Fotograf Magazine

Twenty-First Edition  of Paris Photo

Last November, the 21st edition of Paris Photo – the world’s largest
photography trade fair – attracted a record number of more than 64,000
visitors. This is a much higher attendance rate than in the case of its main
competitors: the Photography Show, organised in New York by the Association
of International Photography Dealers (AIPAD), and the new Photo London
trade fair, which first took place in 2015 after several unsuccessful attempts to
organise a major world photo fair in the British metropolis. The organisers of all
three events are exerting a great effort to enrich the traditional sales fair concept
to include curated shows, photo book exhibitions, lectures and book signings
by important photographers, gallerists, photography theoreticians or publishers;
as well as films about photography or those made by photographers. Of course,
they also all strive to agree with local galleries and museums that they should
hold important photo exhibitions at the same time that the fair is running. It is
then natural for smaller fairs to associate themselves with the main trade fair
in order to take advantage of the fact that thousands of people interested in
photography will arrive in Paris, New York, or London from many countries.

However, the truth is that such an enormous accumulation of things to see
and do, consisting of the main event and all of the satellite trade fairs, exhibitions,
auctions, and lectures is, as far as time is concerned, unmanageable for most
visitors. This is why the organisers of the traditional Month of Photography Paris
festival decided not to hold their event in the autumn at the same time as Paris
Photo, but to move it to the spring instead. Nevertheless, everyone who came
to Paris Photo had to make well-thought out decisions about which of the other
dozens of other photography events they simply could not miss. Maybe the
wonderful Irving Penn retrospective, which moved directly from the Metropolitan
Museum in New York to the Grand Palais where Paris Photo was underway? Or
possibly the Andres Serrano show being held across the road in the Petit Palais,
where the American’s often highly provocative photographs were displayed
amongst romantic and symbolic images from the nineteenth century? The
impressive retrospective of one of the leading representatives of the German
New Objectivity movement – Albert Renger-Patzsch – at the Galerie Nationale
du Jeu de Paume? Or the smaller exhibition Avant-Garde Photographer Jaromír
Funke at the Czech Centre? Should one choose two exhibitions of photo books
that have been either self-published or produced by small publishing houses
over a trade fair of rare, old photography publications? And how much time
should be spent at other photography fairs? For instance, Fotofever, which is
filled with displays from galleries that cannot afford to pay thirty or fifty thousand
euros for a Paris Photo stand, or the ones who did not make it through the
rigid process of the selection committee and look for people who will buy the
cheaper works of less-established photographers and, quite often, also sell
kitschy erotic photos and obtrusive landscapes.

Nevertheless, even those who visited only Paris Photo had the opportunity
to see a number of museum-class exhibitions. The entire first floor of the Grand
Palais was allocated to important collections as well as fourteen exhibitions
from the Prismes Sector, which is committed to large-format photographs,
series and installations. The largest space, in the Salon d’Honneur, was used
to display a selection of 150 photos from the private collection owned by
Helga de Alvear, an eighty-one-year-old Spaniard of German descent. For
this exhibition, Marta Gilli, the director of Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume,
chose to include works by Anna and Bernhard Blume, Thomas Demand,
Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Ed Ruscha, Rodney Graham and other famous
artists. Of course, it was wonderful to see so many masterpieces together,
but the selection of photographers was, in many cases, the same as last
year’s exhibition, with only some additions from the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
A sampling from the collection of the American J. P. Morgan Bank, one of the
major sponsors of the fair, included works by Gilbert and George, Annette
Messager, Mariah Robertson, and other artists for whom photography is the
medium of choice. Klaus Rinke, one of the pioneers of photographing body art
and performances, was represented in an extensive series entitled Mutations.

