"Is it going to work this time?" That was the question that galleries, dealers and observers asked themselves as the organisers Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad of Candlestar opened the third edition of the relaunched Photo London at Somerset House on May 17th. Altogether there were 89 galleries from 16 countries.
The first edition had been an unexpected success. While no sales in the high end, there was enough business in the low to mid-range to keep the exhibitors happy. The second edition proved to be a whole lot more problematic. Dealers and galleries had noted a slowdown in the business setting some eight months before the fair, and it opened just over a month before that fateful Brexit vote. People were nervous about its consequences for the economy, and then there was the US election later in the year.
But those weren't the only problems. As I reported last year, the exhibitors of classic photography complained to me that the visitors, mostly UK-based, quite simply lacked any real knowledge of the medium, never mind the market, and that they had seen very few curators and serious collectors from abroad.
My lasting impression of the second edition was that the whole thing was something of a "Potemkin fair". That is, it certainly looked the part from the outside, with an impressive list of A-list exhibitors, but with no serious business being conducted--which is fundamentally what a fair is all about.
It also struck me that despite the fair's producer Candlestar having no involvement with Daniel Newburg, who had started the original Photo London in 2005, both promoters seemed to have followed exactly the same strategy. That is, both parties were determined to arrive with a fully formed world-class fair, courting the same exhibitors that give Paris Photo its special lustre. That's a strategy with built-in difficulties. Any new fair will initially rely heavily on a local audience, and as far as high-end classic photography is concerned, collectors are in very short supply in the UK. Especially when it comes to 19th-century photography. As Robert Hershkowitz told me a few years back. "There's never been more than 10 collectors here spending serious money on it. The names and faces have changed over the years but the number stays the same."
And last year's fair was dire, not only for Hershkowitz, but also for many others.
When Candlestar announced the list of this year's exhibitors, observers were quick to note all the heavyweights missing from last year, including Hans Kraus Jr, Weinstein Gallery, Edwynn Houk, Rose Gallery, Yossi Milo and James Hyman Gallery. These had been substituted mostly with lesser-known, contemporary galleries, but also with three leading art galleries, Alison Jacques, Victoria Miro and Sprüth Magers.
Some regarded this as a definite step down. I chose to take a different view. That this could become something more interesting, something more than a compact and bijoux version of Paris Photo. So while I didn't see little from the pre-war period of the calibre that I saw last year--the Man Ray, Moholy Nagy, Steichen and Dora Maar prints, I felt that the fair was more in tune with its local audience. Sure, the contemporary work was uneven, but that's also the case at Paris Photo and AIPAD, but I found a great deal to interest me. London gallerist Tim Jefferies of Hamiltons agreed, "I think the fair is moving in the right direction."
Nevertheless, the word going around beforehand among many exhibitors could be summed up as "If it doesn't work this year, we're pulling out of the show". And that was certainly the feeling I got on the first day. The atmosphere was pretty glum. The weather was absolutely miserable, the rooms and halls were packed with VIP visitors, largely non-buying, as it was reported to me. By Sunday, the weather had cleared up and most exhibitors, though not all, felt an awful lot more positive about the fair and its future. And just as the mantra "you can't sell high-end classic photography in London" was about to be repeated again came the news that Johannes Faber had sold a Rudolf Koppitz "Bewegung" (Movement) for 360,000 euros.
Recruitment of new, serious collectors has been a topic in the business for quite some time now. In last year's report I discussed why the situation in London had become particularly difficult, following the disappearance of a whole section of the infrastructure needed to enthuse and educate new collectors.
Candlestar stepped up to the challenge here. In addition to the first-rate program of talks, curated like last year by William A. Ewing, it also had organised guided tours of the fair, which gained much praise from the exhibitors.
I started out in the East Wing of Somerset House and stopped by Fahey/Klein where I spoke to Nicholas Fahey, David Fahey's son who has joined forces with his father. "This is the first time we have exhibited here, and it's been great fun. We have met some really good collectors. We're based in Los Angeles, and it's great to come here and spend some face time with people we work with all the time."
Education was very much a topic on Fahey's mind, as he told me, "My background is in digital advertising so we are pushing a new digital strategy that will be unfolding in the next couple of months. It means challenging the idea of what a gallery is. Not only as a place to exhibit artists' work and support them but also educate people in order to create more collectors. There are more artists now than before but without more collectors, how can we support this? And we have two strategies, one for our gallery and one for a larger group of galleries."
