Fotograf Magazine

Paris Photo 2016

Paris Photo ceased being just a commercial trade fair a long time ago. It has continuously been expanding its program to dedicate more space to curated exhibitions, symposia, lectures, photo book displays, and hundreds of autograph sessions with leading photographers. The situation was no different last year during the festival’s twentieth edition, which attracted 62,000 visitors to Paris’s Grand Palais in mid-November. Fortunately, the fears that exhibitors – particularly foreign ones – might lose interest after the terrorist attacks in 2015 (which led to that year’s trade fair ending early) were not realized. The expert jury could choose from a large selection of interested candidates from the final count of participants – 153 galleries and 30 publishers from thirty countries. These included not only global giants, such as the Gagosian and Pace Galleries and the Taschen and Phaidon publishing houses, but also private dealers and small publishers specializing in small print runs of only several tens or hundreds of copies of artists’ books. Although Paris Photo has confirmed its status as the world’s most important photography trade fair, it is not in an easy position. After only three years, the attempt to organize Paris Photo Los Angeles, which was set to become a serious competitor to the much older American AIPAD Show in New York, failed last year and, in spite of massive promotion efforts, was summarily cancelled. In Europe, the new Photo London Trade Show grew into a strong competitor, but we also cannot underestimate the much smaller Unseen Photo Fair held in Amsterdam, which offers photos in a lower price category. Donald Trump’s unexpected election as the President of the USA, which happened on the first day after Paris Photo opened, definitely did not contribute to the photo sales at this edition of the trade fair, as many museum curators and gallery owners began to rightly fear that Trump’s administration would not be inclined to support the arts, or the existing options for tax deductible gifts to public collections. Although the directors, curators, and sponsors sent by eighty-six institutions to the trade fair did include representatives from several American galleries and museums (including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), many exhibitors complained that the number of American collectors was much lower than in previous years. However, even worse was the news that, starting in 2020, the Grand Palais in Paris would begin to undergo extensive renovations – and there is simply no such other impressive building in the centre of Paris where it would be possible to hold the fair. The new directors of Paris Photo – Florence Bourgeois and Christoph Wiesner – have not yet announced where they plan to move the fair during the time that the Grand Palace is being repaired.

The Paris Photo tradition of presenting important public and private collections continued last year with the inclusion of an exhibition of new acquisitions from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, prepared by the Centre’s curators Clement Chéroux, who since has become the head of the photography collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska. The exhibition, entitled The Pencil of Culture, included hundred of works from different periods and of different styles, all selected from the collection of 12,000 photographs that the Centre Pompidou has acquired since 2007 (in total, they own about 40,000). They included works by classic artists, such as August Sander, Maurice Tabard, and Richard Avedon, but the dominant position was held by examples of the latest trends as found in the works of Jeff Wall, Juergen Teller, Valérie Belin, and Aneta Grzeszykowska. Even such major institutions as the Centre Pompidou have only very limited resources for purchasing photographs for their collections and so, in addition to gifts from artists and their families, they rely mainly on the generosity of various patrons. Czech photography was represented by only a single photo – Václav Chochola’s 1944 work entitled Věšák (The Hanger) – which was part of a collection of nearly forty contemporary originals recently donated to the Centre Pompidou by the artist’s daughter, Blanka Chocholová. The American J. P. Morgan Private Bank (one of the trade fair’s main sponsors) presented a part of its photo collection under the title PhotoPlay, including works by Diane Arbus, John Baldessari, Tina Barney, Thomas Struth, and other famous artists. Another sponsor, Leica, presented the work of two winners of its Oskar Barnack Award 2016 – Frenchwoman Scarlett Coten won the main prize for her vivid color portraits of contemporary Arab men, whilst her compatriot, Clémentine Schneidermann,  received the Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award for stylized images of young girls from impoverished Welsh regions, who dream of escaping from grim reality through beautiful dresses and makeup.

The non-commercial part of the trade fair included the Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, in which well-established photographic publications and catalogues on high-quality chalk paper competed with the now very fashionable small-run artists’ books on almost newsprint, with many blank pages and non-contrast printing. Both winners – Gregory Alpern’s ZZYZC, documenting life in California’s Mojave Desert from multiple angles, and a catalogue of the works of Polish graphic artist and photographer Wojciech Zamecznik, edited by Karolina Puchała-Rojek and Karolina Ziebińska-Lewandowska, formed a kind of bridge between these two poles.

The Salon d’Honneur, located on the first floor of the palace, housed an exhibition of fourteen more extensive photo series as well as large-format photographs from the Prism Sector. The galleries submitting successful proposals thus received much more space to show works by the artists they represent than they otherwise would in the stalls situated in the trade fair’s main hall. In fact, four galleries joined together to present the existing works of famous Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. On display were his technically precise and artistically impressive large-format color photographs from four of his series depicting landscapes severely damaged by mining industry expansion – Oil, Water, Quarries, and Australian Mines – as well as examples from his China cycle of photographs, providing a fascinating view of the loss of individuality and identity amongst the masses of identically dressed Chinese laborers. Besides these iconic, much-published works, the exhibit included some previously unpublished images by this artist, who quickly became one of the most respected photographic makers of the present day and whose prices have soared. There was also great interest in the exhibition William Klein: Paris, an expressive mosaic of street scenes, portraits, staged scenes and details of the urban environment, by the almost ninety-year-old American pioneer of the subjective documentary genre and contemporary fashion photography, who has been living in the French capital for more than half a century. French photographer Bettina Rheims introduced new color portraits of female prisoners, only some of whom try to maintain their glamor and femininity even behind bars. Polish artist Zofia Kulik enjoyed a great commercial success when her giant (in my opinion, greatly over-symbolized) photomontage from 1997, depicting dozens of male and female characters in extravagantly demonstrative poses and photographs of objects from different cultures, captured the interest of a private buyer, who paid EUR 190,000 for it and promised to give it to an unnamed cultural institution.

