Paris November photo madness round-up

Maurizio Anzeri (The Photographers' Gallery, London)

As the eyecurious faithful (and anyone who has been in Paris recently) will have noted, this has been a particularly action-packed month for photography in Paris. As I noted in a previous post, there was a bunch of different events going on at once and, as November draws to a close, I thought I would pull together a few brief impressions from the past month of photo-gluttony.

Paris Photo, the photo art fair, remains the major event on the Paris photo calendar. As with any art fair, it is not an experience for the faint-hearted or the sensitive-eyed. The fair squeezes several thousand photographs into a pretty restricted space underneath the Louvre, far more than 2 eyes and 1 brain can hope to absorb over a long weekend. Having started the week with three days of portfolio reviews at the first edition of FotoFest Paris (on which more later) it felt like a week of serious visual overindulgence.

Robert Voit (Robert Morat gallery)

A quick scan of the round-ups of the fair around the web will reveal that there is no consensus whatsoever on the highlights of the year and that is in part because it is virtually impossible to see everything. My overall impression is that this was not a particularly adventurous year in terms of new work and the focus appeared to be on bringing big name vintage work. Hamburg's Robert Morat gallery bucked that trend with a great selection of work by Robert Voit, Peter Bialobrzeski and Jessica Backhaus. There are always a couple of artists that pop up on several booths and this year Michael Wolf's Tokyo subway and Street View images and Massimo Vitali's bleached-out beaches were the two that I kept running into. As always 'curated' booths were few and far between, which is understandable given the commercial nature of the fair. However there were a couple of exceptions: for his first Paris Photo, Paris's François Sage presented (and sold all of) 20 pieces from Naoya Hatakeyama's Maquettes/Light series combined with vintage night work from Kertész, Brassaï and others; while Serge Plantureux's booth was "transformed into a detective agency" built around an extraordinary collage of every building on a 1930s St Petersburg street which spanned the full length of his booth. And a favourite discovery from last year, Maurizio Anzeri, reappeared again with some more great pieces.

Serge Plantureux's booth at Paris Photo

I suppose the natural measure of the success is sales and on this, once again, I heard wildly different assessments (Paris Photo gives it upbeat round-up here). However, for me the measure of the success of the event is its ability to bring together photographers, curators, dealers, publishers, bloggers and 40,000 other people from around the world in a single place, which, fortunately for me, happens to be where I live. On this count it feels to me that the fair continues to get more and more international each year and the best possible place to get photo projects in motion. My personal highlights included meeting the extraordinary photographer Mao Ishikawa from Okinawa and a champagne-fuelled meeting with Joakim Stromhölm (Christer Stromhölm's son) in the early hours of the morning.

(From L-to-R): Taisuke Koyama with Sawako Fukai and Shigeo Goto of G/P Gallery and artbeat publishers at Off Print

One particularly interesting development this year was the first (and hopefully not the last) edition of Off Print, a fair run in parallel to Paris Photo devoted entirely to independent photography publishing, an area that is currently seeing an explosion of activity. I was curious to see whether Off Print would be able to coexist alongside Paris Photo and pleasantly surprised to see that it more than held its own. I managed to swing by three times, always to a packed house where business seemed to be brisk. Interestingly while there was some overlap with the Paris Photo crowd, Off Print was clearly attracting a different demographic as well, a younger crowd that is perhaps more interested in the book as an object rather than just in photography itself. If evidence were needed that photobooks are alive and well, this was it.

After several failed attempts I finally managed to swing by Photo Off on Sunday afternoon to finish the week. Photo Off is essentially a more casual Paris Photo, with lower priced work by "young and emerging" photographers. From my couple of hours there I couldn't tell how successful the fair was, but it did seem a little bit strange to me that Photo Off and Off Print didn't combine forces, as I think three simultaneous event is probably a little too much to get through for collectors and as a result I expect that Photo Off didn't get the audience that it should have.

Wad of prints by Blake Andrews, Price: $9 incl. P & P & gum

On the day after the close of Paris Photo as I was trying to make some sense of everything I had seen over the course of week (and to avoid looking at a single photograph) I received a package from the US. I had completely forgotten that a couple of weeks ago I decided to rescue a group of work prints by the photographer and blogger Blake Andrews that he was threatening to abandon. I thought this was a fitting end to a week where the commercial aspect of photography can feel a little overwhelming. Not only did I get a few dozen prints for my $9, but if you look closely at the image above you'll notice that I even got a stick of gum thrown in for good measure. I doubt that any collectors got that kind of special bonus thrown in with their purchases at Paris Photo.

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.