Fahey reported healthy sales: "We have sold a lot, Patrick Demarchelier, Miles Aldridge, Horst P Horst, the famous Harry Schunk of Yves Klein and others. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'Wow, I finally get to see this in person!' And for me has been truly special."
Augusta Edwards Fine Art has now taken over Eric Franck's operation, and had the same large size booth in the same location. Edwards told me, "It's been a good fair, and we have been very pleased with the attendance. It has been very steady throughout. People are still very cautious. They like to go away and think about purchases. With Photo London, we have quite a lot of follow-up afterwards and it does result in decent sales. There is, however, still a lot of education that needs to happen in the UK. The visitors to the fair aren't as well versed in the medium of photography as elsewhere. I know that Candlestar worked really hard this year to try to attract more international collectors and curators, but we haven't seen many. And that's definitely missing here. We have seen Centre Pompidou but that's about it.
"I'm also surprised by the number of people who ask us if the works on the wall really are for sale. There's still confusion whether Photo London is a festival or fair. Some clarity on that would be beneficial. More needs to be done in order to explain what Photo London is about and what we're here to do. It's still very much a UK-based audience who come. More international buyers are needed for some of the exhibitors who have dropped out to return. Some exhibitors who were reluctant to return, but nevertheless did, have changed tack and brought fashion and other types of work that don't require explanation. And they've done well this year.
"Some of work we have shown this year is challenging and certainly does require explanation. Chris Killip has been the most successful for us and Norman Parkinson is always a favourite. We've also had an amazing response to Geraldo de Barros' work, Beate Gütschow. We have a big booth here and we may choose to downsize next year. It depends on what happens with the follow-up."
Somerset House is a difficult building to find your way around. And it's absolutely crucial to pick up a map in the foyer. I noticed during my various conversations that those who hadn't had missed out on quite a lot. It's not an easy building for the exhibitors. Candlestar drew heavy criticism last year for using the so-called "annexe" as exhibitor space. It was a dead zone as far as visitors were concerned. Candlestar took the criticism on board and the space was given over to a restaurant this year.
But some spaces are still problematic. Especially B9. I suspect it's because it acts as a thoroughfare with three doors. It didn't work for Michael Hoppen last year and certainly not for Sprüth Magers this year. The gallery had great work on offer, including Stephen Shore's black and white images of Warhol's Factory. Director Andrew Silewicz decided to laugh rather than cry when I spoke to him. "The fair hasn't worked for us at all. No sales, no curators, nothing positive at all, but there it is."
Marco Massaro in the small booth next to him was much, much happier. Officine dell'Immagine showed three Iranian artists, Gohar Dashti, Jalal Sepehr and Shadi Ghadirian. I particularly like the latter. The exhibited images were from her series "Qajar" from 1998, to my mind one of the high points in the big group exhibition "She who Tells a Story" a few years back. Massaro told me. Massaro said, "It's the first time for us here and we are extremely pleased. We have seen a lot of good people--curators, collector--and we have forged some good media contacts. And we have good sales so we would like to come back next year."
Purdy Hicks also had had a good fair. Like last year, gallery showed a selection of very impressive Susan Derges works. The large piece on display sold on the second day and was substituted with an equally strong piece. Director Nicola Shane told me, "We began working with her some ten years ago. She was well established by then, but the "Shadow Catchers" exhibition at The Victoria & Albert in 2010 Museum raised her profile even more."
The gallery also showed three works from Edgar Martins' new series "Siloquies and Soliloques on Death, Life and Other Interludes". Martins is, in my opinion, something of a rare animal. He has strong conceptual thinking, a capacity to make striking images and it is all combined with great deal of sensitivity, a quality needed for this particular subject matter. These three images showed the edges of suicide notes, turned into sculptural shapes.
Close by were two small works by Diana Matar, "so small you could carry them with you", Shane remarked. They were hauntingly beautiful. These works are from her Evidence and Witness series. It's all to do with her father-in-law, who was an opponent of Gaddafi. He left Libya while it was safe to do so, but was abducted in Egypt by Gaddafi's agents and was never seen again. The family had hoped to get news of him when Gaddafi was toppled, but it turned out that he had been killed in a prison massacre. Mater went to places where atrocities had taken place to bear witness. She's now working on a series about the killing of civilians by police in America.
