IN PARIS, every other November is le mois de la photo, and although this year was not the official “month of the photograph,” those who make them, buy them, and pose for them could be found filling up the city’s art spaces for the seventeenth edition of Paris Photo. Metro Pictures and Cheim & Read were among the twenty-eight newcomers this year, adding to the list of international art dealers not specialized in the fair’s de rigueur medium. While most New York art dealers were obliged elsewhere (“Do you really think Larry would miss auction week in New York?” Gagosian’s Jean-Olivier Després would rhetorize), rest assured that the more diehard aficionados were present for the “Art Basel of photography,” as it was ypclept by nearly everyone I spoke to.
“I’ve sold more pictures here to my American clients than I do in New York,” boasted blue-chip photography dealer Howard Greenberg, a long-standing participant in the fair since well before its move, three years ago, from the claustrophobic basement of the Carrousel du Louvre to the Grand Palais. Like Greenberg, most international photography galleries come to make sales, while dealers in the plastic arts flock to Paris Photo for the exposure. With appearances from curators at the Tate, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the National Gallery, and Princeton University, who wouldn’t?
“It’s a very chic fair,” Yossi Milo told me during the VIP opening. “You have collectors from Belgium, Germany, Austria––people love it here.” We all took a moment to gaze up at the monumental foliate arches as they led up to the crowning ferrovitreous dome. “It’s also a pain in the ass,” he added. “It’s a busy season in New York. But I don’t come here to sell works; I come here to put on a show.”
With the risk of photography seeming too “commercial,” many dealers opt to make strong statements over a strict mercantile rationale. “It’s important to work with a curator here,” Swiss dealer Barbara Polla informed me. “I may know images, but I don’t know photography.” One of the more refreshing and transportive aspects of the booths was the harmonious integration of the historic with the contemporary, or in some cases, the iconic with the agnostic. Klaus Kleinschmidt, for example, paired Karl Hugo Schmölz’s seemingly postapocalyptic scenes of a decimated postwar Germany with elaborately designed and immaculately executed photo-booth strips by Jan Wenzel.
“This is like a flea market,” photographer Susan Meiselas later commented. “But I like the collisions. I’m interested in the traces of how photographs have been distributed, and history remains at the core of these images.” If fragmentation is the contemporary fashion for viewing images, this fair offers more than the simple regurgitation of the omnium-gatherum style of the Internet. In an age when the immaterial and disembodied image is so readily primed for dissemination, consummation, and disposal, this may be one of the most reassuring and educational environments on the power and durability of photography as a tangible medium.
With artists increasingly taking up photography (thanks iPhone!) as an expedient to keep up with the rising demand of the contemporary market, long-standing castes have come into reformation. “In the 1990s, there was pressure to define whether you were a photographer or an artist,” photographer Matthew Porter told me. “Now artists are proud to claim they’re photographers––or there’s no need to claim at all.” Showing at Los Angeles gallery M+B’s booth were his archival pigment prints of art-historical references––a still life, abstract pattern, a tabletop à la Matisse, etc.––spliced onto the same plane, flattening the pictorial space and the hierarchical paragone of genre and medium.
Less referential were 150 of Horst Ademeit’s Polaroids at Susanne Zander’s booth that record the seemingly banal occurrences of his neighbors’ movements or a crack in the asphalt outside his home––indicators, he believed, of a caustic chemical called “cold rays.” Taken daily and obsessively notated John Nash style, the works, which were never meant to be viewed by the public, are testament to the haunting potency of photography to document the seen and unseen––in this case, an interior state of psychological decline.
“I’ve seen none of the usual suspects,” remarked George Eastman House curator Alison Nordström––one of several museum curators buzzing around booths in search of new talent. Later, I caught up with curator Marc Donnadieu, whose unbridled enthusiasm left us all feeling stimulated: “This is such an exciting time for the medium: For the first time, photographers are totally liberated from the standards of fashion and marketing. There are all sorts of plays and variations on the image: small-format, large-format, painters-as-photographers and vice versa. Photographers no longer have to overdo to impress––they do what they want without adhering to standards. Like artists, they just work.”
