Fotograf Magazine

Paris photo 2009

The thirteenth edition of the largest photographic festival, which took place in mid-November in the traditional exhibit spaces under Paris‘ Louvre, was expected to be a barometer of trends that the photography market is experiencing during the current global economic crisis. Paris Photo brought hope in its increased number of visitors, who amounted this year to more than forty-thousand over our days – this was many more than two years ago, when the French capital suffered from a public transport strike. It was just under three thousand more than last year when the current crisis had just begun.

One could find many celebrities among the visitors, including France’s new culture minister, nephew of the former president, Frédéric Mitterrand; billionaire, owner of the Christie’s auction house and renowned art collector, Fran ois Pinault; or American singer, Lou Reed. Curators of museum photography collections, hundreds of top photographers from all corners of the world and travel groups of American collectors were also present. However the most numerous observers were groups of young people, who came to look at the pictures rather than buy them. Stars such as William Klein, Martin Parr, Georges Rousse, Roger Ballen and Elliot Erwitt took part in dozens of autograph sessions and they also attended lectures and projections/showings.

Exhibitors had to pay high rental fees – rent for a relatively large booth came to roughly twenty-thousand Euro. For comparison: at one of the two largest art festivals, Art Basel Miami Beach (the cost) is approx. thirty- three thousand US dollars. However demand traditionally exceeded supply. The eight-member festival commission chose 102 exhibitors from 23 countries, of these 89 represented galleries and 13 publishing houses, book stores and antique shops. France had the most exhibitors, followed by Germany and the USA. Only the Budapest-based Vintage Gallery, offering mainly works from the classics of modern Hungarian photography, represented Central Europe. Moscow’s Pobeda Gallery represented the younger and middle generations of Russian photography – Igor Muchin, Alexei Titarenko, Anya Titovova, and others.

Following Italy, Scandinavia and Japan, this year’s honoured guests included Arab states and Iran. Eight of the invited galleries hailed from Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Famed curator, Catherine David, former director of the Kassel Documents in 1997 and promoter of Arab art, selected the central exhibit from the archive of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. However for the vast majority of the visitors the exhibit itself was a disappointment. Instead of the awaited overview of the history and contemporary state of photographic creation in Arab lands and artists‘ period originals, which had dominated the exhibits of honoured guests in past years, only new prints of often banal photos from different Arab studios were to be seen.

Much deeper and more interesting views of Arab and Iranian photography could fortunately be seen in Paris at a number of exhibits outside the actual festival, i.e. the large show devoted to 165 years of Iranian photography at the Musée du Quai Branly. Certain galleries posted marked commercial success. For example, the Dubai gallery, B21, sold eight staged photos by Reza Aramesh at 15 000 Euro apiece, and the Tehran Road Gallery sold all the works of Iranian intermedial artist, Bahman Jalali, at 10 000 Euro apiece. However, the fact that attempts at political correctness win out over artistic quality was unfortunately evident in this year’s BMW Paris Photo Prize competition. Here Dutch artist, Karijn Kakebeeke, won the main prize for an amount of 12 000 Euro for her generally average report photo of an Afghan woman with a football (soccer ball).

Paris Photo did, even so, confirm its unique reputation among photo festivals (its only serious competitor is New York’s AIPAD). English dealer, Robert Hershkowitz, traditionally brought rare originals from 20th century masters like Talbot, Evans and Sutcliff and others. The Parisian gallery of Serge Plantureux presented the allegedly oldest daguerreotype from the Orient, made in November 1839, together with photographs by Gustav Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Eug ne Atget.

Many galleries showed the work of pioneers in modern and avant-garde photography. However this time the works of the absolute top artists were not to be seen. These had been offered during the festival’s previous years for amounts exceeding one million Euro. The New York gallery of Howard Greenberg succeeded in selling a constructivist shot by Lászlo Moholy- Nagy for 135 000 Euro. Despite great interest a buyer could not be found for three wonderful nudes in pigment by Drtikol. These had been in a private American collection for more than two decades. Photographer, Bettina Rheims, had reserved them during the vernissage but ultimately did not buy them. Photographs by relatively young artists obtained similarly high prices – Hamiltons Gallery in London sold a large-format nude by Helmut Newton for 200 000 Euro and Boston’s Robert Klein Gallery raked in just 65 000 Euro more for a platinotype portrait of Peruvian indians dating from 1951 and taken by recently-deceased Irving Penn.

But such high prices tended to be exceptional. Most often contemporary photos sold for amounts between two and twenty- thousand Euro. The Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town sold for 14 000 Euro all its suggestive portraits of Africans with tamed hyenas, monkeys and other animals by Pieter Hugo. Continued interest in Chinese art showed in the success of Peking’s 798 Gallery, which for amounts from two to six thousand Euro sold more than thirty photos including digitally-manipulated romantic landscapes by last year’s BMW Paris Photo winner, Yau Lua.

Many exhibitors attempted to react on affordable prices caused by the economic crisis. Even not-so-wealthy collectors could afford to buy in the Parisian Gallery of the Vu Agency well-known photographs by Anders Peterson for 2800 Euro. Melancholy landscapes by Michael Kenny were available in many galleries for 2000 Euro and the Parisian gallery, Camera Obscura, sold photos by the top Finnish photographer, Pentti Sammalahti, starting at 600 Euro. The London publishing house, Phaidon, was kind to new collectors, offering for literally basement prices signed photos by famous artists in limited editions: to these it added signed monographs. A black-and-white photo by Elliot Erwitt from Provence in a printing of 250 copies was available for a mere 500 Euro, the colour photograph, Badminton, by Martin Parr from the hundred examples edition cost 950 Euro and Nan Goldin’s blow-up on cibachrome, taken in the same number of copies, was assessed at 1950 Euro.

There were many similar offers from limited editions in series of 100- 200 copies of blow-ups or prints as are offered by Prague’s Leica Gallery. These reflected however the current situation on the photography market, where very few collectors are willing to pay insane amounts especially for the work of contemporary artists, for whom there is no certainty that (current popularity) is not just a bubble. Today no one will offer more than three million US dollars for the Richard Prince photograph, reproducing a shot of a cowboy with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. This otherwise documents the current swift drop in prices for this artist’s work: an artist who is currently facing legal suits for breach of copyright law.

The honoured guest at next year’s Paris Photo will be Central Europe, or more specifically the following post-Communist countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. This is a great opportunity for these countries enabling them to promote themselves more on the international photography scene, which currently doesn’t pay much attention to them. This will concern not only the central exhibit, which is being prepared by young Ljubljana curator, Nataša Petrešin-Bachalez and the eight invited galleries. It will not be easy (for this group) to pay the high costs for rental of exhibit space without State (government) support or that of sponsors. However, similar to past years with previous honoured guests, many other galleries will be able to show historic and contemporary creations from the invited region. Czech photography will most certainly be represented to a broader degree than this year, when in addition to classics like Drtikol, Sudek and Rössler, it was represented more or less only by Josef Koudelka and Jindřich Štreit at the stand of London collector and dealer, Eric Franck.

Vladimír Birgus