Gallery Taik Persons were showing in a large booth in the main building. The gallery is focused on Nordic, mostly Finnish photographers. Director Timothy Persons told me, "As far as sales are concerned, it's been like last year. We sold a few small works in the beginning. Other people looked, went away, did their homework and came back late Saturday, and then we sold some big works. The really big difference is the number of contacts we have made. Candlestar have managed to get the right people in, and we have seen a lot more people from France and Italy, so I'm very positive about the whole thing. Sure, we would have liked to have more sales, but who wouldn't? With any fair, the third edition is tough. They still have a lot of work to do but it's going in the right direction. What they need to do is bring in more contemporary galleries but that means they have to work much harder at their collector base."
Reinterpreting iconic images has become something of a sub-genre these last few years. There was Eleanor Macnair's hilarious "Photographs rendered in Play-doh" of classics by Bill Brandt, Cindy Sherman and many others executed in Play-doh; and Isabelle Le Minh's alterations of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous images, but with the decisive moment taken out (the cyclist in "Hyères", for example). East Wing showed a new addition to this phenomenon. By photography duo Cortis & Sonderegger, these were iconic re-imagined photographs of Robert Capa's "Fallen Soldier", Cartier- Bresson's "Derrière la Gare de Saint-Lazare" and Pennie Smith's cover for The Clash's "London Calling" , but all staged in their studio, giving away just enough information as to how these illusions were created.
Director Peggy Sue Amison told me, "The project came about during a difficult period for them. Their commercial work had dried up, their clients opting to enlist more famous photographers. So, since fame was the game, they chose to make famous images in their own way in their studio. We have done very well sales wise, and we have certainly stopped people in their tracks."
Most of the dealers in classic photography were located in the west wing. Roland Belgrave had moved up from the mezzanine level and was showing at the far end of the corridor. It was a difficult space, with rounded walls, but Belgrave had done an excellent job. Amongst the works on display was a large group of mammoth-size Frith prints of Egypt, and portraits by Felice Beato. Belgrave said, "I bought the Frith prints just before the fair, and while there were no takers here, I haven't really worked them yet. I have sold slightly more than last year, including a beautiful Herbert Ponting, but I find there's always a lot of follow-up after the fair. This is a much better location, so I'm not going back. Plus, I'm in very good company.
That company included Johannes Faber. And, yes, he really did sell the Rudolf Koppitz "Bewegung" for 360,000 euros. This is not a rare image but this print was different Faber told me, "It's unique in this size, 60 x 50 cm, and it's a great piece. Maybe in a few years it will cost 1.5 million. Not all galleries display prices in their booths but I suspect this is the most expensive piece that has been sold at the fair. Apart from the Koppitz we have had fewer sales this year. Last year we sold a few every day and we needed those sales to get through the long days. We have sold other works but at much lower prices. I think it's getting harder for classic photography."
Faber thought the fair was good overall but suggested some changes: "The first day was absolutely packed--VIPs who looked but didn't buy. I think the first day should start at 17.00, with only serious collectors being invited. The collectors came on the second day, and that was when we started selling."
As previously stated, a lot of the leading American galleries chose to stay away this year. I'm not sure what happened with Robert Klein. He was included in the catalogue but did not exhibit. I stopped by Howard Greenberg and spoke to Karen Marks. I asked her why they had remained on board when the others had bailed out?
Marks told me, "We believe there is a market here. People that we have met previously at Photo London are coming back to us, so we are building relationships. And that's what it's about. I like doing art fairs, meeting people, talking and educating. I think this fair gets a little bit better every year. It's lovely and it's well attended. People are really looking and are asking the right questions. But the price point is a little bit high for the average Londoner to buy something spontaneously off the wall. But you have got to keep plugging through and find the magic formula."
The gallery chose to do a thematic booth this year, with works by Berenice Abbott, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Dave Heath, Sid Grossman and William Klein amongst others. Marks said, "It's about street fashion. People may not pick that up on that immediately when they look at the images. But once they know, they smile because it makes sense. It has worked very well for this audience. We are showing world-renowned photographers alongside unknowns and intermixing everyone together. People here really appreciate that. And we have sold a little of this, a little of that. Overall William Klein has been the best seller. He's certainly one of our major artists, and it's great when you can introduce a new image because his vision hasn't changed in 50 years. It's still very signature Klein."
