There might be a strong case to be made for a practicing photographer not to visit Paris Photo, or any other fine art photography trade show for that matter. For what good can come of it? Allow me to elaborate: the bathroom of my hotel room contained more inspiration than the whole show in terms of elements that could lead to the making of new photographs, while the excessive tendency to ponder on other people’s work, either historical or modern, can lead to conformism, if not downright plagiarism – which could be defined as the inbreeding of creative ideas with obvious degenerate offspring as the result. If you are looking for inspiration read a poem, listen to music or work in the field. If possible, always leave it to your gallery or agent to visit these affairs and meet the collectors.
Most of all I find it puzzling to see how many visitors carry cameras and shoot around, maybe at the work, or at the visitors, I couldn’t exactly tell. The only possible explanation other than a doomed attempt at stealing a reproduction was that of collecting some data for later reference in case you were a dealer or maybe a reporter. Many if not all the galleries seem more than happy to supply the visitors with free cards and samples, and/or have a good internet site that can be referred to, so why bother at all, I wonder. Either in an attempt to capture some of the atmosphere, which was regrettably very much like that of any other trade show held at the Carousel I suspect, or simply a photographic reflex of the inquisitive compulsive “snapper” I do not know. Some boys were clumsily manning a battered Sinar 4x5 inch camera along the alleys. It looked like a camera owned by a school, judging from the many signs of wear many of which could only be explained by poor and careless handling and being it too damaged for a rental company to give out. Possibly these guys were trying to document the show in a fashion, still I felt that four men to a camera is somewhat exuberant even in an age of emerging photographer’s duos (another puzzling phenomenon, how do they do it exactly? Do they have twin lenses and finders on their cameras? Dual shutter releases that only go off if pushed at exactly the same time to ensure mutual creation?). These guys seemed to get in each other’s way most of the time, with one doing most of the work and at least one in useless tow behind. Bless them anyway for their pains, god knows what will have turned out in that light. As for myself, although my manly chest was embellished by the presence of a gently dangling vintage Leica, I didn’t once raise it to the eye but left it idle as I walked around waiting for some spark that didn’t come. So I switched to another channel of thought and tried to consider the whole thing on a more rational level, trying at least to collect useful information to share with you about the market and the trends, if any could be detected, and the quotations. Compared to some galleries in my home town of Amsterdam I found most prices reasonable, with many things on offer for less than 10.000 euros, a few gems for less that a 1.000 even, and anything more expensive than that almost invariably the work of very well recognised and well known masters. Pity that these images were also very well known, published in every book and already seen in magazines many times, which makes them if not in the least less charming, certainly quite predictable as a collector’s choice. These images, I suspect, would appeal to the kind of buyer who is looking for a safe investment, as having being well known for decades if not longer must be a guarantee that their value will increase in time. Specialized dealers come from America, where they can be visited by appointment only, and for once allow those of us who cannot afford a price tag of more than 100.000 Euros a peak in their lofty world and their lovely prints if not a friendly chatting up. Do serious buyers at this level really join me and other populace on the floor of PP? I must assume they do, as why else would this gallery be here in the first place? And lucky it is for us, being thus given the chance to look at an original Steichen hanging an inch from our nose. Very egalitarian and libertarian if not fraternal, must be the influence of the Paris air. This kind of work is not only very expensive but, as museums and great collector’s contend them on the expanding world market, also becoming very rare. For the rest of us, who do not want to be left out of the action but can’t get in at that level, the largest majority of the galleries on show is devoted and directed to, from many parts of the world. Even one from Peking and another from Korea, welcome if probably still struggling newcomers, make their pitch. Many styles, many authors, many techniques and formats. I was glad to see smaller prints on offer, as I have always felt that the tendency towards large prints and the almost compulsory blowing up of images for commercial reasons is detrimental to the charme of many images and also revealing of a basic misunderstanding: the concept that size equals value in photography.
A special niche in this respect has to be reserved to the huge 20x24 inch Polaroid camera which I found in a small portrait set. Having had the honour of using one in 1995 I was moved to see it up and running, even though the good Jan Hnizdo who operated it at the time wasn’t around for me to greet now – maybe this wasn’t his camera - and the images next to it were very conventional studio portraits, making the size of the instant prints really the only special thing about them. COME ON, WE CAN DO BETTER WITH IT!
Much sepia, both old and modern. Huge super glossy colour prints are still the thing for some, and also the new digital prints made from last century’s material, like William Klein’s red painted contacts and Bert Stern’s Marilyn to name two. Most galleries seem to spread their chances of winning the punters by going for different things at the same time, such as large impudent black an white nudes by Friedlander next to more conservative quiet landscapes in colour of a Japanese author, the gallery being based in Tokyo. Many modern authors were on show with work that I had seen before, it seems to me a market wishing to please everyone and very unsure of its taste. Some experiments in display techniques included a large still life transparency on a light box – not a success as it tends to look like a fast food place window regardless of it being a quite artistic shot – and tiny video screens built into thick frames to create the illusion of a moving photograph – a brave attempt at change if not much more than a gimmick based more on the thickness of the frame than the depth of the underlying thoughts. The frontal nudity taboo being shattered, the genital is following in close pursuit as some huge prints were on display including a sort of diptych man/woman. Although probably safe from legal action, I still doubt that most large corporate clients other than porn erotic empires would judge this material suitable for public exhibition in their buildings. Maybe some wealthy collector would consider it for the private wing of his/her mansion. From a creative point of view I think that looking for sensation in this direction reveals, if anything, the impotence of the photographer, possibly in ironic contrast to the evident potential sexual prowess of the models. I leave it ultimately to you whether to find this work titillating, annoying or simply boring.
