November Photo Madness in Paris

Hiromi Tsuchida

November has always been THE big photographic month in Paris, but this year is looking like it will be a record breaker. Here's a list of some of the big events happening in Paris this month. I don't know how I'm going to make my way to all of these, let alone blog about all of them, but hopefully I'll manage something.

  • Mois de la Photo. The month of photography kicks off today with 50 exhibitions around the city (including a contribution by yours truly, an Eikoh Hosoe exhibition at the Photo4 gallery on the left bank). This year is the Month's 30th anniversary and the theme is the MEP collection (yawn), but there are some good exhibitions to look out for in there.
  • Mois de la Photo Off. These days it seems you can't have a festival without their being a side event and with twice as many exhibitions as the Mois de la Photo itself the 'Off' will be giving the main event a run for its money.
  • Fotofest Paris. The good people behind Lens Culture are organising the first edition of this portfolio review event, in collaboration with the renowned Houston Fotofest (yours truly will be be making an appearance here too as a portfolio reviewer).
  • Paris Photo (18-21 Nov.): One of the best attended photo art-fairs in the world, this has become a passage obligé for most of the photoworld. Expect too many people, lots of moody black and white images (this year's spotlight is on the Central European photo scene), no natural light, too much looking over shoulders, too many parties with too many cigarettes, WAY too many photographs... and yet you wouldn't want to miss it.
  • Offprint Paris (18-21 Nov.): In parallel to Paris Photo, this will be the first edition of Paris's very own photobook fair, which is an interesting reflection of the current growing excitement around photobooks. While we're on the topic of photobooks there's an interesting exhibition opening next week at La Monnaie de Paris on the photobook svengali, Gerhard Steidl, which looks like it'll be worth a look.

If you love photography and you weren't planning to be in Paris this November... what were you thinking?

Seasonal picks

As the French art world shakes of the last of its summer tan, here's a list of some of the exhibitions to look out for in Paris this autumn, including (shock, horror) some non-photographic selections: Harry Callahan: Variations, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 7 Sep. - 19 Dec.

William Kentridge: Breath Dissolve, Return, Marian Goodman Gallery, 11 Sep. - 16 Oct. I don't know how I did this but I managed to miss the Kentridge exhibition at the Jeu de Paume this summer so I will not be missing this.

Takashi Murakami, Château de Versailles, 14 Sep - 12 Dec. 2010. After Jeff Koons last year Murakami is the next to tackle the most famous French château with as much kitsch as he can muster.

Gabriel Orozco, Centre Pompidou, 15 Sep. - 3 Jan. 2011.

Anonymes, l'Amerique sans nom: photographie et cinéma (Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare, Standish Lawder, Lewis Baltz, Anthony Hernandez, Sharon Lockhart, Jeff Wall, Bruce Gilden, Doug Rickard, Arianna Arcara et Luca Santese), Le Bal, 18 Sep. - 19 Dec. (Review of this show coming soon on eyecurious).

André Kertész, Jeu de Paume, 28 Sep. - 6 Feb.

Larry Clark: Kiss the Past Hello, MAMVP, 8 Oct. - 2 Jan.

Thibaut Cuisset: Syrie, une terre de pierre, Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, 12 Oct. - 6 Nov.

Moebius Transeforme, Fondation Cartier, 12 - Oct. - 13 Mar.

Duane Michals, Galerie Thierry Marlat, 26 Oct. - 18 Nov.

Mois de la Photo, November. 30th anniversary of the biennial month of photography in Paris. Expect more photography than ever all over the city.

Eikoh Hosoe, Galerie Photo4, 5 Nov. - 4 Dec. Organized by yours truly.

Prix Pictet, Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, 13 - 27 Nov. The sustainability photo prize is holding a preview exhibition at Filles du Calvaire this year.

Paris Photo, 18 - 21 Nov. Annual photo mayhem.

GuatePhoto Festival

I'm not normally that keen on receiving emails asking me to promote an event or gallery opening. I recently got a couple of messages which didn't bother with the asking part and just instructed me to get promoting already. This is a surefire way to make me ignore you completely. But there are exceptions to this rule and the GuatePhoto Festival is one of them. I know nothing about Guatemala except that a friend of mine from college went to work there for a summer. I haven't even been to South Central America so the idea that some young photographers in Guatemala City are reading about Japanese photography (in English) on eyecurious, which is written from Paris, caused my recently awakened mind to be mildly blown. This is really the kind of connections that make blogging worthwhile. Grab all the details on the inaugural GuatePhoto Festival on their website.