There were also several individual displays included in the sales section of the trade fair, many of which were reminiscent of small museum exhibitions. Thierry Struvay, a business man from Brussels prepared an imaginative installation in the gallery with the distinctive title Sorry We’re Closed, which consisted of dozens of anonymous photos, the majority of which he discovered at various flea markets. One of the greatest surprises of Paris Photo was organized by the Vancouver-based Equinox Gallery in the form of a collection of contemporary color images that Fred Herzog, a Canadian of German descent, captured on the streets of San Francisco, Vancouver, and other cities between the 1950s and the 1980s, which, until recently, existed only in the form of color Kodachrome slides. New York’s Danziger Gallery devoted its stand to the photographs taken by Paul Fusco in 1968, documenting the journey of the train bearing the coffin of the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington D. C. The Stevenson Gallery, which operates spaces in Cape Town and Johannesburg, presented Pieter Hugo’s “Sanderesque style” portraits of children from Rwanda and South Africa born after 1994 (the year of the Rwandan genocide).

Nevertheless, the majority of the galleries offered works by more than one artist. Nineteenth century photographs are not exactly a focal point of interest, and the number of exhibitors specializing in this particular area, such as London-based dealer Robert Hershkowitz and his New York competitors Hans P. Kraus and Charles Isaacs, could be counted on one’s fingers. Interwar avant-garde photography was incomparably better represented. Several European and American galleries offered period originals by the likes of Man Ray, Kertész, Weston, and Bellmer in the price range of tens, often even hundreds, of thousands of euros. For instance, Stephen Daiter’s Chicago-based gallery was offering a 1940 collage by Herbert Bayer for 113,000 dollars. MEM, a gallery from Tokyo, brought little-known photographs and photograms created in the 1930s and 1940s by the Japanese photographers Sutezo Otono, Toru Kono, and Osamu Shiihara. However, there were fewer visitors willing to pay enormous amounts for small vintage prints than was the case in previous years. Some gallery owners voiced their concern that there are fewer collectors of original modern photography classics. For example, the Parisian 1900-2000 Gallery was offering a superb collection of surrealist works but did not sell a single one that was priced over 20,000 euros. A contributory reason to this situation is the growing volume of forgeries, which require in-depth knowledge to uncover. There have been cases even at such prestigious events as Paris Photo, where, for instance, several works of Alexander Rodchenko appeared, which turned out to not be period originals as claimed by their owners, but enlargements, or even reproductions, made after the artist’s death. On the other hand, those gallery owners who honestly specified the date of origin for newer enlargements made from original negatives often enjoyed success. These included the Howard Greenberg Gallery from New York, which sold an enlargement of Diane Arbus’s 1968 photograph A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York – one of the seventy-five copies made by Neil Selkirk after the artist’s death – for 370,000 euros; the Tucson-based Atherton Gallery offered photos taken by Robert Frank at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago – enlarged twenty-five years later – for 125,000 dollars; and Johannes Faber’s Viennese gallery had available a collection of later enlargements of August Sander’s portraits for a price of 280,000 euros. Today, however, the majority of wealthy young collectors mainly purchase large color photographs by current stars such as Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Vik Muniz, Chuck Close, David LaChapelle, Stéphane Couturier, Pierre & Gilles, and Paul Graham. The prices for these works are sometimes enormous. For instance, it was possible to buy four portraits of Jack Nicholson made by Herb Ritts from the Berlin-based gallery, Camera Work, for 250,000 euros. Even more expensive were photographs by Andreas Gursky, specifically some of his latest works portraying figures like Spiderman and other Hollywood heroes, which are surprisingly bordering on the threshold of kitsch. Although the Paris Photo’s strict selection committee strives to limit the exhibition of cheap sycophantic works of the type that appear in a massive volume at the Fotofever Trade Fair, which takes place at the same time in the Caroussel du Louvre, they are not always completely successful, as is evidenced in the constrained and kitschy nudes and portraits by Asger Carlsen and Roger Ballen, the latter of whom seems to have entirely forgotten his wonderful older works.

Paris Photo confirmed its position as the world’s most important photo trade fair, which includes the participation of galleries not only from Western Europe and the USA, but also more exhibitors from Asia (there were thirteen last year), Latin America, Africa, and Australia. That makes it even more regrettable that the number of participants from Central Europe was once again minimal, and that post-war Czech photography was represented by the works of Josef Sudek, Jaroslav Rössler, Josef Koudelka, Běla Kolářová, Markéta Luskačová, Blanka Chocholová, and Jitka Hanzlová shown solely by non-Czech galleries. Conversely, both the Warsaw-based Asymetria Gallery as well as the Vintage Gallery from Budapest once again successfully aroused great interest in Polish and Hungarian art and sold several works to leading public and private collections.

Vladimír Birgu