"Much better than we expected." That was the verdict delivered to me by most galleries and dealers as the 20th edition of Paris Photo drew to its close in The Grand Palais on the 13th of November.
This year's fair had been preceded by a great, great deal of nervousness and trepidation. Last year's edition was closed down in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, which left 130 people dead and 368 injured.
Readers who were in the French capital at the time will need no reminders of the frantic calling and texting that continued into the small hours to make sure that family, friends and colleagues were safe.
The attacks continued this year and France is under state of emergency until the end of January 2017. Occupancy at the big hotels in Paris is way down and some regular visitors to the fair decided to give it a miss this year.
The possible effects of Brexit were another worry for exhibitors, but the number one concern was, of course, the U.S. election. The results came in some six hours before the fair opened, and both outside and inside the Grand Palais people talked of little else.
"Trump as president…I am simply stunned". Those who didn't say it, certainly looked like it. I overheard one American visitor stating, "I'm so glad I'm here in this beautiful building in Paris and that I don't have to deal with it right now. It's just too much to take in." I had several reports of American buyers who claimed to be so utterly depressed by the result that they had dropped any ideas they'd had of buying altogether—at least temporarily.
Last year saw the appointment of a new director for Paris Photo, Florence Bourgeois, as well as a new artistic director, Christoph Wiesner. They have been quick to put their own mark on Paris Photo. Both last year's and this year's edition saw a new seriousness and overall quality that was somewhat lacking previously--at least in my opinion. And I feel that I should perhaps put this point of view in some context.
While the long-term exhibitors of classic photography have continuously held a high standard over the years, the contemporary work has to my mind often been extremely uneven. Too many stands with work that was large size, manipulated in Photoshop, attention grabbing, with high impact and low staying power--especially a genre I once defined as "Sexy Boy/Sexy Girl", images more suited to window displays in high-end department stores than a serious fair. This type of work was aimed largely at a new and very fickle group of buyers who had little or no knowledge of the history of photography. The work looked vacuous then. Now that it's rapidly falling out of favor, it looks more than a little comical as well, like the big shoulder pads and the big hair bands of the 1980's.
I was not the only one who was glad to see the back of it. It is, however, dangerous, as some do, to make sweeping generalisations. Large size, Photoshop would also describe the work of Andreas Gursky. And Desiree Dolron. Paris Photo was effectively the international launching pad for her "Xteriors". The series looks as good now, as it did then. Which just goes to show how far ahead of the pack she really was.
Halfway through the fair I spotted the English dealer/collector Richard Meara who commented, "There is so much here that's it's almost overwhelming".
And indeed it was. The number of exhibitors had been expanded to 153 galleries and dealers, plus 30 book publishers. There were also exhibitions upstairs at The Grand Palais, one called "The Pencil of Culture" featuring a decade of photography acquisitions by Centre Pompidou, another with works from The JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, plus a section called "Prismes" devoted to galleries showing major bodies of work, as well as special commissions.
Towards the end of day one I came across a number of people who had fallen in love with specific prints, only to find that they had already been sold. The long time exhibitors have over the years built up bases of loyal clients, aware that they have to be quick. Especially so at Montreuil-based Lumière des Roses. Philippe Jacquier told me, "Our collectors know that we have unique material, mostly by anonymous photographers. As soon as the doors open they come running straight to us."
There was wonderful material on offer, a 1940s photomaton strip of a howling dog, a still from Henri d'Ursel's 1929 film La Perle and what could have passed for a photogram by Moholy-Nagy turned out, on closer inspection, to be searchlights in action during a night attack in Berlin 1943. But the real treasure for me here was the group of three cyanotypes by Adolphe Terris of a Griffon sculpture on a building site in Marseilles, 1866-68.
Jacquier explained. "They were in a box when I came across them. As soon as I opened it, I was completely struck by the wonderful blue color. Simply exceptional."
There were still hours of trading left when I spoke to Jacquier. "We have had a very good fair and have sold 70% of the prints. And we have sold to SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It's the first time we have sold to U.S. museums, so I'm very proud!"
