Sometimes the sheer variety got a bit wearing. It wasn’t the variety of subject matter. That much we know, and can cope with – that a camera can point at anything. But the variety of ways of working that can all be called photography can be bewildering.
To start with, there were constant amazing snippets at this year’s Paris Photo, the international fine art photography fair. A female bullfighter, nearly life size, cradling a pressure cooker (Filomena Soares gallery). Mike Brodie’s series on modern drifters riding the freight trains of America (M+B Gallery). Beautiful, tiny classic Helen Levitt pictures for only €2,000 (Laurence Miller Gallery). And the one known image that Eugène Delacroix made as a cliché-verre (Galerie Françoise Paviot).
Actually, this last work is much more than a snippet. Cliché-verre was a process that involved drawing on photographic emulsions. It might have become a more easily reproducible form of engraving. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was the great proponent of the form, although he seems not to have made much impression on Delacroix, who tried it once and never again. Elsewhere, I saw the caption for a cliché-verre by László Moholy-Nagy, the great experimenter, but not the work itself, presumably sold to someone who couldn’t wait to get it home.
Paris Photo is not bad for that kind of scholarly exploration but it’s not really what the fair is for. If that’s what you want, it’s better to meet gallerists when they have time to talk without their eyes drifting beyond your shoulder every few seconds. Paris Photo is a big, brash supermarket of all genres photographic. It’s a great place to see a lot quickly. It’s a great place to discern trends.
Here are three: this year there was a considerable resurgence of pictorialism. About time too, you might say, for pictorialism was really knocked back by the emergence of modernism in the 1930s. Photography made so much of the “machine aesthetic” that it became quite usual to despise anything sentimental as somehow non-photographic. But pictorialism, which is, indeed, often a bit soppy or soupy, does have the one great virtue that it asks viewers to look at pictures for a long time.
Good pictorialists search for techniques to counter photography’s natural tendency to repel the eye from its slippery surfaces. Finnish photographer Santeri Tuori would probably not thank me for the term but he is really a contemporary pictorialist. He has been making multiple exposures for years but has really hit his stride with a series of multiple exposed cloudscapes. These images at Gallery Taik Persons were the most obvious “hits” of this year’s fair (priced very decently, below €10,000, in the large size).
Another strong trend was Europe. In past years, American names have largely dominated at Paris Photo, both in the historical photographs shown and sold, and in the contemporary ones. This year there were confident displays of great non-US photography all over. The VU gallery from Paris, for example, had an outstanding booth showing connected pictures on the theme of how our erotic life comes to define us. It brought together works by Dutchman Ed van der Elsken from the 1950s, by Swedes Christer Stromholm, from the 1960s, and Anders Petersen, from the 1970s, and more or less contemporary works by another Swede, JH Engstrom.
Elsewhere, the mid-20th-century Germans were reappearing; important names that hardly figure in the standard US-defined lines of descent. At Galerie Thessa Herold there were excellent pictures by Heinz Hajek-Halke and Peter Keetman. Elsewhere, I saw pictures by Otto Steinert, too.
With the exception of one exciting late series by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (Fraenkel Gallery), the American contribution was often more branded, safer, more “commercial”, while the European work was riskier and, perhaps, more challenging.
Two of the fanciest galleries had the least successful displays, in spite of being sited on the prime corner of the fair, and both were American: Gagosian and David Zwirner. Neither had a coherent theme, neither really blew one away with any masterpiece. Some American booths were first-rate but not as many as in previous years. Many less glorious European galleries had done a much better job.
The third tendency this year gave complete equality to all the different ways of working with photographs. Take a seemingly modest series by Mónica de Miranda (Carlos Carvalho Gallery) called “An Ocean Between Us”. Conceived originally as a video piece, it has sometimes been shown on light boxes and is here as elegant traditional framed pictures. It looks like simple studies of life on a cargo ship. But, gradually, complex meanings leach out: the cargo ship is not moving; it stands both for connection and separation. It could be documentary, could be staged, could even conceivably be a reworked archive.
Daniel Blau Gallery showed exactly that: an entire archive, complete with editing marks and suggested crops. Others showed parodies of archives, or parodies of documentary, or real documentary that has shifted slightly as time has eaten away at its original meanings. You needed to be on your toes but you could not be bored at Paris Photo.
Some galleries devoted their booths to one artist, and that was a pleasure: it showed the courage of their convictions and made the experience less like supermarket shopping and more like browsing in a well-run department store with separate concessions. I wish more galleries would do likewise.
It would not have been Paris Photo had there not also been disappointments. This year they were mainly in the invited shows within the fair. The JPMorgan and Armani collections were just dull, the trophied gleanings of people who had been shopping but not really collecting. The fraction of the Harald Falckenberg Collection on show was much more generous: a whole wall of Lee Friedlander’s television pictures and a set of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s famous “Evidence” series (produced as a book in the late 1970s, an early demonstration of how picking through an archive could recontextualise pictures completely).
The boom in photography books continues, although, again, the shopping aspect sometimes takes over. There are interesting books coming out or reappearing but not nearly as many as we are expected to believe. In the photo book world, the proportion of manure to mushrooms is very high.
Although Paris Photo takes place within the glorious cast-iron birdcage that is the Grand Palais, it is worth remembering that it stimulates a lot of photographic activity elsewhere in Paris. This year the Erwin Blumenfeld show at the Jeu de Paume is brilliant, as is the Anders Petersen show at the Bibliothèque Nationale. At the time of writing I have not seen the Mark Cohen exhibition at Le Bal but cannot imagine it to be anything other than interesting. There’s also the Latin American show at the Cartier Foundation. You could easily get dizzy. But you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Paris Photo is also on show in Los Angeles, April 25-27 2014, parisphoto.fr