Robert Hershkowitz had magnificent works on the wall by Gustave Le Gray, Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, Charles Nègre, Humbert de Molard, Hill & Adamson and others. I was particularly taken with the wonderful Felix Teynard, so I bought it. But as far as the works on the wall were concerned, I was in a buyer's club of one. As Paula Hershkowitz told me, "People have been buying lower-priced prints out of the racks, but that's it. Photo London has been a very weird fair for us. There was nothing the first days, but Robert has been seeing curators at our London flat. So hopefully there will probably be some sales. We have had a few curators here in our booth, as well, and that's good because museums are the main buyers for the best prints. But we haven't had leading collectors here at the fair. Sure, there's been loads of people, much interest but it doesn't really come to anything. There were about three people I expected to see but they didn't come. I'm not sure we will do the fair next year. It depends on the follow-up."
London gallerist Michael Hoppen was much happier in his new location in the West Wing. He showed a selection of works by Araki, Sarah Moon, Colin Jones, Martin Parr and Masahisa Fukase--among others. Hoppen said, "It's been very good fair for us and we're very happy. Sadly, we haven't seen any people from the US or Europe. We would love to see people marking their diaries to come to the fair, because I think it's different from the others. The lecture program has been amazing, and it really defines the fair. But it's not an easy fair, largely because of the building. People like it, but working inside is complicated."
But it wasn't all cheer with Hoppen. He was highly critical of the material being offered by the three large houses in the London auctions these days. I tend to call it "London auction fare". Meaning no 19th-century material, at best a few pre-war images, and way too many celebrity, glam and fashion images of the more superficial kind.
Hoppen told me, or rather issued a call to arms: "It's high time that we as a community address the strange propensity in this city to promote a certain type of photography as art or as photography worth buying. We need to get together and say, 'This is simply not acceptable'. For instance, the preview of the auction at Phillips on Thursday, where a photograph of Justin Bieber was shown alongside a unique and important work by John Baldesssari. That's an unacceptable way of promoting what I consider to be a serious art form. I have no issue with celebrity photography--that's fine, but I do think it's disingenuous to try and unpick all the work that a lot people have done before us to promote photography as an art form that is worth considering, and spending time and money on. To be quite frank, it's an insult. I would ask the community here, to get together, and to try and encourage--not only the auction houses but the general community--not to view that type of photography on the same terms and being in the same canon as Julia Margaret Cameron, Irving Penn and André Kertész. And I feel very strongly about that. It's quite simply a case of turning that type of material away. Because at this point, they're chasing that material. It's not being offered to them but chased, simply in order to satisfy a shareholder monthly total. And the short-term attitude is going to destroy the long-term success of what is a pretty fragile community here anyway. It's never been as strong here, as it has been in the US. And there's no way that Sotheby's, Christie's or Phillips would allow a picture like the Justin Bieber into their New York auctions. They would be laughed at and castigated. And quite rightly so."
The temporary pavilion, introduced last year, has been a great addition to the fair. The far end and the outside wall had been given over to images by William Klein, courtesy of HackelBury Fine Art. Hamiltons' stand was elegantly designed as always, and here I found one of the great treasures and surprises of the fair. Three black and white Polaroids by Cathleen Naundorf. I have seen exhibitions of her color work and wasn't really taken with it, but these were different. The artifice of fashion. The magic of the moment. Bam! Wonderful. Naundorf has only about 50 of these unique objects. Some will probably be held back, so if you want one you will need to be quick.
Much had been made in the fair's pre-publicity of Isaac Julien's 1989 film "Looking for Langston", about Langston Hughes (1902-1967), one of the leaders of "The Harlem Renaissance". Set in New York but shot on a tight budget in London, it has become a cult classic and a touchstone of New Queer Cinema, as well as African- American studies. The film was shown downstairs in the mezzanine, while Victoria Miro showed prints in the pavilion. Some were stills from the film, but most were large format prints of images made during the production. I found the display disappointing. I saw the film when it came out and remember it as a mesmerising blend of film noir and magic realism, referencing George Platt Lynes, Robert Mapplethorpe and James Van der Zee in the process. I found the large prints utterly devoid of the qualities that made the film special.
There was better work close by in the pavilion in the Louise Alexander Gallery exhibit space. The gallery represents the Guy Bourdin estate exclusively and on display were six posthumous prints. The rest of the stand was given over to vintage prints. Of the latter, only five pieces, the Polaroids were actually for sale. Director Ayse Amal told me, "The vintage work is not for sale. We are presenting it in order to push exhibition packages to museums. But it's educational as well as we want to show Bourdin before he produced the well-known work, showing who he was. The composition, cropping, the textures, it all came from somewhere. He was shooting in the late 1940s when he was doing his national service.
