Paris is still recovering from the busiest week of the year on the photography calendar with the 2011 edition of Paris Photo which was held at the Grand Palais from 10-13 November and the many other events that pop up around it (Offprint, Nofound, Fotofever). In recent years Paris Photo has established itself as the most important photography art fair in Europe (maybe even in the world?) and this was a turning point for the fair. For it’s 15th birthday, Paris Photo gave itself a pretty big present in the form of a move from the not-exactly-shabby Caroussel du Louvre, which did suffer from a lack of space, air, seating and natural light, to the Grand Palais which has all of those in spades. The relocation was deemed controversial by some, as people were attached to the Caroussel du Louvre which had housed Paris Photo since its inception. There was also some concern that the size of the Grand Palais space would lead to a more impersonal, bloated fair that would lose the strong identity that Paris Photo had created for itself.
Now that the dust has settled, it is difficult to find many dissenters on the big move. The Grand Palais is pretty much unbeatable as a space for housing a fair, particularly given the amount of natural light that pours in through the several-storey-high glass roof (sunny days can be a bit problematic but if they can find a way to guarantee cloud cover, you will not find better light for looking at photographs). The fair has increased in size with 117 galleries, 27 more than in 2010, and 18 publishers, but the airier premises make it feel less crowded and, if you put your mind to it, it is possible to find enough space to spend time looking at photographs without jostling for space with other visitors. The gallery newcomers included Pace/MacGill, Gagosian, Fraenkel and Marian Goodman, which gave a heavyweight feel to proceedings. Gagosian, who apparently doesn’t really do art fairs, had a interesting quirk to his booth: a closet-sized “private viewing room”, presumably so that the unseemly practice of paying for art would not have to take place in public.
One of the biggest improvements of the fair was the space devoted to photo-books, something that had been a point of contention in recent years. Although there was no increase in the number of participating publishers and book dealers, their booths were far bigger (the Steidl booth must have tripled in size) and this seemed to be a particularly busy section of the fair. There was also a great installation by Markus Schaden of Ed Van der Elsken’s wonderful Love on the Left Bank. The installation, a kind of exploded book, gave a great sense of the process of putting a book together. And finally the Paris Photo book prize was launched to reward “a reference photographic book that has marked the past 15 years” (editor’s note: the English translation of the Paris Photo website leaves a lot to be desired). Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility was the deserved winner.
I guess at this point that I should say something about the photography itself. With a fair the size of Paris Photo I’m convinced that every visitor has a different experience and it is impossible not to find things both to love and to hate. My overall impression was of a strong year with a fairly diverse selection of material, whereas sometimes it can feel like the same pictures pop up on every booth. I don’t think Paris Photo is the place to see the cutting edge of contemporary photography, although there is always something hiding around a corner if you look hard enough, but rather a venue for great vintage work and a cross-section of what is ‘hot’ right now.
Some brief personal highlights from the fair include San Francisco-based Fraenkel‘s booth, which was an achingly (overly?) tasteful mix of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Adams, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Richard Misrach, Edward Weston and others; LA gallery M+B‘s wall of Andrew Bush vector portraits of drivers in their cars; an exquisite 3×3 grid of late 1970s miniature Peter Downsbrough cityscapes at the excellent Cologne-based Thomas Zander booth; and Berlin-based Springer & Winckler Kunsthandel‘s booth devoted entirely to photographs by the recently deceased German artist Sigmar Polke. The fair has also maintained the guest country/region format from previous years and this year it was Africa that had the place of honour. This is a hit and miss exercise, but I thought Africa was well represented, and although Malick Sidibe turned up absolutely everywhere, there was a fairly diverse selection of material on show. A few personal favourites were a Michael Subotzky prison yard panorama at the South African Goodman Gallery (not to be confused with Marian), Nigerian artist J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s typological hairstyle portraits which appeared in several places, and a Michael Wolf Real Fake Art clin d’oeil to Malick Sidibe at 51 Fine Art from Antwerp.
Another innovation of the fair was to host exhibitions of both public (ICP, Tate Modern and Musée de l’Elysée) and private (Artur Walther, J.P. Morgan and Giorgio Armani) collections, a pretty simple idea that makes a lot of sense in the context of an art fair. Thankfully the exhibitions went beyond the “here’s some stuff we bought this year” format and were generally well-curated and/or insightful.
The only big question mark over the success of Paris Photo 2011 has to be a commercial one. These new premises must involve a pretty significant price increase and I wonder whether the less established galleries will have made sufficient sales to compensate for the cost of a Grand Palais booth, particularly in the current turbulent economic context. With FIAC taking place just a handful of days beforehand, and a growing number of contemporary art galleries present at Paris Photo there is also a question of how these two fairs will coexist. I hope the outcome is a positive one because this edition of Paris Photo certainly felt like the best yet.