And like artists, they come out to play too. This fair, like any other, was glittered with extracurricular openings, dinners, events, and cocktails. There was a Christie’s preview of the private collection of dealer Agathe Gaillard, who is credited with having brought contemporary photography to the Parisian market in the ’70s. Balice Hertling hosted a screening and cocktail for Isabelle Cornaro’s new film at Hôtel le Bristol. There was also a late-night buffet with champagne at Suzanne Tarasieve’s loft in honor of Juergen Teller; the opening of “America Latina,” a show on Central and South American photography, at the Fondation Cartier; an AIDES benefit dinner and art sale at Pavillon Cambon Capucines attended by artists Tom Burr, Wang Du, Pierre et Gilles, and Mathieu Mercier; and a seemingly endless dégustation of savory courses for twelve hosted by M+B owner Benjamin Trigano at the Philippe Starck–orated Mama Shelter just, well, because.
On Saturday night, I made a quick run through Sophie Calle and Ryan McGinley’s packed, concurrent openings of new photographic works at Galerie Perrotin. Calle could be seen exchanging air kisses with Almodóvar film actress Rossy de Palma, while McGinley’s swarm of groupies and aspirants in want of an autograph left some feeling a bit claustrophobic. “Do you smell that fresh country air?” my friend joked after a twenty-minute drive to Thaddaeus Ropac’s new space in Pantin, an industrial suburb of Paris. While neither an exhibition on photography or the pastoral, the opening dinner of “Empire State. New York Art Now” provided refreshment to the eyes and palates of those art addicts who felt saturated by the week of images.
“Too many photos,” he joked impassively.
Cocurated by Alex Gartenfeld and Norman Rosenthal, the presentation of twenty-five New York–based artists addressing and often satirizing the sociocultural ascendancy of the Big Apple is hands down, as curator Timothée Chaillou posted on Facebook, “one of the best shows of the season!” Bjarne Melgaard’s homage to Allen Jones replaces the former’s forniphilic fantasy of gagged, supplicant women-turned-furniture with ’70s blaxploitation heroines. (And you thought they couldn’t get any worse.)
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s hard-hitting photographic documentation of the social realities of her community was a welcome slap back into sobriety. “I use photography as a tool for social commentary and political critique,” she told me in front of an image of a hospital in Braddock, Pennsylvania, that had been torn down by an interceding health care corporation. In exposing the hardships of one of the most environmentally hazardous cities in the United States––in addition to being her hometown, Braddock is home to one of the last working steel mills of Andrew Carnegie––her work recalls the expository tradition of Walker Evans. “I feel this is a task I will work my entire lifetime without completing, but at least it will be documented and archived to aid posterity.”
After a “walking dinner” next to a fiberglass Apatosaurus by Rob Pruitt, those who weren’t feeling prehistoric made their way over to the cozier loft next door. The lights were lowered, a fire was lit, and a DJ spun disco classics and revivals like Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame” and Midnight Magic’s “Beam Me Up.” While the mood was right, the dancing was lacking, so some of us decided to check out what was going on back in town. The Perrotin afterparty for McGinley, hosted at Costes-owned café Étienne Marcel, was packed with ardent, lusty youths that looked as though they may have ran streaking out of one his signature photographs before a pit stop at A.P.C. on Rue Vieille du Temple. Among the photogenic faces was the former prince of teen desire, late-’90s heartthrob Josh Hartnett.
“Young crowd,” I mused.
“That’s Perrotin’s specialty,” artist Daniel Firman confirmed.
After a glance at my phone (it was only midnight), I decided it was time to retire, but I have a feeling that the more sprightly were in it for the long haul. Thumbs up to McGinley and Perrotin for making your humble reporter feel old at twenty-three.