REVIEW: Paris Photo 2016: Day One, The Grand Palais


Interviewed this week about new developments at Paris Photo 2016, Howard Greenberg, one of New York’s most venerable photography dealers, said: “The only real problem with these works is their size. Some of my collectors have run out of wall space.” 

First world problems, huh? Given that this year’s photo fair opened the day after Trump was elected president, it’s not as if we really need more illustrations of the challenges of the one percent (in this case art collectors) vs the challenges of, well, everyone else.

The business of art photography is – if not technically booming (the market is “a little slow at the moment,” according to Mr Greenberg) – definitely growing. A report by Art Media Agency earlier this month stated, “Even if it only represents 1% of global art sales, the growth of the photography market is real. In 2013, auction sales in this domain generated $180 million – compared to $132 million in 2010.”


Paris Photo 2016 had 178 exhibitors, including galleries and book sellers, from 34 countries. 

This is one of the good things about Paris Photo: it is genuinely inspiring to see quality work from “emerging markets” like Dubai’s East Wing Gallery, which only opened in 2014 (2012 in Doha.) East Wing shows up and coming young story tellers like the Swiss Philippe Dudouit, shooting in the Libyan desert, and US-born Saudi-based Tasneem Allusion, a wedding photographer turned human rights documentarian.


Tasneem Alsultan, Saudi Tales of Love (2016) and lead image

It also had hordes of visitors. PP2015 was cut short because of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan, but neither memories of terrorism nor the Sturm und Drang of the US election results seem to have made a dent on attendance this weekend. The Grand Palais is a huge arena (once used by the Nazis to park their panzers), but pushing through the crowds on Friday afternoon felt like being at a cattle market. Who ARE all these people who can shell out €30 for a day pass and lumber around deciding whether to put their money on a new William Eggleston ink jet print (€191k) at Rose Gallery or another Araki at Hamiltons?

There’s nothing like a busy art fair to bring out one’s inner Marxist.

Still, many of us shelled out €30 for a day pass to wander around and dream about what we’d buy if we had a spare €10k and – v. important! – the wall space to stick it on.


Mario Cravo Neto, Portrait of Clyde Morgan (1993)

Me, I’d start with something by Mario Cravo Neto. Neto (1947-2009) is an icon of Brazilian photography, less well known in northern Europe. He shot simple compositions – a man wrapping his own fingers around his face, a child holding a goose by the beak – that stop you dead. Partly, perhaps, it’s the the tension in his images: birds, turtles, white mice are the involuntary props in his work, and his models seem on the edge of quiet violence.


Mario Cravo Neto, Odé (1989)

Cravo Neto was a practitioner of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian form of worship, and there is a religious intensity in his art. There’s a sensation of being held captive by the work, implicit in the action: you look at it and you can’t tear yourself away.


Nelli Palomaki, Inkeri and Annikki (2016)

It’s also hard to tear yourself away from the work of Nelli Palomaki. A 35-year-old Finnish artist, Palomaki mostly photographs children, in black and white, as if they have just walked off the set of The Midwich Cuckoos. Otherworldly, in control, and lightly freaky.

This is the great thing about Paris Photo: you do come across photographers you’ve never seen before, and whose work you’d possibly never come across otherwise.


Christiane Feser, Partition 51 (2016) and detail

Also trends. “Textural” photography is a trend this year, apparently. My favourite “textural” discovery would be Christiane Fester, who makes 3D trompe l’ceil works combining photography and sculpture. Fester makes a model out of little abstract photographs. And then she photographs the model. And then she makes a model out of that… Or something. It’s very charming and would look great on the wall of my imaginary personal gallery, just across from my imaginary Donald Judd installation.

Is there a less great thing about Paris Photo? Apart from the crowds, the heat, the drone of aircon, and the lack of places to sit and recover? 

Well, yes – at least for the sensitive inner Marxist. The depressing thing about Paris Photo is the evolution of capitalism before your very eyes. The ongoing decline of the print industry has had a very real effect on photography. Once upon a time a photographer could make a living out of magazine commissions; now there are far more photographers around and far fewer magazines commissioning them.

What’s a talented photographer to do? Answer: focus on pretty pictures and limited edition prints, sign with the most successful galerist you can afford, and hope they sell you to the highest bidder. Instead of photography being a dialogue between photographer, editor and audience, it is a dialogue between seller and buyer. More intimate, and less equal.


Agnès Varda, The Calder Family (1954)

For this reason, some of the older work at Paris Photo has an extra cheering effect: it wasn’t made to be hung on a collector’s wall. One of my absolute favourites on Friday afternoon was film maker Agnès Varda’s portrait of the sculptor Alexander Calder and his family, from 1954. Calder, the missus, and their two girls are lined up on a park bench, each one grumpier than the last. It’s a hilarious and honest family portrait, and a reminder that photography is still most powerful when it is at its simplest and most direct.

© Fiona Hayes 2016

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