a good fair. The amount of sales we closed at the fair and the profit we made wasn't good, but we didn't expect much different. These are trying times. However, I was surprised at the amount of serious collectors we spent time with. There was one couple that had been collecting regularly for 30 years that I hadn't even heard of."

Unlike Spiritus, Gitterman noted, "We designed our booth to look as great as possible. We didn't edit for "recession" or a "lower end" fair. I think it worked in our favor. We spent time with serious collectors and curators, promoted our artists, the gallery reputation and made a few sales.

"Our mammoth-plate Watkins of Yosemite got a lot of attention because of the Getty exhibition and the two mammoth-plate W.H. Jacksons of Glenwood Canyon, CO, did as well. We did well with the Roger Mayne vintage prints of London in the 1950s and early 60s. There was a lot of interest in the work of the artists we exhibited this season--Josef Breitenbach and Daniel Masclet--and we continue to sell their work well. The group of nine vintage Siskind divers (Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation) got a lot of attention on our outside wall. I thought it was amusing that I heard two different people suggest that the photographer must have been aware of Robert Longo and Vik Muniz (how sad!). I was even surprised that several viewers responded positively to some of the more avant-garde work we hung, such as the Tabard of a dentist chair, an oversized early Kertesz distortion and a Man Ray of Meret Oppenheim. Our Arbus twins also drew a lot of folks initially to our booth. I guess that my experience is that is pays off to not underestimate one's audience."

Gitterman summed up, "The fair looked good; tall walls, good light, decent carpet and good food. The California sunshine sure helped as well."

Agreeing that the venue "was very nice", Florence Penault of Gallery 19/21, which is now based in Boston, told me that the show was initially "very slow. Then suddenly on Sunday it was very busy at the end. So it was not so bad after all." She sold 16 contemporary black and white silver prints and two vintage prints by Henry Cartier-Bresson and Mario Giacomelli.

Penault jokingly reported on one oddity: "We sold exclusively to women this time. They were quite enthusiastic! One of them, however, was reluctant to tell her husband about her purchase. And regular male collectors stopped by only to say, 'Hello. We are not buying this time'. They all looked a bit depressed."

She notes that she still has a number of interesting Giacomellis available.

Washington D.C. dealer Gary Edwards, who didn't have one of his better shows, still said, "I thought Photo LA was a model of efficiency and organization. The whole event and venue was attractive and dealer-friendly. The crowds were amazingly large, and I sold about ten photographs, but only two were in the four-figure range. I did not meet the expenses of the booth, let alone other expenses. However reluctant I am to lose money, I still enjoyed Photo LA, as I always have, and seeing old friends in the photo field including my fellow dealers, meeting some new collectors, and buying some important new vintage photographs for my inventory. Also, a January visit to LA and its 70-80 degree weather while the east coast was only10-20 degrees is a wonderful break in the year. And there was some strong interest in my best photographs that just might lead to important sales in the future. Besides the American salt prints that he is known for, Edwards also showed work by Man Ray and Francesca Woodman, some early Russian photographs, a Frith mammoth plate, and other 19-century images by W. J. Stillman, Felix Beato, etc.

Sid Monroe of Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, reported that: "Photo LA has consistently been a very good fair for us, both for sales and meeting new clients. This year we were a bit apprehensive as to what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised and had a very good fair. Attendance seemed to be the largest of any year, although many of our regular clients did not attend. Some who did told us they were "looking and taking notes" but not buying. However, almost all of our sales were to collectors new to us. We had many sales in the $2,000 - $7,500 range; and two in the higher end (over $10,000). I heard that some people were haggling for deals but somehow we did not encounter that."