Stevenson, the contemporary art gallery based in Cape Town and Johannesburg showed an impressive new series by Pieter Hugo called 1994: portraits of children born after that year in two countries, South Africa and Rwanda. Momentous and terrible events took place there in 1994. Hugo noticed that the children he photographed didn't carry the same historical baggage as their parents, but that they were also growing up with liberation narratives that are in some ways fabrications.
Gallery director Federica Angelucci told me: "The socio-political context in South Africa and Rwanda was the trigger for this reflection about what it means to be a child whose historical narrative is very different from its parents, when there has been a deep disruption in the country. But it's just a point of departure. The series is also a reflection on childhood; what childhood is; the innocence that we project into it; and how children have been depicted throughout art history."
Angelucci was pleased with the fair. "It's always a very interesting fair for us. As we are based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, Paris Photo is our annual occasion to catch up with various curators, museum directors and collectors. We're a contemporary art gallery so we don't focus on just photography but this is a great platform for our photographic program. This fair has never failed us. Sometimes it's satisfying in the duration of the fair, other years it's more quiet but picks up afterwards due to the new contacts that we make."
Stevenson has been at the forefront of conceptual art in Africa, but as Angelucci pointed out, it is "conceptual art with humanistic concerns". The gallery also represents Kemang Wa Lehulere and last year showed his exhibition "To Whom It May Concern". If there was one contemporary art exhibition I would have liked to see in Europe, that was the one.
I tend to brace myself when I hear of contemporary photographers executing daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. They are wonderful processes, but I find that most contemporary practitioners fall into the trap of applying 19th-century aesthetics to them, resulting in images that are quaint, not to say kitsch. This however, was not the case at Edinburgh-based Ingleby Gallery. The three large size ambrotypes measuring 52 x 43 cm by Ben Cauchi were simply stunning.
The idea was simple, images of wrinkled black paper. They were, as Richard Ingleby said, "Images about nothing. And about everything".
He continued, " If you are going to have one foot in the 19th, then you have to make sure you have one in the 21st as well. Cauchi is using a camera that he had specially built, as conventional glass plate cameras don't take plates of this size. It's actually the same piece of paper that he has wrinkled over and over. We have sold them all, to very significant collections, plus anything equivalent he has in the studio as well. So it's been a big success. Price point is important I think. These works are around 10,000 euros, and that seems to be the ceiling for people's acquisitive enthusiasm this week. We have more expensive works on the walls, but they haven't sold--an indicator of where the market is at right now. I expect there will be some followup but people are slower at making decisions than they used to be."
That was also the experience of David Fleiss at 1900/2000. There were magnificent prints on the walls of gallery's stand, by Man Ray, Dora Maar, Hans Bellmer, Maurice Tabard and others, plus an intriguing portfolio of photographs by David Hockney, taken between 1970 and 1975--images of his private life, his parents, friends, lovers as well as swimming pools and flowers.
Fleiss told me, "We came back to the fair as we wanted to show this important Hockney portfolio, and the rest is a selection of the very best pieces in our inventory. It has been quite slow. I have sold a lot of pieces in the 2,000-3,000 euro range but nothing over 20,000. I think the market is a little bit depressed. There's the US election, and people don't feel like spending money. We were here at the Grand Palais for FIAC a few months ago and that was just incredible. But here it's slow. I have seen very few Americans."
Paris Photo used to have a yearly focus on countries and regions, with special exhibitions as well especially invited galleries. It was a nice thought but it came in for some heavy criticism, as many felt that the work chosen was far from the best available. And sometimes it resulted in complete overkill, as was the case in 2008, when the focus was on Japan. As a friend of mine exclaimed at the time, "If I see one more tied-up woman by Araki I'm going to scream!" And then she did.
