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Paris Photo ’09

November 24th, 2009


The Annual gathering of the photographic art and publishing industry is drawing to a close in Paris as I write, Paris Photo runs over four days at the Carousel du Louvre and houses stands from most of the major photographic art dealers and publishers as well as the stands of photo agencies Magnum and Vu. This is not the place to see street photography but as I was heading home from a commission in Lyon I dropped in for a couple of days to see what was what.
Paris Photo is all about the photograph as commodity, its about editions and above all its about the red dots that signify a sale. A NY dealer I spoke to about a Simon Norfolk print knew how much it was and how big the edition was but not that it was a scene from Kabul, Afghanistan taken in 2004.



I recently purchased Simon Roberts We English so it was nice to see my favorite image of the Paragliders from the book as a large print. I also saw prints from Amy Steins Domesticated project which I still love despite finding out they are constructed using stuffed animals.

Prints from Simon Roberts 'We English' book at the Photographers Gallery stand

Prints from Simon Roberts 'We English' book at the Photographers Gallery stand

New discoveries for me were Evelyn Hoffer “the most famous ‘unknown’ photographer in America” as described in a 1987 professional photo journal, I was tempted to buy this beautiful image she made in Dublin but found myself 6000 euros short....Steidl have produced a beautiful book of her work.

Image: Evelyn Hoffer

Image: Evelyn Hoffer

From Japan I loved the work of Ken Kitano, black and white images from his editioned book Flow and Fusion that use long exposures to record the movement of people and objects, mostly in urban environments.

Image: Ken Kitano Tokyo Dome from the book Flow and Fusion

Image: Ken Kitano, Tokyo Dome from the book Flow and Fusion

And finally the work that excited me most by its originality and beautiful referencing of ancient chinese scrolls was the composited images of Yao Lu at the 798 Photo Gallery stand. I encountered a slight language barrier in enquiring about the work but these tall images in the format of Chinese illustrated scrolls appeared to be commenting on the changes to the Chinese landscape brought about by the massive industrialisation of the country. The traditional beautiful vision of the Chinese landscape is replaced by piles of rubble, hills covered by weed inhibiting fabric and populated by uniformed solders walking in the snow.

image: Yao Lu

Image: Yao Lu

images Yao Lu

images Yao Lu

Detail of image by Yao Lu

Detail of image by Yao Lu

Those of you who know me will be surprised by this last choice as I am generally pretty critical of composited images but that was probably the most enjoyable aspect of my visit to Paris Photo, it forced me to consider the work of photographers outside my own field and thereby reminded me of the wider photographic context within which street photography exists.
It has to be said that there was no street photography represented at all that was taken in the last forty years, there were lovely prints by the late Helen Levitt as well as all the collectable names, Erwitt, Frank, Bresson etc. But it was a stark reminder of the fact that street photography is very much excluded from both the art and publishing world.

Finally I wanted to mention the presence of documentary photographic agencies like Vu and Magnum at a photographic art festival, I found it a little uncomfortable to see images from the worlds trouble spots, where people are struggling and suffering on a fairly daily basis, hanging in a gallery environment with red dots under them. I think the jury is still out in my own mind on this one, and I would be interested to hear your opinions. I remember some years ago a debate about this arising from the 'beautiful' black and white images of famine made by Sebastiao Salgado. The Magnum photographer Antoine d Agata presents his documentary images in groups, they are in small black frames and heavily vignetted and the piece I saw at Paris Photo about Gaza was given a green/yellow color cast. To me this raises some interesting questions about the degree to which documentary photographers will 'package' their work for the art market, for print this really compatible with the responsibility they have to those their images portray? To what extent does this manipulation for aesthetic effect compromise them as documents of a real historical occurrence?

Antoine d Agata, Diary, Palestine, 1999 -2005

Antoine d Agata, Diary, Palestine, 1999 -2005

Antoine d Agata, Detail from Diary, Palestine, 1999 -2005

Antoine d Agata, Detail from Diary, Palestine, 1999 -2005

Certainly many traditional documentary photographers have taken up the 10x8 plate camera or sought other ways of engaging with an audience, Luc Delahayes History project is a good example of a photojournalist breaking the mould but retaining his documentary credibility. Delahayes huge prints were on sale for $15,000 each when they first went on sale in NYC and he now refers to himself as an artist...

Luc Delahaye, Dead Taliban

Luc Delahaye, Dead Taliban

"At the heart of the discussion was the financial and artistic crisis that photojournalism is currently going through.

On the financial side, few magazines any longer commission photographers to go off for several months and produce an "essay". So, to consolidate their careers, photojournalists are inevitably looking to book production and the galleries.

On the aesthetic side, many photographers are going through a soul-searching similar to that of painters in the late 1800s when, for some at least, photography made figurative, naturalistic work redundant"

Strangely this quote is from the facebook page for his History Project.

Paris Photo is a snapshot of the photographic market place and a visit makes one question the value of photography, financial and otherwise. It also makes one sympathise with the dilemma that modern photographers find themselves in, balancing the roles of artists with something to say with having to make a buck. Street photographers working with inexpensive equipment and often with alternative employment are increasingly the last remaining independent document makers, our low overheads and ease of access to our subject matter means our picture making remains un-compromised by the necessity to be commissioned, published or sold. The exclusion of street photography by galleries and publishers like those at commercial events such as Paris Photo may, in the end, be the secret of its ongoing survival and success.

One Response to “Paris Photo ’09”

  1. Johanna

    Hello N,

    I had similiar feelings when I was there last year and the year before that. That I was really seeing the commercial/business side of things – and felt a little cheated – where were the surprises? The galleries or dealers going out on a limb? It all felt very safe. (I thought this year with the Middle-Eastern theme you might see something different).

    To take a stand however (we looked into it for the first time this year) is horrendously expensive so I guess if you exhibit – what’s up on your walls has to be a pretty safe bet to cover your costs…

    Interesting you liked Lao Yu. He was exhibited last year too and I was blown away by them aswell – you really need to see them as large photographic prints – none of the reproductions in books or magazines do them justice…

    I think it’s good that Magnum & Agence Vu have a presence at events like this. It’s good to make people feel a little uncomfortable every now and then. Makes them think.

    Surely a documentary photographer has to chosen to “communicate” something – why should the method of distributing that message be restricted to traditional avenues? And because something has an aesthetic value does that it mean its message is devalued?

    Brings to my mind writers/commentators like Malcolm Gladwell for example – who write to entertain AND inform at the same time. Their ideas and messages reach a much wider audience that way…

    A sweet pill gets swallowed more readily than a bitter one… But I guess the thing is whether the good effects are diluted if they have a sugar-coating…?
    I have no answer to this…

    Lastly think what you say about S.P.’s strength as an “outsider” is interesting.

    I can draw parallels between Street Photography and Street Art – both come out of a passion – and are made “just because”.

    Just becuase the photographer or artist felt like it.

    Street Art, as we all know has become appropriated by the conventional art world fetching huge prices – and there are endless books published on the subject – but what I find interesting is on the whole the artists seem perfectly able to reconcile this with their own personal work – considering the prices (& celeb collectors) there aren’t really that many accusations of “selling-out”…

    Because the artists are staying true to their roots?


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