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Paris Photo Review
Hundreds of museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, art publishers, editors and enthusiasts alike converged in Paris last weekend for the 15th anniversary of Paris Photo - a four-day-long international photography fair hailed as the largest and most acclaimed of its kind in the world. As the international venue for emerging (as well as already established) photographers and photographic trends, Paris Photo attracts all the big-cats of the artistic aristocracy interested in admiring, analyzing and buying new work.
© Catherine Rierson, Grand Palais, Paris
This year, having moved to the regal turn-of-the-century Grand Palais, 135 exhibitors from 23 different countries showed their collections under high glass-domed ceilings, massive stone balconies and turquoise columns — an appropriately prestigious and ornate setting for the celebration.
As one might expect from a fair of its size and scope, the collections (which include classical and contemporary photography from the 18th century onward) are infinitely varying, which is why it can be pretty overwhelming. One moment you’re in front of a Diane Arbus classic, then one of Moriyami Daido, and finally you’re blind-sided by some obscure, quasi-grotesque nude scrawled all over with paint. That’s the beauty of Paris Photo, though: It’s a serious jolt of visual input and at times it’s hard to wade through, and maybe you only remember a few pieces that you loved, but, by its end, you feel accomplished and utterly happy with the new discoveries, those gems you were hard-pressed to find but you won’t forget.
© Malick Sidibé, Nuit de Noël, 1963, courtesy Galerie du jour Agnès b.
Traditionally, the fair pays homage to photography scenes in different parts of the world by highlighting emerging artists and work from their respective regions, which supposedly resembles some sort of overarching theme. Having already done so to other prominent locales (last year it was Eastern Europe), Paris Photo turned the spotlight on Sub Sahara Africa, from Bamako to Cape Town. Approaching the labyrinthine and seemingly endless stretch of images, I decided to start here to begin absorbing the otherwise grab-bag mix of work.
The photography from Sub Sahara Africa served as a valid (and necessary) counterpoint to most of the other work shown at Paris Photo — and most other art fairs in general. Here you observe the transition from a colonized to a decolonized society, the changing notion of identity and self, and scars from the past and anxieties of the future. You can see this in most of the exhibited portraiture: South Africans at the turn of the century posing in lace-frilled collars and white gloves, young Congolese boys dressed as cowboys, a woman in traditional garb from Dahomey and her bare, scarred chest - in short, you see the weight of a Western gaze. What’s most interesting, though, is photography’s perceived role in all of this: Photography (and art in and of itself) has taken on a new significance. Along side of this type of photography is a new sort of portraiture, one that deals exclusively with the realization of a self despite the Western gaze — it’s a reclamation of the lens. One need only peruse the sexually ambiguous work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode or Zanele Muhol to see this.
© Jügen Schadeberg, Pyjama Man, Sophiatown, 1955, courtesy Eric Franck Fine Art
This sort of juxtaposition between traditional and new photography - and, by extension, traditional and contemporary views of identity - is what makes Paris Photo so intriguing. It’s always a rag-tag group of work, and it’s often exhausting to navigate. Nevertheless, it is exactly this aesthetic challenge that defines Paris Photo. The same deluge of work that overwhelmed me brought me back to the fair on three separate occasions. And, plus, isn’t it exactly this sense of challenge that we love so much about art?
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