Fotograf Magazine

The Month of Photography in Paris and Paris Photo

The French capital became a veritable Mecca for photography during the past month of November –both the biennial Month of Photography (Mois de la Photo), inaugurated 22 years ago, and the  sixth yearly Paris Photo were taking place at the same time. Though the Month of Photography has been in evident crisis and has lost its former unrivalled status among photography festivals (Madrid’s much younger Foto Espaƒa is far ahead with respect to overall quality and the actractiveness of its exhibitions, for example), Paris Photo is presently the most important photography fair in the world (alongside the yearly exhibition put on by New York’s Association of International Photography Art Dealers, AIPAD), and easily counts the  largest  number of visitors. Whereas in the early days only a bare minimum  of American galleries were represented – their owners were sceptical a   gala inauguration.

Whereas the inauguration of the last AIPAD exhibition in New York was   attended   by a  paltry  few  due  to the $150 fee demanded by the organisers for access to the photography collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the informal inauguration in Paris gathered together several thousand mostly young visitors, topping an overall  figure  of forty thousand  over  a period regarding the potential of the European market – this past year 12  of the most important New York galleries set up stands at the Paris fair. Such great interest was expressed in the 89 gallery stands and the 12 sites set aside for publishers and booksellers, that the participants had to select an expert commission. Among those chosen in the end, after the 36 French galleries, the Germans were most numerous, at 18 (of course, many of them received government and other official support to defray the costly rental fees for the stands, located underneath the Louvre), followed by the Dutch, with 14 galleries, and the Americans, with the abovementioned 12. In addition, the organisers of the fair, led by founder and artistic director Rik Gadella, made it possible for six  galleries from the Netherlands to present, under advantageous financial conditions, the work of young Dutch photographers. Hungarian photography from between the wars was represented at two stands occupied by Budapest’s Vintage Gallery and the  Paris- based Hungarian dealer Csaba Morocz. Russian photography, mostly contemporary, was represented by the Paris gallery Carré  Noir,  whose co-owner Olga Sviblova is presently director of the Moscow House of Photography and the Moscow Fotobiennale. Czech photography did not boast its own stand, but the work of classic Czech photographers such as Franti‰ek Drtikol, Josef Sudek, Jan Lauschmann  and  Jaroslav  Rössler  were  represented  by  a  number  of international galleries.

It has become  a welcome tradition at Paris Photo to present, in addition to commercial photography, exhibitions of photographs not intended for sale and thus offering a sample of what can be found in leading private and public collections. In this way, Polaroid  was  able to of four days. The most important fact, however, is that Paris Photo is far more well-disposed towards present trends in photography and intermediate forms of art that make use of the photographic medium than its New York counterpart, AIPAD, where vintage prints by classic photographers predominate – though these were not absent at Paris, of course. For example, New York  dealer Michael Senft presented    a whole series of Man Ray originals at prices comfortably   exceeding 100,000 most of the time. Likewise, his colleague Hans P.  Kraus Jr., presented a number of 19th-century masterpieces at similar prices at his stand and some rare vintage prints from the 1920s by  the renowned Kertész were on offer at similar prices at the stand of Paris gallery owner Alain Paviot. Though such prices have been oft- confirmed at various auctions, other galleries tried to sell at truly exorbitant prices: for instance, an unbelievably overpriced theatre-box photo by Eisenstaedt was priced at _150,000 by the Lawrence Miller Gallery from New York, which caused experts to either smirk indulgently or shake their heads in amazement. Most of the items on display, however, were priced between two and ten thousand euros, which is to say at considerably lower prices than is the case in the field of painting. This was mostly true of contemporary photographers, who are gaining in importance at Paris every year. Though many of them fall under the sway of passing trends which prefer greatly enlarged color prints, a number of galleries presented and sold (well) a number of traditional black-and-white documentary photographs by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin and Roger Ballen.