As it happens there was a focus on Japan this year as well, but it was done in a much more subtle and sophisticated way, with the inclusion of more Japanese galleries. And it was good to see work by Japanese photographers who are less known in Europe and the U.S. I visited Taka Ishi Gallery several times to see the images by Hitoshi Tsukiji. Gallery director Elisa Uematsu told me, "This is the first time we have shown his work. He's a very interesting photographer, born in 1947 and his work is more architectural, with a focus on composition. This is a series that he did in the late 60s and early 70s. Even though the images are very, very different you can see the relationship between all of them."
Uematsu continued. "It's been a good fair for us this year. We're a contemporary art gallery, so we do all the art fairs. Collectors make much quicker decisions there. Here, photo collectors, tend to take two or three days to make a decision."
I also stopped by Tokyo-based MEM's stand several times to look at photograms and experimental prints made in the 1930s and '40s by Toru Kuno, Sutezo Otono and Osamu Shiihara.
This year the saw the inclusion of more galleries devoted to photography of performance art, from the 1960s onwards.
Christophe Gaillard showed a selection of works by Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who, along with Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch, were the leaders of Vienna Actionism. Guillaume Lointier told me. "These works are part of the gallery's DNA. Performance-related photography is often seen as mere documentation, but these performances were staged for the camera." And it is worth noting that Schwarzkogler staged his performances exclusively for the camera whereas the other three would mostly perform theirs in front of an audience.
London-based Richard Saltoun had impressive works as well, including those by Gina Pane, whose most famous performance, The Conditioning, was staged in 1973 and in which she lay on a metal bedframe suspended over burning candles.
There was work by two Argentinian performance artists on show at two Buenos Aires galleries. Del Infinito's stand was devoted to works of the legendary Alberto Greco. Moving between performance, poetry and painting, he divided his time between Argentina, Brazil and Paris. In 1962, he performed his First Exhibition of Live Art in Paris, wandering about the city, signing people, animals and situations with a piece of chalk. The following year, he was forced to flee Rome after having staged Cristo 63, a parody of The Passion of Christ. He committed suicide on October 12 1965. His last act in life was to write Fin (The End) on his left hand.
Rolf Art showed an Argentinian performance artist of a later generation, Liliana Maresca. She was active from the early '80s until her premature death in 1994. Her work confronted gender roles, neo-colonialism, corruption, the military dictatorship and the silence that surrounded it once it ended.
Hans P. Kraus Jr.'s stand has over the years been one of the highlights of Paris Photo, but it was truly exceptional this time.
Kraus told me, "We decided to do a thematic stand this year, focusing on Egypt. Most of what we have is from paper negatives so we called it Le Calotype en Egypt. We have work by Teynard, J B Greene, Benecke, Du Camp--mostly of the French school, plus a Francis Frith, slightly later, from the collodion era, a magnificent print of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid."
Kraus was pleased with the results. "We weren't expecting much at all but things have turned out to be alright. We have had fewer Americans coming to see us perhaps, but despite that we have done business with American museums and private collectors. Given the climate I'm surprised just how well it's been going. But perhaps people have opted to drown their sorrows in calotypes."
Michael Hoppen was also pleasantly surprised. "Keeping in mind Brexit, the state of the pound, the anniversary of the terror attacks, the elections, it's been going remarkably well. I think it's the best Paris Photo for four or five years. They say there have been more people than ever before. There have been many collectors here, even though neither the London nor the West Coast collectors turned up. My key collectors didn't show up this year, but we have sold a lot of work, to American collectors and museums."
Hoppen showed an impressive selection of work by Eamonn Doyle, Sergio Larrain, Masahisa Fukase, Tim Walker and others. Hoppen said, "We have sold work by all the artists we have shown, apart from Himaya. It's not easy to sell. It's hard work. We haven't just been sitting here, but there is business to be made at this fair. And it seems that most exhibitors have had a good fair."
James Hyman reported good sales as well, "I think the fair surpassed our expectations. Everybody was quite apprehensive this year, with the elections, the anniversary; and although there are clients who didn't come, we have all been impressed with the number of serious collectors and museum people who have. And the sales have held up as well. We have sold right across the board, including Shirley Baker, who we're showing for the first time, Roger Mayne, Kertesz, as well as 19th-century prints and negatives by Louis Robert and others. And we have quite a lot to follow-up as well."