A dirty word?

As a lot of readers out there will be aware, a recent essay by Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple, has been making some waves (ripples?) in the photography/art world, and of course in our beloved blogosphere. I apologize for wading in on this discussion so very late, but it seems to me that there are a few points that have not been raised as yet. The main thrust of Graham's piece is that, "there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. [...]  [P]hotography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is—are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." This is a question that is unavoidable to anyone interested in photography who has stepped beyond the confines of the photography-only community.

Relatively speaking, as an art form photography is still in its infancy. This has several implications: firstly, a certain, potentially justified, inferiority complex or sense of exclusion within the photographic community vis-à-vis the art world; secondly a broad spectrum of reactions from within the art world ranging from a wariness or even disregard of 'straight photography' to a seemingly even-handed "who gives a shit what the medium is as long as the art is good"-ness. So where does 'straight photography', "photographs taken from the world as it is," stand?

My instinct in these kind of discussions would be to look at the data (past lives are to blame for this). How much is 'straight' photography represented in major art fairs versus other disciplines, how much does it sell for versus other types of photography and media, how many modern or contemporary art museums show 'straight' photography exhibitions? Sadly this is not information that is readily available to me, so I won't be winning this debate with some beautifully constructed Excel charts and will have to rely on my avowedly limited personal experience.

While I think it is an overstatement to argue that photography is somehow ostracized from or maligned by the rest of the art world, I believe it has yet to consolidate its standing. Until very recently the Tate Modern, one of the biggest contemporary art institutions in Europe, did not have a curator of photography. The Centre Pompidou in Paris does not do more than one pure photography show per year (this kind of unwritten rule doesn't apply to other media). My impression is that many modern or contemporary art museums are still reluctant to present straight photography exhibitions. Where I disagree, reluctantly, with Graham is in his plea for the art world to look up and take notice, giving straight photography its due. Ed Winkleman says it best: "anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be fair should demand their money back." The phenomenon of artists being widely celebrated (and even a little bit rich) in their own lifetime is relatively recent... I believe Picasso was the first to orchestrate this... and as photography has only been accepted as an art form over the last four decades or so, it seems normal to me that it is still struggling to find its place.

In terms of the commercial art market, photography is everywhere: you won't see a contemporary art fair without a healthy dose of our beloved still images. But, my impression is that straight photography — as opposed to the photography of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand mentioned by Graham — has less of a place in contemporary art circles. There is a sense that being a photographer does not carry the same weight as being an 'artist.' The word 'photographer' implies craft rather than concepts or ideas, key measures of values in contemporary art, and craft has become a dirty word in the art world synonymous with pottery or glass-blowing (to quote Blake Andrews). Some photographers have even attempted to rebrand themselves as 'artists', presumably to escape the photographic ghetto. One measure I think will support me here is price: I'm pretty sure that if you compared the price of straight photography to the price of 'contemporary photographic art' for lack of a better term, you would see a pretty significant disparity, even between individuals with similar visibility and at a similar stage of their career. If anyone's got an account with artprice or one of those services, feel free to check this out!

Let's say that you accept that straight photography is lagging behind the leaders of the art pack (insert your preferred reasons here), what should be done? While I understand his point that the only thing you can do is to make the 'best' art possible, I was truly surprised by Winkleman's idea that if you "get out there and make better art than anyone else around you ... the world WILL notice." This strikes me as more than a little naive for such a consistently intelligent commentator on the art market. Does anyone truly believe that the art market (or world) is a state-of-the-art machine, constructed to ensure that the better art is, the more it gets noticed (see a previous post on this)? Just take a look at the world of consumerism: products don't sell more because they are better, there are a million other factors that determine their success: advertising, marketing, lack of competition, pricing, demand, the total irrationality of the consumer, etc.. The art market (I am taking the liberty of equating the art market with the art world here, including public institutions and not only commercial galleries) is precisely the kind of market which is riddled with imperfections: it's tiny, full of different hand-made products each claiming to be totally unique and it's ruled by a handful of major players with a controlling market share trying to sell to a handful of buyers who have all the money. And even if the art market were a utopia where the best art would rise to the top, where exactly is this universal yardstick on which the quality of art is being measured?

