Fotograf Magazine

Pařížský Měsíc fotografie a Paris Photo 2012

Every other year, two large photographic events coincide for nearly a week in the French capital: the Mois de la Photo festival, and the Paris Photo fair. However, while the festival, which in the 1980s in particular had few rivals worldwide, has not seen its best years lately, Paris Photo has evolved into the most important photography market in the world. Two years ago this new status was confirmed by its relocation from the cramped venue in the basement of the Louvre to the grandiose Grand Palais on the Champs Elysées, as well as by the participation of some of the foremost art galleries, which formerly did not take part in specialized photography fairs. Paris Photo has also significantly bolstered its non-commercial section, which includes theme-based exhibitions from both public and private collections, lectures, Q and A sessions, book signings and presentations of photo-books and periodicals. Thus apart from famous photographers such as William Klein, Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, Martin Parr, Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, and many others, at the Grand Palais one is also likely to run into the first lady of France, director David Lynch, and numerous well-known figures from both politics and the arts. What was even more important for the fair, however, was that it succeeded in attracting major collectors, curators, and about sixty delegations from a variety of museums and galleries. Observing the throngs of visitors (fifty-four thousand in total) it may have seemed as though they all came just to look at the pictures, but in reality there were also a large number of collectors intent on expanding their collections.

Still, not all of the 128 galleries who passed the rigorous selection criteria to be represented at the fair profited from the considerable investment of participating in Paris Photo. Among the successful galleries were mainly those who managed to find buyers for rare works by the classic figures of modern photography, André Kertész, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, László Moholy-Nagy, Edward Steichen or Jaromír Funke, some of which were offered for hundreds of thousands of Euro or US Dollars. As for contemporary photography, among the commercial successes were not only gallery giants such as Gagosian and David Zwirner, who brought to Paris the works of global stars – Cindy Sherman, Thomas Ruff, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Gregory Crewdson – but also smaller galleries representing artists currently in vogue. These included Karen Knorr and her eerie photographs of animals in palatial settings, Mona Kuhn and her saccharine teenage nudes, or Christian Tagliviani and Hendrik Kerstens, who produce almost indistinguishable digitally-mastered portraits inspired by paintings of the Old Masters. It is this very category that is most subject to change – many artists who were fashionable just a few years ago now go barely noticed (for example, the new photographs of the until recently much-admired Joel-Peter Witkin, pandering to popular taste, received a largely negative response), and conversely, a number of underrated artists of the 1960s and 1970s (such as Joel Meyerowitz or Mitch Epstein) are the focus of attention today. However, shifts in collectors’ interest in entire fields of photography could also be observed. This was true particularly for high-end fashion photography, which had long been marginalized from the province of art, yet today both collectors and museums do not hesitate to pay daunting sums for images by Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon or Wolfgang Tillmans, originally done on commission for fashion magazines. Another such example is documentary photography – only recently few would imagine that a pair of New York street scenes by the contemporary British photographer Paul Graham would be selling for sixty-five thousand Euro at Paris Photo, or that a vintage print of Robert Frank’s The Americans would fetch over half a million US Dollars. Why, the most internationally acclaimed as well as the most “expensive” living Czech photographer is Josef Koudelka, and his documentary photographs from cycles such as Gypsies or Exiles are valued higher than his stylized artistic landscape panoramas.

Unfortunately, apart from classics such as Drtikol, Sudek, Trčka, Rössler and Funke, Koudelka along with Jitka Hanzlová and Jindřich Štreit were the only Czech photographers represented at the most recent Paris Photo. This was a cold shower to the illusions that Czechs often entertain regarding the international status of our current photography scene. This was surely also due in part to the fact that no Czech gallery was present this time, not even the formerly regular participant Leica Gallery Prague. Still, contemporary Russian photography was represented in Paris at a number of stands of West European or American galleries, while Polish or Hungarian photography received a respectable presentation by galleries from Warsaw and Budapest.

Among the non-commercial shows at the fair, the most lively response was garnered by the exhibition of London’s Archive of Modern Conflict; out of its ample collection of more than four million photographs, they presented a unique combination of amateur and agency photographs interspersed with work by world-renowned artists. Though at first glance this extensive exhibition may have looked chaotic – both in terms of selection and the installation of items – at closer scrutiny it offered revelations of unexpected parallels between works of entirely disparate periods, territories and quality. Other exhibitions presented treasures from the collections of the Winterthur Fotomuseum (Switzerland), the Huis Marseille of Amsterdam, and the collections of the fashion designer Giorgio Armani and Chase Bank. Separate exhibitions were dedicated to the books, catalogues and portfolios of Bernd and Hilla Becher, renowned for their photographs of industrial architecture, to the awarded works of the competition of young French photographers, and to a competition of the best photography publications of the year held by New York’s Aperture Publishers. The latter was deservedly won by several volumes of expressive black-and-white documentary images by the Swedish photographer Anders Peterson; the short-list of twenty publications included 7 Rooms, a book by Rafal Milach, a Polish doctoral student at the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava (Czech Republic); the book has already been awarded several international prizes. The competition evinced the growing importance of unconventional low-budget publications, often brought out by the artist themselves. Since they do not have to meet any criteria of potential commercial success, they can therefore produce the book entirely to their own taste. A significant expansion in the range of accompanying events, symposia and lectures doubtless contributed to the fact that Paris Photo is no longer attractive to collectors alone, drawing anyone wishing to find orientation in the current trends in photography and photo-books. This tremendous success spawned several parallel alternative photography fairs held in venues such as disused garages, schools, etc., however the quality of these was rather variable.

The 17th edition of the Paris Month of Photography strove to live up to its reputation more through the sheer number of exhibitions (its official program totalled eighty) rather than their visionary or seminal importance. Still, it did offer several good exhibitions. These included the retrospective “Photography in France, 1950–2000” at the European House of Photography, where each year of the given period was represented by some significant photograph, often accompanied by its period reproduction in books or magazines. French photography was also presented at a number of solo exhibitions, such as Yvette Troispoux’s impromptu snapshots of gallery openings, the melancholy staged photographs by the duo Clark et Pognaud, or samples of the work of the Sudre family. Inter-war photography was represented above all by the major retrospective exhibition of the Mexican classic Manuel Álvarez Bravo, held in the sumptuous venue of Jeu de Paume; his Surrealist works dominated here, but the exhibition also included his less well-known later work. The contemporary international scene was presented rather arbitrarily in smaller exhibitions, e.g. Peter Bialobrzeski’s large-format photographs of the stereotypical architecture of Asian mega-cities, Walter Niedermayr’s stylistically similar images of the Italian Alps, the computer-manipulated advertisements of the Polish-American Ryszard Horowitz, or the fashion photography of Deborah Turbeville. Over the course of the Month of Photography, the Czech Center in Paris showed Václav Jirásek’s cycle Industria, but unfortunately it was not included in the official festival program. This time the festival essentially provided the auspices for smaller exhibitions at various cultural centers and private galleries. A seminal original exhibition along the lines of the legendary Teatro Mundi was beyond the organizers’ means as well as powers in 2012.

Vladimír Birgus

#21 On Photography

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