Hyman told me he had had a good fair last year, despite the weekend being cancelled. This was not the case for most exhibitors, especially not the new ones who tend make their sales over the weekend. Reed, the fair's owners, were keenly aware of this and so decided to refund exhibitors 20% of the rental costs as a gesture of goodwill.
There was a real treasure on Hyman's stand, a rare variant of Bill Brandt's Soho Bedroom from 1934. "I have sold a number of prints of this image over the years but I have never seen this variant," Hyman explained. "I have been looking at some of the work that is still with the estate. I discovered this one, which has never been exhibited or published. It's an enlarged, flipped and cropped version of the famous Soho Bedroom.
The long wall on the stand of Berlin-based gallery Loock was covered with large steel panels, with labyrinth patterns of black and white photographs, taken by York der Knöfel, of pigs being slaughtered in an East Berlin slaughterhouse 1986-1988. Jean-Guillaume Kodjo explained: "The piece we have here is a small section of the original installation, where the visitors had to make their way through a labyrinth, almost like pigs. This was just before the fall of communism. Der Knöfel spoke to the workers and was told that they had no feelings about killing 2,500 pigs a day. They felt like small pieces in a big machine, which der Knöfel saw as similar as living under communism. The work has another disturbing layer. The slaughterhouse was used by the Nazis to kill Jews. People either love or hate this work, nothing in between."
There were stunning works by the British photographer Richard Learoyd at the fair. Learoyd has built a room-sized camera obscura in his studio in which the photographic paper is exposed. The subject is in the adjacent room. Light falling on the subject is directly focused on to the paper without an interposing film negative, resulting in a nearly grainless image.
Pace/Macgill showed an astonishing, large size nude by Learoyd; and the other works on Fraenkel Gallery's stand were equally strong, including a still life of a shark.
Frish Brandt at Fraenkel commented, "We have worked with Richard Learoyd for eight years now and he's an artist that we are very excited to be showing. And you don't understand the work unless you see it in person. It's what an art show is really good for. In reproduction it tells you nothing."
The main wall of Fraenkel's stand was given over to Sophie Calle's "Collateral Damage, Targets". A series comprised of mug shots of American petty criminals from the 1970s, which had been used for police target practice, in Calle's version with their eyes blocked to hide their identities.
I asked Brandt what she thought of the overall quality of the fair and she said, "Well, I'm on the fair committee so you won't get an unbiased point of view from me. But there is no fair--certainly no photography fair--like Paris Photo, with its ability to bring together the whole universe of photography, the work, the artists, the dealers, the collectors, the publishers. It plays on such a high level in all of those arenas. It's a one-stop-shop for those in search of an education. Moving to the Grand Palais was a giant step up towards seriousness, importance and presence. There are a few colleagues I wish were here, and some them will come next year. But that's the life force of a fair."
Also on the fair committee is Howard Greenberg who showed exquisite prints by František Drtikol, Sid Grossman, Mary Ellen Mark, Josef Sudek and others.
Greenberg said, "We have sold right across the board. I always bring a lot of pictures in boxes as well. I bring them for specific clients. I don't presell them, but I have specific collectors in mind. This year I have sold a lot more New York City street-related photographs than I usually do, almost entirely to French and European clients. Not much to Americans.
"We have had a good fair. We were all very apprehensive before. I didn't expect it to be a great fair, especially because of the result of the election. I was really nervous and didn't know how people were going to react. I thought people would be frozen, so I'm surprised that it's been going so well and that people got over it as quickly as they did."
Greenberg was impressed with the overall quality this year. " I think it's the highest quality we have ever had. It's often very hard for the committee to judge the new galleries that we let in. They send us a site presentation and when they come and hang it, well, sometimes it's not really up to a high standard. We have seen much less of that this year. The committee has really been emphasizing presentation and we want it to look like an art fair. More and more the galleries are learning to shrink the amount of pictures they show and increase the exhibition quality. But mostly it's the contemporary work from the less obvious galleries that's better this year."