Here were images from the early '50s: portraits of art school students, images of Paris, abstracts and fashion made before he was given free reign at French Vogue by editor Francine Crescent. I was particularly intrigued by an image of a butcher's apprentice standing in front of a row of carcasses. It turned out that it had not, as I thought, been taken at the same time as the famous/infamous "Chapeau-Choc". Alexander told me, "This one was taken in 1953, 'Chapeau-choc' was taken in 1955, so we suspect that this image inspired it.
The exhibitors on first floor seemed much happier this year than last and there was interesting work on display here. Riflemaker showed a strong selection of images by Leah Gordon, and I found the voodoo series particularly good. Ekho Gallery, a new gallery focused on Latin American artists, had teamed up with CF-Lart, an organisation aiming to promote Chilean photography from the early 1970s to the early 2000s. I was particularly gripped by a series of images that Mauricio Valenzuela had taken during the long period that followed when Chilean president Allende's democratically elected government was toppled by a CIA-backed military coup. Unlike many dissidents, Valenzuela wasn't tortured or executed, but he would keep a low profile until the dictatorship ended in 1990. And you could sense this in the images. The everyday scenes seemed to have been taken in secret almost, quickly, with strange angles, but all conveyed the burden of living day in, day out under oppression.
Downstairs in the main building I stopped by a few times to see the Phil Shaw images in Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery's space. At a quick glance they came across as large, very cosy images of shelves with old books. But closer inspection revealed something much stranger, reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, as well absurdist literature. Each shelf had a theme. Among them Truth, with books entitled "The Truth About Water", "The Undiluted Truth About Drinking Water", "The Truth About Nuts", "The Truth About Trump", "The Terrible Truth About Marriage", etc.
"And you won't find these books on Amazon," Frankie Cherry from the gallery told me. "All the books are digitally constructed books by Phil Shaw. He researches the titles he wants to use and then letter by letter, designs the books. It takes him about 600 hours to design the books for each print. As for the fair, well, it's our first year here, but it's been good with regards to sales, and we have had a lot of interest."
The discovery section came in for a lot of criticism last year, not only for the work on display, but also because of the layout. Candlestar took this on board and this year's section was a vast improvement, with the whole of the long space downstairs given over to it. In addition, independent curator Tristan Lund had been enlisted to curate the galleries, and the exhibitors had nothing but praise for the hard work and devotion he had put into it. Sure, the quality was uneven but I saw interesting work at Akio Nagasawa Gallery, including Kuo Inose and Sakiko Nomura. T. J. Boulting showed Maisie Cousins and Juno Calypso. The latter is now established in the secondary market, so can hardly be described as a discovery. I was however mystified by the work by Alex Kwok that I saw on Rubber Factory's area: an installation of prints, slashed Lucio Fontana-style, and I failed to see the point. I was informed by the staff, "He didn't mean to reference Fontana but it's the only thing people have asked us about all week!"
I was impressed by the Parisian gallery Next Level's stand, featuring Liz Nielsen. These were unique works, made without camera in the darkroom, utilizing different colored gels, among other things. Isabelle Mesnil told me, "We are a contemporary gallery, and we show work in different media, so Liz Nielsen's work is a good representation of what we do. We have had good sales here, and we have a lot of follow-up to do. And we have had interest from museums, though not UK-based.
The Embankment area further down was devoted to two exhibitions, the first by Taryn Simon who was announced as the third Photo London Master of Photography. I went back twice to see it, but wasn't bowled over like some people. I found the other exhibition more interesting. Exhibiting collections, private or corporate, has become increasingly common at fairs and festivals, but "David Hurn's Swaps" was different. Here was an example of how many photographers build their own collections, by swapping with friends and colleagues. The exhibition, curated by Martin Parr juxtaposed images by Hurn with, among others, Bill Brandt, Bruce Davidson, Sergio Larrain and Diana Markosian. This year, Hurn's collection of over 600 prints will be gifted to the National Museum of Wales.
And so Photo London closed on a more optimistic note. Candlestar had done an excellent press campaign for the fair, and I began noticing the first full page ads at the beginning of the year. Attendance was up 3,000 from last year, to a very impressive 38,000. That's three times as many as AIPAD.
But there are some real challenges for the fair. Photo London is very close to AIPAD, and it's going to take some hard work to convince collectors and curators from abroad to come to London. And to convince Americans to make two trips to Europe, Paris Photo being firmly in the calendar.
The fourth edition of Photo London will take place May 17-20, 2018, with preview on May 16.
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 I Photo Central.