"We brought selections that emphasized our focus on humanist and photojournalist imagery. We sold from two featured photographers in our booth: Stephen Wilkes, with his contemporary series from Ellis Island and China; and Eddie Adams, who took the famous Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph 'Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner'. We showcased a rare set of three vintage prints of this image: a frame taken just before, the actual execution and a frame just after. These were from Adams' personal collection, and generated a lot of talk and interest, and remain available. A documentary film on Adams life has been circulating the International Film Festivals, and the first book on his career, 'Eddie Adams: Vietnam' (Umbrage Editions, February 2009) have brought a lot of attention to his work.

"We also devoted a significant portion of our booth to 1960s photographs, including the Civil Rights movement, which sold very well. Sales were spread well across our selections, so we were very pleased."

Catherine Couturier, who owns Houston's John Cleary Gallery, told me that she "did fairly well at the show. It wasn't the best I've ever had (and a bit of a nail-biter by Sunday morning), but I've had much more success with follow ups than ever before. I think the serious buyers were making sure to see every piece in every booth before making a decision. They seemed to be on more of a budget and wanted to spend it the best way possible, which is why I think I've had so many follow ups--the collectors got home and realized they still had money left.

"One of the reasons I didn't make as much is because dealers didn't seem to be buying as much from each as in previous years, which, as a dealer, I can understand. I think we're hanging on to our pennies a little tighter as well.

"The most interesting work I had were the beautiful hand-coated silver prints on Gampi paper by Rita Bernstein and the platinum prints over gold leaf by Dan Burkholder. Both of those artists garnered a lot of attention because the prints are so unique and hand-made."

San Francisco's Robert Tat reported, "If everything sticks, I will have done alright. I was selling mostly less expensive pictures, under $2,000, and only a few higher priced pieces. I featured popular images and photographers, especially those that are well-priced. Interestingly, that was not what sold, but rather a cross-section of my usual eclectic inventory. If a couple of pending after-sales go through, this might be my best Photo LA ever.

"Collectors were definitely more cautious, with several regulars telling me they just had to pull way back this year. But as usual, what sold was the better material.

"Among the pieces of particular interest that I still have available are a set of signed vintage contact prints by Ruth Bernhard, mostly unique; an early 1970s print by Neil Selkirk of Diane Arbus's 'Burlesque Comedienne in her Dressing Room, Atlantic City, N. J. 1963'; and a vintage Lee Friedlander of 'Blaze Starr'."

Tat concluded, "Overall, I thought the show looked great. The venue was working well this year, with some of last year’s logistics problems ironed out. The crowds were good, even though buyers were fewer and cautious. Several of the more established galleries were not present, opening up space for some new players in the contemporary area."

Louis Klaitman, who shared a booth with Tatt, told me, "I sold about 10 photographs by various artists, but none over $2,500. Although there was much interest in the material that I brought to the show, I felt there were mostly lookers. Many attendees that in the past would have purchased a photograph or two appeared to be impacted in one way or another by the economic conditions."

Klaitman said, "My most interesting pieces were the ones from a Parisian photographer that I am representing, Cathleen Naundorf. I sold two of her photographs, and there were over a hundred inquires about her work. At times there were so many people looking at her photographs in the booth that everyone else was blocked from entering. In 1994 she struck up a friendship with Horst P. Horst and decided to dedicate herself to fashion photography. One of the photographs sold was a homage to Horst.

"The other photographs that attracted interest in my booth were Horst's 'Main Boucher Corset', a Weston Pepper printed by Cole Weston at $12,000, an Annie Leibovitz vintage photograph of Baryshnikov for $8,000, a fantastic Weegee circus triptych for $8,500, a small vintage Carlotta Corpron of a double-exposed Chambered Nautilus at $8,000, as well as a collection of unique photographs from Iosef Berman, a Romanian news photographer who was active in the early 1920s until his death in 1941 (ranging in price from $700 to $2,500)."

Klaitman noted, "In general I thought the show was much better organized than the past. The Wednesday move-in was great, and the attendance was fantastic--the best I have seen."