There were changes taking place on stand C34. Eric Franck has been an important part of Paris Photo over the years, but this year the stand was a joint presentation with Augusta Edwards, previously his assistant. Edwards told me, "This is Eric's last fair, and next year I will be showing on my own. Eric will however, continue to serve as a consultant, lend his support and most likely sit with me at fairs. I will continue to work with a great number of the same artists and estates, but will also put my own stamp on it. I'm excited by the opportunities out there, both in terms of new talent and estates. We get approached all the time and there's still a wealth of great material out there waiting to be found."
There was great material on the walls as well, by Josef Koudelka, Thomas Parkas, Geraldo de Barros and Heinz Hajek-Halke.
Edwards said, "It's been going pretty well. We have done really well with the portraits on the outside wall. They were taken around the 1900s by a portrait studio in London, of an African choir group who came to perform in London. They were among the first taken of Africans in the U.K. The original glass negatives were discovered recently, acquired by Autograph ABP, which made a series of limited edition prints. Koudelka is a big draw, and we sold works by Hajek-Halke, whose estate we have started working with recently, plus Karen Knorr's series Gentlemen."
Robert Hershkowitz's stand was described by one visitor as "a wonderful oasis in the whole fair". Hershkowitz was pleased with it himself, "I think it's one of the most beautiful stands we have ever had. We have sold prints by Captain Linnaeus Tripe, images of Spain by Joseph Vicomte Vigier, Scherer & Nabholz and a few others--not a huge amount but enough."
Paula Hershkowitz commented, "It's been a strange fair, even though it's been okay for us. The Americans are in a total panic over Trump and that has affected us. It has turned them off buying altogether. Paula Hershokowitz is also a respected historian. Her new book, Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture, and the Cult of Martyrs, will be published by Cambridge University Press early next year.
I stopped by Baudoin Lebon's stand which featured a sort of mini survey of the photographic work by Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand, an artist now in his 70s, who inspired by Etienne Jules Marey went in search of a very individual kind of conceptual poetry.
Most visitors to Lebon's stand probably missed the secluded office area in the back. I'm glad I didn't. In there I found a magnificent selection of works by Robert Mapplethorpe, an unique, oversize print of Thomas in a Circle, Self Portrait with Whip, The Skull Cane, a Z Portfolio, portraits of Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff and John McKendry, the latter taken shortly before his death 1975. McKendry was the troubled Curator of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He got Mapplethorpe enthused about photography, and also gave him the Polaroid SX70 camera that paved his route into photography.
Lebon commentred, "I worked with Robert in the 1980s, showed him at FIAC in 1983, and I did shows of his work in 1986 and 1989. These works are so iconic and I'm glad to be able to show them here."
Lebon had had a good fair. "I have sold to Europeans mainly, not Americans. Alongside AIPAD, this is the fair to be in. There is a new director and artistic director, and that has made a real difference. They understand and love photography. Still, while there are some really great galleries here, there are some very bad ones as well. And I don't know why they let in bad galleries, and refuse some very good ones."
And it puzzled me as well. While I did find this to be the best edition of the fair that I have ever seen, there were some low points as well. Roman Road showed large size cyanotypes by Thomas Mailaender, based on images plucked from the web. I have come across them before and his choice of appropriated images has always struck me as utterly slapdash, this time particularly so.
Paris Photo is of course more than a fair. It's a place to connect and to reconnect. I met friends, publishers and editors that I hadn't seen since last time. Emerging photographers showed me work in small portfolios, on iPads and iPhones. I also came across some hard pressed teachers, including two whose groups of students had been thrown out of their hotels due to raucous behaviour.
I did come across some rather bleary eyed students sitting on the stairs as I made my way up to the exhibition area on the last day. A small group were discussing the fair and various galleries they had visited. The infrastructure of today's photography world is of course one that they take for granted, with fairs, galleries, photography museums, photography auctions. But I doubt that they are aware of how recent it is, and the work it took to build it.
