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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Paris Photo: It's not Club Sandwich Photography

picture by Olivier van Breugel en Simone Mudde

Making interesting photography is a long game. Interesting, complex photography of whatever genre is about bringing together aesthetics and ideas from art, history, design, war, politics, struggle, sex, wherever. Interesting photography makes links between different cultural and political expressions. It's never simple.

The ideas feed up, they come from the ground, from activist, engaged, earthy, obsessive photography that has a story to it. The ideas come from people who are inspired, creative, neurotic, who have an opinion, A World View and a life that is a bit out of the ordinary. Strangely enough it's never really a functional or a balanced life. A lot of the time it's a bit of a lonely life that ends in rejection and tragedy.

picture Erwin Blumenfeld

Think Lewis Hine, Erwin Blumenfeld or Alexey Brodovitch, three of my very favourite photographers, all of whom created very different work, all of which was amazing, all of whom ended their lives in different degrees of tragedy.

Before going to Paris I watched the Blumenfeld documentary, The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women. It features his amazing images where faces are obscured, where there is a feeling of mystery, intrigue and threat. He worked for Vogue and Harpers' Bazaar, but these are never just fashion images, they are rooted in a past that links directly to Dada, collage, surrealism and protest, and Blumenfeld's passion for seeing and making, especially when beautiful women were involved. If Blumenfeld had never been involved with Grosz and collage and propaganda, he would never have made the work that he made later. Through Blumenfeld, Vogue dined out on his work. They were voyeurs, reliving his experiences second-hand through his images.

And Blumenfeld knew that. He differentiated between his creative work, the work which we now know and love, and the commercial work that he saw as prostitution. Even Blumenfeld made work that was photographic muzak. Muzak of the highest photographic quality no doubt, but still he hated himself for it.

So there is a cultural feeding up from the ground up, from politics and propaganda, from Dada, from Berlin and Paris at the turn of the century, from the tumults of the revolutions and wars that blighted Europe in its Age of Extremes. All that feeds into the pictures.

And it's the same at Paris Photo. There is great work all around. It has meaning that seeps up from the ground and stands out in the decontextualised environment of the Paris Photo Selling booths. The giant abstract William Klein print has weight and substance, the Bill Henson pictures glow with sweat and sickliness and Margret – Chronik einer Affäre tells a fantastic story wherever you see it.

Horst P. Horst, Carmen Face Massage

But there is some work that seems pointless and ugly, that is made to be sold and that is bought because it's sold. The photographers know it and the gallerists know it. I don't know too much about the business of print-selling but from the conversations I have had with gallerists I know there is always the trade-off. If you care about photography you want to sell the work that has depth and intelligence and is great.

pictures from Margret Gunther K.

But what if that work doesn't sell. Do you subsidise it by selling work that sells, when often the reason that work sells is because it sells. There was some work on show that was simply dreadful. It was obviously made for people with lots of money who want to buy photographs because that is what you do when you are extremely wealthy. It shows you have taste. Except they don't like pictures, they don't want pictures, they are simply spending their money to be seen to be spending money on art (except it's not art they're buying). And they are catered to because hey, it's a business and when it costs around £20,000 to have a basic gallery booth at Paris Photo, money always comes into the equation. But everybody except the people buying know what that photography is about. And in private gallerists will admit that at least some of the stuff they sell is there to subsidise the interesting work. They know that they are selling photography to people with no taste, to people who hate photographs.

You get great chefs who work in very good kitchens and sometimes people come in who know nothing about food but want the cachet of eating at this or that restaurant. And they come in and they order a club sandwich. The chefs hate this. The servers hate this. They despise the people who order the club sandwiches. It's an insult to their skills and intelligence and the integrity of the restaurant. But it turns a profit and the margins are fantastic. It's the right clientele in some ways because it makes money. I guess it's the same for galleries. They hate selling the average work. It's Club Sandwich Photography.

But very little of the work was like that. Once you skim over the bad photography and the flogging-a-dead-horse photography, most of it is amazing work, albeit shown in what is essentially a very expensive and tacky supermarket. It's stripped of its meaning somewhat because of where it's shown - there's that production/fabrication/dissemination disconnect, but because the work isn't easy, because it is nearly always intelligent in some way, there is an aura that carries it beyond the gallery shelf so to speak.

And if Paris Photo is a supermarket, then the galleristos and galleristas are the sales people. You get the interested, normal ones who wore their business lightly, under a skin of art-obsessed humanity, then you got the ones who rather resented the massed crowds bundling around their artwork, you could feel the discomfort on their skin at times, they were like monkeys in a zoo wondering at the distastefulness of it all. The best were the really sharp ones who could smell money or the lack thereof and let that affect their dead-eyed faces. they were fun to look at, an alien species with sharp suits, plastic skin and bristly hair -  gallery sharks feeding on the money scraps that fell off the excessively monied folk passing through.

picture by Ingar Krauss

That didn't happen with the really good ones though because the passion for their work came first and  they loved talking about it in tremendously knowledgeable and interesting ways - which is always the best way of selling work. There were also the dealers who were having a bad fair, who shrank into their booths the longer the fair went on (I was only there for a couple of hours so do understand I'm being creative here - with everything), and the ones who had hit their targets and were relaxing into the happy land of a job well done and the night is young.

