November 23, 2012 7:50 pm

The past snaps back

The star attraction at the 16th Paris Photo was a display of older photography by the Archive of Modern Conflict
'Entwickler, verpackt' (2009) by Jan Wenzel

'Entwickler, verpackt' (2009) by Jan Wenzel

Paris Photo, whose 16th edition ended last week, has developed a welcome sense of history. This year’s star attraction, the annual invited exhibition, was a triumphant display of older photography by the London-based Archive of Modern Conflict. Far more galleries were showing contemporary and older material next to each other, and there was a decrease in the shrill and the garish, certainly in gratuitous nudity.

Print sizes were diminishing too. Pace Macgill had three stunning examples of Harry Callahan’s 1950 street portraits of women, at manageable prices ($15,000) and at the moderate size of the period. The huge now looks vulgar unless it can be justified for coherent reasons – as in Thomas Ruff’s gigantic Nudes (Gagosian showed one), whose scale is part of the point.

There is a reason for all this. Everything derived from conceptual art is beginning to look suspect: people want (and galleries are hurrying to supply) material of proven cultural value.

So two of the highest prices were for properly established masterpieces, one from each side of the Atlantic. A wall of wonderful prints by August Sander, edited by his grandson Gerd, was at the Feroz gallery priced at €2.7m. And three extraordinary depersonalised nudes by Edward Weston were on offer at the Johannes Faber gallery for €180,000-€280,000.

Even that is telling, for it used to be that photo history was driven from the US. The leading European figures were always important but never had the weight of the market behind them. Yet this year, Johannes Faber was confidently selling the important but relatively obscure Otto Steinert beside Walker Evans. Leading Paris gallerist Baudoin Lebon was mixing from the widest span of the photographic spectrum: Ayana V Jackson’s 2012 representation of a female African guerrilla, nude but for a red turban, legs apart, rifle cradled from crotch to shoulder; round the corner, Nadar’s entire series of the famous interview in 1888 with Eugène Chevreuil, 103 years old at the time. The Nadar, familiar from histories of photography, lent gravitas to its contemporary stablemate.

Again and again, the best gallerists found parallels and contrasts between old and new. Lumière des Roses even had an enormous 19th-century negative framed in a rough crate that acted as a light-box: modern presentation bringing to life a piece that only a museum might have dared to buy.

Among the new things on offer, I liked a set of three views of cruise liners docked in Norwegian fjords by Taiji Matsue, shown at the Taro Nasu gallery. Jan Wenzel’s work with photobooth strips was not new to me, but I had forgotten my admiration for its complexity. At Eric Franck, the colour portraits of Robert Bergman were well worth seeking out. These represent an older kind of photography: like Walker Evans’ subway pictures, they are of unnamed sitters met by chance who seem fiercely to defend their right to look odd.

The guest show by the Archive of Modern Conflict is a delight, a crammed mix expertly marshalled by curator Timothy Prus. Cyanotypes, a picture of hailstones, a lovely group of panoramas including modest contemporary street views: a cornucopia from every period, manner and purpose in photography.

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