On the first day of the fair I ran into one of the key players in establishing that infrastructure some 45 years ago. It was good to see Philippe Garner again. I hadn't seen him since he left Christie's this summer. Those who missed his talk at The Frick Collection in 2015 will find it on their website. It offers a fascinating insight into the formative years of the modern photography market.
I talked to another pioneer inside The Grand Palais, on stand B29, Keith de Lellis. De Lellis noted, "I'm the oldest dealer here; well, not by age but in terms of being active." De Lellis showed an impressive selection of work by Anton Bragaglia, Edward Steichen, Leonard Misonne, Weegee and others. "The fair has been very good, steady. We have sold right across the board but mainly images of celebrities: Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammed Ali. But only one print was sold to an American. The rest were to Europeans and South Americans."
It was good to see Vintage Works, Ltd. back at Paris Photo. The enlarged contact sheet of David Bowie by Helmut Newton certainly drew a lot of attention, and there were wonderful vintage images by Heinrich Kühn, Robert Frank, Horst and Hans Bellmer--to name just a few, plus a particularly fine diptych, a positive and negative printed image from the 1940's by James Hamilton Brown.
Vintage Works owner Alex Novak said, "I think the results are okay considering Brexit and the US election result. We haven't had any of the normal action from the Americans or the English, but the Europeans are buying. The others will come back quickly when they realise that the world is not coming to an end.
"We have sold five pieces: the Newton enlarged contact sheet of Bowie, the Peter Beard self-portrait with crocodile, two Kühn prints and a Daido Moriyama. We have covered our expenses at least, and we have a few more hours to go. The last time I did the show, which was 12 years ago, it was breakeven too, but this time it felt like a stronger show, but with a little bad timing due to the U.S. election. I want to come back next year and develop the client base. Four of the five buyers were new clients. We also have strong interest in the vintage Robert Frank of the Covered Car and some of our Man Rays. We have a met a lot of good collectors, so I'm happy with the show.
"I expect the market to be back stronger this coming year, as collectors start to realize that some of the changes may mean stronger economics and more inflation, which has always been good for the photography art market."
There were some big questions hanging in the air concerning next year's edition of the fair. Was The Grand Palais going to close down for refurbishment as rumoured? If so, where was the fair going to be held? Things were clarified a week later in a statement sent out from Reed Exhibitions: "The next edition of Paris Photo will be held from November 9-12, 2017 at the Grand Palais. The Grand Palais will continue to host the fair until 2020, after which it will undergo a two-year-period of renovations and expansion. We will keep you informed of plans and developments for the fair."
The same email also stated that 62 000 people attended the fair this, up 8% from last year. There were great sighs of relief from most exhibitors as the fair closed on Sunday evening. Sure, nobody had made the fortune of a lifetime, but it hadn't been the catastrophe that so many had feared beforehand. Most felt that the new director and artistic director were moving in the right direction though there were some complaints about glitches in organisation and communication. Criticisms also levelled at AIPAD and other show organizers to be fair.
Paris Photo Los Angeles was cancelled earlier this year after just three editions. That doesn't mean that the fair organizers have dropped their expansion plans. In an interview published in the November issue of The Art Newspaper, artistic director Christoph Wiesner stated, "Extensions of the fair abroad are under consideration. New York comes to mind, but for the moment this is just an idea being tossed around."
Some dealers and observers speculate that it's more than just an idea. And that this will result in Reed/Paris Photo either challenging or absorbing AIPAD in the process. AIPAD will expand and move to Pier 94 next year, and as Alex Novak noted on his Facebook page, this will either be "a major boost for this fair on the world's art scene, or may cause it to lose its identity and sparkle as the most serious photography fair in the world. We shall have to see how things fall out."
Michael Diemar is a long-time writer about the photography scene, in addition to being a collector, curator, lecturer and ex-London gallerist (in 2009 opening Diemar/Noble Gallery). He has written extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.