While Paris Photo was a  great  financial  success,  even  in today’s troubled times, the Month of Photography, which lasted officially for the entire month of November though unofficially for much longer (some of the exhibitions included in its programme did not end till February  2003)  has  seen  better years. It was not only that the festival was less visible in Paris than in previous years (for example,   whereas   in   the past there were large posters present a series of technically precise though somewhat cool and stiff landscape photos by Anselm Adams from its archives. Another welcome Paris Photo tradition is the abundance of magazines devoted to photography and art as well as their distributors (the first issue of Fotograf sparked interest at the stand of London distributor Falsten Partnership) and announcing the festival on almost every corner, last year there were hardly any to be found anywhere) or that many important museums that previously held Photography Month exhibitions did not participate this time around. The selection of the exhibition’s three themes –to wit, women in photography, new winds in fashion photography and photography from the non-Western world— caused a bit of puzzlement. That same year, women before and behind the camera were the main theme at the photography festival in Madrid,fashion photography is  the theme every two years at independent festivals in Moscow and the Month of Photography in Paris itself has  focussed  on the same theme several times in the past already. The third theme was also problematic, as the inclusion of Hungary and Poland in the ‘non- Western world’ called into question the efforts of these countries to reinsert themselves fully into traditional Western civilisation and culture. Nonetheless, the most controversial decision of all involved the exclusion of certain particularly important exhibitions that did not fit into any of the abovementioned characters (closely related to the later work of her most famous  student, Diane Arbus), audaciously composed to contain  a  great  degree of inner tension. Another exhibition presented a humanistic display of photojournalism from New York from 1957 to 2002 by the late Inge Morath, and yet another the far more modern documentary and portrait photography of Mary Ellen Mark from her cycle titled American Odyssey, which many of us had the opportunity  to  see  recently at the Prague Castle’s Leica Gallery. Other examples representing more recent photojournalism by women were the  dramatic color photos of the recent war in the former Yugoslavia by Alexandra Boulat and the compositionally less refined but no  less  drastic images from Chechnya by Francoise Spiekermeier. More conceptually laden was the work of Martha Rosler with its unabashedly feminist and sarcastic view on the contrast between the roles of men and women in American society. Other forms of contemporary artistic photography were represented by women such as Simone  Decker,  Anna Malagride and Lucinda Devlin.

Of particular interest among the section devoted to contemporary fashion photography were two meticulously prepared exhibitions at the European House of Photography. The first presented a series of photos most of which were simple from a formal point of view, but still very imaginative, by photographers Paolo Roversi, Nich Knight, Peter Lindbergh, Sarah Moon, David Sims and others working for  Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamota; the second consisted of considerably unconventional images from the the new magazine Citizen K. Noteworthy among the many other exhibitions – which, three categories from the official festival programme. In the past, similar exhibitions made it into the festival’s catalogue as special categories alongside the main themes of the festival. Last year, however, there were some especially important exhibitions that remained outside the festival’s programme, such as an excellent retrospective of the most important wartime photographer working today, James Nachtway, at the National Library, or the exhibition titled ‘Corpus Christi’ organised by the Mission for Photographic Heritage at the Hôtel de Sully, which displayed the most varied photographic representations of Christ and the Madonna throughout the entire history of photography and contained dozens of masterpieces by Fred Holland Day, Franti‰ek Drtikol, Paul Strand, John Heartfield, Andres Serrano, Adi Nes and other leading photographers. This was unfortunate, as there were no other exhibitions that could be considered quite as fundamental and attractive to the public in the festival’s programme itself.

It does not follow, of course, that there were not many high-quality exhibitions. For example, in the ‘women’s’ section, there was an excellent retrospective of one of the main figures of what is known as ‘the New York School of Photography’, Lisette Model, who already in the 1930s and ‘40s had anticipated several principles of subjective documentary  photography  in  her  unpolished  portraits  of   bizarre oddly enough, ignored the extreme erotic approach of  some  American fashion photographers as well as the use of a technique reminisicent of amateur snapshots common among the work of many young German and British fashion photographers— were the unusual fashion photos by the French  documentary  photographer  Luc  Choquer and, surprisingly, some refreshing work by contemporary Russian   fashion  photographers.

Most problematic was the third thematic area, devoted to photography from the ‘non-Western world.’ It encompassed several expositions of rather stilted images in the Socialist Realist style that were little  more  than  propaganda  for  Castro’s  regime  in  Cuba,  a review of contemporary Cuban photography of markedly uneven quality, a series of traditionally-conceived photos of landscapes, portraits and architectural details from rural Mexico taken in the  1950s by the writer Juan Rulfo, a politically laden exhibition showing life under South African apartheid taken from the pages of the magazine Drum, and a collection of more or less banal snapshots of present-day Budapest by Imre Benkö. Overall, because this section lacked  a clear  and precise  conception,  visitors  walked  away not with  a  global  perspective on ‘ non – Western ’ civilisation,   but   rather a mosaic of disparate impressions  from exhibitions often chosen more for their ‘political correctness’ than  for any intrinsic artistic value. Which is a bit disappointing for a festival of the prestige and importance of Paris’ Month  of Photography

Vladimír Birgus