LA dealer Michael Dawson reported that "it was a tough show all round: lots of people but few buyers. The pattern of this show was different than most shows for me. I sold only one $600 print through Sunday morning, and then I sold a Judy Dater for $5,000 and a Teske for $6,000 on the last day. That is the first time I have done any business on the last day of this show. Yesterday I sold a $12,000 Richard Misrach split-toned image from the 70s that was shown at Photo LA. With these sales my take at Photo LA went from disaster to almost breaking even."

In my own company's booth (Contemporary Works/Vintage Works), we showed a strong group of mostly 20th-century master work by major photographers. While the pieces, on the wall at least (we had more in our bins and boxes), were certainly not in the low range of this fair, we had tremendous interest and strong sales. We sold vintage work by Jacques Lowe, Andre Kertesz, Sabine Weiss and Wynn Bullock, although we have additional work from each of these master photographers available. We also sold three nice Roger Fenton Crimean War images from our boxes of 19th-century material. I also featured the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and sold two strong pieces to two different collectors. The trick is a simple one: good value for top work.

We also sold contemporary work by Arthur Tress from his newly released series of female nude studies of Twinka at Arles, France, and three works by modern landscape master, Mitch Dobrowner, including one of his large triptychs of "Shiprock Storm" (there is also interest in an additional one), which is fast selling out. Lisa Holden's new large-scale color series on Lilith (we showed "Lake" and "Bathers") grabbed a lot of attention, and we still have strong interest in one of the pieces. Limited edition artist books by both Arthur Tress and Lisa Holden were also sold.

Unsold, but gathering lots of scrutiny and praise were Irving Penn's "Woman in Bed", Robert Mapplethorpe's "Legs, Lisa Lyons", Horst's "Barefoot", Aaron Siskind's large Untitled Abstraction (a rare Egan exhibition print), and our vintage groups of Josef Sudek and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

We actually did better at this year's show than last year's, and I still have a few potential sales straggling out there. As other dealers noted, I also found the crowds this year to be much more serious buyers, but who rightfully took their time in making a decision. We always bring a fairly broad range of material to these fairs, and I did not see any particular trend in the buying pattern that was substantially different than in the past. Buyers were still buying lower end through upper end pieces, although admittedly a lot more decisions were made on the last day of the show and even well after the show.

LA artist/dealer Norm Kulkin said, "I feel like I did well at this year's Photo LA, I sold 35 pieces at varying prices. My favorite sale was one of my own collage works. The 34 pieces other than my artwork were all vernacular ones. They were highly "selected" and fortunately irresistible. One woman bought ten of them."

"At times I wished the 10,000 or so people at the show would all chip in a penny and buy one piece to share among themselves in one-day turns for a while. The financial picture was a snapshot that everyone had in their wallet."

Stephen Cohen, who runs Photo LA but also exhibits there with his own gallery, emailed me after the show: "I don't know how most people did. My gallery did okay at the fair, but we had about four follow-up sales a few days later, and I am working to finish up two sales that, if they happen, will make this my best fair ever. Some dealers told me they did well and others that they broke even, and some didn't do well at all -- the usual for an art fair.

"We had a lot of interest in our contemporary photographers: Ferit Kuyas (China) and Gerald Forster (couples coupling in the night). As usual, there was A LOT of interest in Nick Brandt, and we expect a good deal of follow up. In fact, the sale I referred to that I hope to complete soon involves two very large and expensive prints of his.

"We also sold some (new to us) Japanese vintage pictorial work by Ogawa Gesshu. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art purchased two pieces and there was strong interest by another institution and an important private collector. We will have a vintage Japanese show in the spring with this work and three others.

"Objectively, I think this was the best looking Photo LA ever. The general quality of the work, the presentation by the exhibitors and our production of the fair all worked well to make it a very positive statement about the state of the photography market. It's still alive and--knock wood--if the first two weeks of January for my gallery are any indication, the year is getting off to a great start. I just wish we had it after the inauguration. I think ART LA will benefit from the confidence that will bring."