But the Grand Palais is only part of Paris Photo and there are all these offshoots that laid a kind of foundation for the event, that give it the foundation for it to stand upon. There are satellite exhibitions all over the place, speaking events where you get curators, writers, academics, photographers and blogeurs perform, but also the book events - beyond the Grand Palais trade publishers, there is Offprint, Polycopies and Fotofever. And I'm guessing the expansion of Paris Photo into these events gives the Grand Palais a grounding. It no longer stands in isolation but has photographic roots that tie the lots-of-money work seen in the booths to both a range of opinions and the current no-money works that are visible in the offshoots. They are like the roots of where future work will come from, where the energy and the dynamism and the fun is.

picture from Mc Hotel

The result is you can go from top to bottom of the photography food chain just by moving from Polycopies (a boat full of books) to The Grand Palais and back again. That adds a dimension to the fair and makes it be whatever you want it to be. I bought a photobook called Mc Hotel Tokyo by Olivier van Breugel and Simone Mudde outside the Polycopies Boat. They had a little table with music and free wine. The book cost 2 euros and it is great. But I didn't buy any of the Mapplethorpe flowers that were on sale in the darkened recesses of one Booth because they cost 300,000 Euros. Paris Photo can be expensive or it can be cheap. At 2 Euros I think I found my market!

I had never been to Paris Photo before but I have to say that I loved it. Speaking to other people who had been before, there was a pretty unanimous view that it was more enjoyable than in previous years, that the other events added a balance to the frenetic and rarified atmosphere of the Grand Palais.

It's like mixed housing. If you ever go to an area where you only have wealthy people living, it is invariably, without exception, a soulless place without life, dynamism or heart, a place where people, ideas and ways of being are locked out and kept in separation. Mixed communities are more functional and they reveal the workings of a city. They also create a better communication and understanding between different parts of the community. They are not apartheid communities in that rich and poor sense.

That's what Offprint, Polycopies and all the rest do for Paris Photo. They give it a soul and mean that you, as a visitor can make of it whatever you want to. Including not going near the Grand Palais - or Polycopies - or Offprint. There's enough going on everywhere. And that's a good thing.


Lucy said...

But Paris Photo is like some jewel incrusted tick. The thing it's been feeding on is Mois de la Photo, which has been running every other year since 1980, and its 20 year old fringe Mois-OFF, both of which fill the whole city with exhibitions and events. Paris Photo is useful for seeing who/what's selling, but to only go there is like someone saying they've 'done' the museum when in fact they've done nothing but visit the gift shop.

colin pantall said...

Jewel-encrusted tick! That's perfect, Lucy. And all true, but I enjoyed it and went because of it - and I guess there is a trickle down effect because of it. And I'd go again, but I wouldn't go just for the Grand Palais, but because of all the other events as well - together. The more the merrier, I say.

Federico said...

I like going to photo fairs once every two years: as much as, or even more than going to photo festivals. Happiness is a warm gun, and with fairs comes the merry possibility of an overdose of photography in relatively tight compartments (yes, the Grand Palais is... Grand, but it is divided into hundreds of booths, and except when you look upwards you could be anywhere in the world).

Another plus: The sheer chaos, the relatively (as compared with festivals, or exhibitions in galleries or museums) uncurated, raw feel of everything. The invigorating mix of the old and the new, the recent past and the contemporary. Color and black and white. Analog and Digital. Passpartout & Glass vs Glassless, etc. Each visitor makes his/her own unguided journey thru the booths, art is laid bare, undigested.

I love 20th century photography from the fifties through the eighties mainly, and fairs are a chance to revisit or discover gems and pearls from my heroes (Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, etc.) while also getting to know contemporaries. But all this in a haphazard, unpredictable way, which I think for a change is not bad at all.

colin pantall said...

Yes, right on - there were artist books, propaganda books, the whole range of prints - the history of photography in one giant food chain (once the extra events are added on, including Mois de la Photo, Lucy).

More is more... I just wish I'd had more time to look around. There was too much in too short a time

Stan B. said...

Thanks for putting it down in print, much of it obvious- but rarely ever spoken and acknowledged in polite public discourse.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - if you're talking about the Club Sandwich they do talk about it - not sure where but they do. It's your basic retail dilemma if you work in any kind of top-end service/retail industry; the taste of your customers.

Lucy said...

Sorry if what I wrote sounded a bit harsh... I'm not as anti Paris Photo as my comment might make it seem, I know it's a very exciting place to be (when I can afford to get in).

Could something like Paris Photo have come into existence anywhere else? In the late-90s I mean. Wouldn't have happened in London, in the same sense that in the 1980s London would not have deigned to host a city-wide month long photography festival.

Even now, what photography festivals do we have - anywhere in the UK - to match Paris?

colin pantall said...

Don't go back, Lucy. 'Jewel-encrusted tick' must stay! We can all understand that, doesn't mean we don't enjoy it.

But seeing photography at a fair, seeing photography in a museum, seeing a photography in a gallery - good question, what's the difference?

Or seeing it on a screen, on a phone, in a book, in a window...?