Paris Photo, the world’s leading photography fair, celebrated its 15th year in style by relocating to the Grand Palais, where dealers, collectors, book publishers and several of the world’s pre-eminent photographers gathered for four days (the event culminates today) under the spectacular glass- and iron-domed ceiling. Like a less vulgar, more well-mannered version of the Frieze art fair, Paris Photo is a giant marketplace that showcases the big-hitters and up-and-coming stars of global art-photography.
This year, some 135 exhibitors from 23 countries arrived to show off their wares, and the range of work was almost overpowering in its variety – from Atget to Weegee and all points in between. A few themes emerged from the melee of contemporary approaches. Big prints are where it’s at in terms of market demand, a trend that began with Jeff Wall a decade or more ago and continues apace today. Publishers, too, are embracing the big statement, with a plethora of heavyweight multi-volume box sets. The biggest queue of the week was for William Eggleston‘s book-signing on Thursday evening, in which the entire first print run of Chromes, his three-book boxed retrospective, sold out despite its prohibitive price tag of £220. (By the time you read this, some of those signed copies may be circulating for two or three times that amount, so voracious is the market in collectable photobooks at the moment.)
I arrived on Wednesday, just in time for the VIP evening preview, which attracted collectors from around the globe. You could almost smell the money wafting in the air and, feeling distinctly out of place, I weaved my way through the rows of stalls to have a quick look at the contenders for the Paris photobook prize, in which four prominent publishers had each selected 15 books from the past 15 years. (It was won, deservedly, by Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility, a 12-volume retrospective from Steidl that will set you back a cool £750.) Then it was on to a wall installation of images, text and paraphernalia created by the publisher Schaden and devoted to one of my favourite photobooks, Ed Van der Elsken’s impressionist narrative of bohemian life, Love On the Left Bank, first published in 1954.
Rejuvenated, I headed into the fray. My first reaction was a kind of mute, defeated wonder at the sheer quantity and variety of images on display: here an Arbus, there a Sugimoto, over there a big Pieter Hugo and, just around the corner an even bigger Thomas Struth. I opted to concentrate on one of the main themes of the fair: contemporary African photography.
A new generation of African photographers, from South Africa in particular, are dealing with race, identity and sexuality in vibrant, self-questioning ways. Two group shows, one contemporary, one historical, attested to this: an exhibition comprising the best images from this year’s Bamako photography festival, which took place in the Malian capital a few weeks ago, and a selection of portraits from the Walther Collection, a German gallery largely devoted to African portraiture. Here, South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s portraits of Miss D’vine, a gay man who works as a drag queen, posed in tribal dress, were striking and provocative. (In 2009, the South African minister of arts and culture walked out of an exhibition of Muholi’s work, calling it immoral and offensive. Many of the themes explored by this new breed of African photographers are particularly contentious in South Africa).
Nearby, Malike Sidibé’s great portraits of youth culture in 1970s Mali vied for attention with the work of studio portraitist Seydou Ketïa. I circled round and came across South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s work at the Stevenson Gallery stand. There were two huge prints from his most recent series, Permanent Error, which focuses on a vast dump for obsolete technology on the outskirts of a slum in Ghana. Here, for once, the size was justified, particularly in the full-length portraits of young men foraging in a hellish landscape.
The following day, I returned for a more relaxed saunter though the vast space. In an area devoted to recent acquisitions by major galleries, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Tate Modern has acquired a selection of images from the pioneering Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. Taken from his 1972 series, Farewell Photography, they push Moriyama’s grainy, impressionistic signature as far as it can go, and pose interesting questions about meaning and narrative. A taster, then, for the big Moriyama and William Klein show at Tate Modern next year.
What else did I see that took my breath away? In no particular order: a great, newly discovered Berenice Abbott portrait of Jean Cocteau pointing a gun at the viewer, hung side by side with her more familiar, but no less dramatic, portraits of an uncomfortable James Joyce; a beautiful series of monochrome portraits by Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara, whose provocative pictures of young girls posing in meticulous recreations of 1920s rooms are in homage to the paintings of Balthus; some wonderful studio portraits by Philip Kwame Apagya, who places his subjects against brilliantly wonky painted domestic interiors.
My abiding memory from this year’s Paris Photo, though, was getting a glimpse of the extraordinary collection belonging to the JPMorgan Chase multinational banking corporation, containing Arbus, Warhol, Winogrand and more. To borrow a quote from Damien Hirst, who knows more than most about this kind of thing, “you start to have this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful than art”.