There is also the notion, expressed by Jörg Colberg, that photographers are just wasting their time worrying about what photography is, that this navel-gazing is causing their self-inflicted ostracization from the art market. The suggestion here seems to be that if they just got on with making photographs they might be taken more seriously. I tend to agree with Blake Andrews on this one: I see this kind of internal debate and questioning as positive signs of photography's health. And even if it bores you, it is by no means restricted to photography: take the major debate over the death of painting in the 1980s for example. Questions on the boundaries of art, on what art is and what it isn't, are not exactly new, indeed they are a natural and necessary reaction to any major artistic development.

The idea that Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and James Casebere are "being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not" runs counter to the history of art. I am currently editing a book on Impressionism, which features a number of letters by Pissarro, Gauguin and Monet. What emerges from the correspondence of these artists with their dealers, friends or their family, is just how deeply uncertain they are about the new things that they are attempting to do with painting and what reaction they will receive amongst critics, collectors and the general public.

My suggested course of action is that we worry even harder about all this stuff, about the nature of photography and about the quality, relevance and importance of individual photographs, and hopefully some of that "better art" will come out of it.

Paris Photo: crossing the finish line

Maurizio Anzeri Paris Photo 2009 has just drawn to a close and already the reports are flowing in thick and fast. There is much less of a consensus than for NYPH, which was generally perceived to have been a bit disappointing (see my previous round-up post on this). I am just happy to have survived it all at this stage and have yet to form many coherent thoughts, but here are my "impressions à chaud."

Judging from all the opinions that I have heard over the past few days, Paris Photo manages to be different things to different people. Pretty much everyone I spoke to had a different set of highlights and there have been many totally divergent assessments of whether this was a good year or not. The only common position I have seen emerging is that Maurizio Anzeri is great and I am certainly not about to disagree. I will be highlighting a few of my picks or discoveries from the fair in the next few days, but at first I wanted to give a few general impressions.

Overall this year's fair felt less contemporary than previous years, with more vintage work on show particularly from the postwar years. Aside from the Arab and Iranian material which was on show given this year's theme: there were strong representations of Japanese, Korean and South African work, both from domestic and international galleries. China was a notable absentee (only one Chinese gallery was present, 798 Gallery from Beijing), especially compared to the giddy heights of a few years ago.

I think that Paris Photo's idea to have a guest country every year is a real asset (I would say this though as I am involved in trying to improve exchanges between Japan and the West in the field of photography). People often seem disappointed by the selection of work from the guest country or region, and some guests are undoubtedly stronger than others, but even if they just happen to see one new artist that they hadn't before, I think it is worth it. The art market is often inclined not to take risks these days and Paris Photo's guest country system helps to force a certain amount of new lesser known material in each year. One positive trend that I noticed is that a couple of Japanese galleries (G/P and Base) that were first-timers at Paris Photo last year have now stayed on. This cannot happen every year of course as space is at a premium but it is good to see that some doors are staying open.

The sheer quantity of work on show and its increasingly global scope make it very difficult to be completely disappointed: no matter what your specific area of interest might be, you will always find something to get excited about. I think treating Paris Photo like an exhibition is a mistake: too much work, too many people, not enough space,  no natural air or light, and the world's longest queue for the world's most expensive coffee are some pretty big obstacles to a great viewing-only experience.

A major part of what make's Paris Photo's success is the people: it has become the major destination in Europe (and even globally) for photographers, directors, curators, booksellers, publishers, magazines, journos, and bloggers and it is by running into all these people that the fair becomes really interesting. I have come to think of Paris Photo as a place to make discoveries and great contacts. This was the first year that I have attended as a blogger and thanks to Laurence Vecten of LOZ we had a discussion with a bunch of other European photo-bloggers which lasted two hours but could quite happily have gone on for a couple more days. This is the kind of event that makes Paris Photo such a unique opportunity.

My one (slightly old-mannish) whinge is that the fair really is getting incredibly crowded. I'd be curious to know how much more attendance there was this year compared to 2008.  I heard some dealers complaining that the crowds are making it difficult to show work to collectors as there are always dozens of people looking over their shoulder to see what is going on... not a very conducive environment for making a sale. As they are the ones that make the economics of the fair work, this could be a big deal, but the idea of giving a 1.5 hour slot to professionals and collectors in the morning is a good innovation and I don't think it makes life that much more difficult for the general public. In terms of sales I am not in a position to gauge how things went overall, but my impression is that the feeling of panic that gripped everyone in 2008 has been replaced by cautious optimism. Let's hope that keeps on going.

Further reading: for another round-up of the fair and links to even more, check out Nick's excellent On Shadow blog.