Officially the northern countries of Europe were to be given special attention this year, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. One example of huge barren landscapes in Iceland or somewhere in Greenland, looked very much like work that one would maybe too literally expect from a northern country, but were combined with images of garbage in what must have been meant as an environmental statement. Although very sympathetic to the preservation of nature, unfortunately I didn’t feel that this work was good enough to further the message with the modern public. It looked dated, predictable and bland. In general I am suspicious of the sudden appearance of the so called schools, whose definition seems more instrumental to the wish to apply labels by dealers and critics rather than describe an actual cultural interaction of photographers. Living as we do in a global flow of information and images, one’s background seems potentially much larger than our country of origin might have entailed in the past. A Nordic photographic profile didn’t show any deeper than self evident subject matter (lots of snow), or maybe I just missed it.
Scanning the sequel of images with increasingly tired eyes, I was struck time and again by the tendency of photographs to resemble one another in styles and mainstream genres, regardless of each author claim at originality. I stumbled en passant on a nice Joel Meyerowitz image of a girl standing on a beach in her bathing suit, facing the camera in youthful anticipation and reminiscent of yet another precursor of the trendy Dijkstra (oddly didn’t see any of her work here) – I mean of course the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, who beat them, and all the others before them to the theme by some 500 years. It must be said that it is difficult if not impossible not to remind something else whatever one does, and therefore impossible if not arduous either to prove plagiarism or to rightfully be entitled to the role of original creator and that of disowned author with credibility. In order to draw a conclusion to this visit I must rewind the tape of this chronicle to a few minutes before I was to join one of the queues winding like a spiral web around the octagonal centre of the ticket counters. As it happened I walked into a huge multimedia mega store and indulged my years long obsession by buying a brick of a book: a huge and heavy comprehensive Atget’s Paris edition. Burdened by its weight during the rest of the day, but also recently awakened to its sensitivity and meaning by a few lines I had found the evening before, reading the slightly silly (possibly in an attempt at being funny) but frequently punctuated with poignant good points and not often enough highlighted truths “Photography, a crash course” by Dave Yorath which I quote: “ he (Atget) was an obsessive, who cared nothing for self aggrandisement (this is hardly typical of your average photographer)”. Indeed self aggrandisement seems to me not only to be caused by the photographer’s ego but also by the needs and laws of a market that wants to expand, this will being even symbolized – if probably unintentionally – by the presence of a huge inflated balloon right on top of the ticket counters in the hall, carrying the logo of PP all around it. This is not meant as a sour criticism, neither of David’s good effort that calls for more serious essays by his hand, nor of the promotional needs of the market and or of the excellent design surrounding Paris Photo. As a freelance photographer (read unemployed, in David’s witty vocabulary) I am only too aware of the importance of self promotion. But I do want us to bear in mind that commerce and artistic creation must be mostly separate and distinct things, or else all art will end up looking like advertising, and this seems already to be the case, I am sorry to say, for many things in the galleries. It would be a lot more interesting if advertising came to look more like art, but even this is quite difficult and to be honest usually means a loss of money for the client. Maybe less attention to the author and more to photography would be a good thing, and in this respect I would like to mention one gallery: the charmingly named “Lumière des roses” of Montreuil. They specialize in anonymous or simply amateur unknown photographers of the 19th and 20th century, and have put up a very nice show that was pure joy and fun to see. Authentic, almost childish at times but always fascinating and leading to a rediscovery of this art, this craft, this hobby, this pleasure of photography. Sometimes the conscious creations of a photographer, sometimes a lucky accident, but always a phenomenon capable of recording the marvel of life itself if left to operate its magic unaffected by pretences and personal ambition.
Many photographs are good but not all good photographs are meant to be hung on a wall. Some look better in books and magazines, as was proven by many publishers present at the show in their own section. Too many books and magazines to discuss in detail now, they seem to feed and keep awake an insatiable market for good imagery, which is a good thing in a world where we have to compete with cheap and bad images spread around in huge amounts on the internet, for instance.
By this time we had completed the circle and were nearing the sleek looking silver grey BMW coupé close to the exit. We were ready to drive the beautiful machine of one of the trusted sponsors of PP right out of the underground location and on to some French country road in the sun, off to lunch regardless of what if any is its connection to the world of photography. This probably is more or less what happened to the lucky winner of some competition the rules of which I didn’t bother to examine closely (I never win anything anyhow, especially since I have accepted this fact and stopped trying). As to us, we just walked to the metro.