At the fair itself, which was held with the participation of 159 selected galleries
from 30 countries, there was a visible effort to exhibit carefully arranged and
installed thematic collections of works by one or only a few photographers – an
approach that has, in recent years, prevailed over the previously standard practice
of presenting a mosaic of works by many artists. It is also in keeping with the
intentions of the fair’s directors, Florence Bourgeois and Christoph Wiesner, who
assumed their positions two years ago. The Julian Sander Gallery from Cologne
came up with an exhibit hard to outdo in this sense when it displayed a single
original period portrait of the painter Heinrich Hoerle, made in 1928 by Auguste
Sander, the gallery owner’s great-grandfather. The Paris-based Caroline Smulders
Gallery dedicated its exhibition booth to the spectacular scenes created by Italian
visual artist Vanessa Beecroft with dozens of nude and clothed models. A fantastic
selection of extraordinarily imaginative and often provocative fashion photos from the
1960s and 1970s by the Frenchman Guy Bourdin, who until recently stood in the
shadow of Helmut Newton or William Klein, was presented by the Louise Alexander
Gallery from Italy. This confirms the fact that the fashion photography of established
artists, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh, is
now the central interest of a number of collectors, and that such photographs sell
for very high prices, as evidenced at many booths. Another excellent exhibition
presented the works of the recent Prix Elysée winner Matthias Bruggmann at the
Polaris Gallery in Paris. At first glance, Brugmann’s extraordinary dramatic scenes
of various war conflicts give the impression that they are carefully arranged, but the
photographer does not stage anything in his photographs; instead, he boldly throws
himself into the centre of combat where he creates compositionally and colourfully
chiselled images reminiscent of some of Jeff Wall’s arrangements. Brugmann was
by far not the only example of reportage and documentary photography at the
trade fair, showing how this genre is increasingly penetrating the higher tiers of
the photographic market. For quite a while this has not been true only for works by
classic artists, including Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans, whose
original period enlargements are sold for hundreds of thousands of euros – in recent
years it has also started to apply to the pioneers of 1960s colour documentary
photography, such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Meyerowitz. The
prices of contemporary documentary photography by the likes of Martin Parr, Paul
Graham, Nan Goldin, or Alec Soth are also rising sharply.

Of course, thus far they have not yet reached the level of the prices paid
for the works of representatives from the Düsseldorf School, or as Cindy
Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, or leading avant-garde photographers.
After all, at a Christie’s auction held at the same time as Paris Photo, a 1926
photograph Black and White by Man Ray, portraying the head of his thenmistress
Kiki of Montparnasse next to an African mask, sold for € 2,688,750.
At today’s exchange rate between the euro and the dollar, it surpassed the
twelve-year-old record of the $ 2,928,000 paid for Steichen’s romantic
1906 photograph The Pond: Moonlight, becoming the most expensive
classic photo from the period before World War II.

There were also many very expensive photographs at the fair itself.
The Bruce Silverstein Gallery from New York offered a rare vintage print of
Kertész’s famous still life At Mondrian’s from the mid-1920s for $ 1.2 million.
The Vienna-based Johannes Faber Gallery was asking more than € 2 million for
a set of later enlargements of August Sander’s portraits (exhibited in the 1960s
in the cultural section of the Photokina trade fair in Cologne), but apparently
did not sell it. Overall, however, there were fewer major works by the classics of
modern photography at Paris Photo than in previous years. This was also true of
Czech artists such as Drtikol, Funke, Sudek or Rössler. In part, probably because
the number of their works on the open market continues to decrease, but also
because many younger rich collectors are not familiar with the fine nuances
of vintage prints or later prints and prefer large-format colour photographs by
contemporary artists, which stand out well on the walls of their offices and flats.

However, with only a very few exceptions, for instance works by Josef
Koudelka and Jitka Hanzlová, current Czech photography was missing from
Paris Photo. Unlike Poland, traditionally well-represented by the Asymetria
Gallery from Warsaw, which is able to sell the works of internationally
little-known Polish photographers from the 1960s to the world’s leading
museums, or Hungary, which was represented by two galleries – Vintage
and ABC – no gallery from the Czech Republic has exhibited at Paris Photo
for many years. It is in fact a tremendous shame, because we have plenty
of good contemporary photographers. It is only that the international scene
does not know much about them.

Vladimír Birgus

Vladimír Birgus