Paris Photo is an expansive show almost to the point of being overwhelming for a one-day visit. Should I attend in future I shall be sure to schedule at least two if not three days to take it in properly. It was thankfully far more diverse in its offering than Unseen Amsterdam, and there was a pleasant mix of old and contemporary work. Even at that, there was very little representation in the genres in which I work, either in the photos displayed or in the books offered at Paris Photo or Polycopies. I found the contemporary work to be strongly weighted to the “fine art” end of the spectrum which is clearly where money is as that is what the galleries chose to represent. There is probably a lesson in that.
That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of inspiration to be had. The quality of printing was something to behold and it was interesting to see the different choices in mounting,framing and display. There was a lot of very good work displaying excellent technique and creativity. A fair bit of the contemporary work wasn’t to my taste or was beyond my ability to comprehend without further explanation. I really enjoyed seeing work of the some of the arguably most significant and influential photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Andres Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz and women who defied the stereotypes and limitations of their time such as Dorothea Lange and Martine Franck. They all had great influence on photography, yet it is interesting to contrast their work in terms of composition and technical quality with current standards of excellence. Clearly each has brilliant work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, but many also had work that would likely today be considered poor work. I reckon though that resulted in large measure from the limitations of the equipment they were using.
A minor digression is required to lay the basis for what follows. While in Paris and in addition to visiting photography galleries and the Paris Photo exhibition, I visited several art museums; Musee D’Orsay, Musee de L’Orangerie, the Louvre, and the “OnAir” installation at Palais de Tokyo. It prompted me to think more about the similarities between traditional art and photography and the evolution of each. While greatly accelerated in the case of photography, there are similarities in the trajectories of their respective histories and parallels to the trajectories in music history as well. Recognising this has caused me to look upon contemporary photographic trends with a little less aversion than I have tended to in the past.
HCB and the others mentioned above along with many of their contemporaries not mentioned endure because they, to use an Art History analogy, were members of the school of Realism. Their subjects while being specific carry a universality to which viewers can readily relate. Contemporary practitioners like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario and LauraHenno carry on those traditions and I believe their work will endure as well.
Just as art evolved from Romanticism and Realism to Impressionism,Dada and Surrealism, photography has followed similar trajectories, but on a less unified path: i.e. many genres are still being produced simultaneously even though they may have been under-represented at Paris Photo. As I walked around the Paris show, and it was even more pronounced at Unseen Amsterdam, that a lot of contemporary “fine art” photographers have moved into (again using Art History terms) the realm of Magic Realism and in some cases Surrealism. I do wonder how many or which of them will be recognised as Picasso or Dali in the world of photography, or whether the work will just be a footnote somewhere in the archives of Photographic History. Only time will tell.
There was so much to see at Paris Photo and it is impossible to sort out and write about everything I experienced there. It has helped to have waited a week and reflected on what I saw and how I reacted to it. There were a few photographers, none of whom of which I was previously aware, whose work stopped me in my tracks; Lynn Davis, Jean-Baptiste Huyhn and Axel Hutte. Lynn’s extraordinary cultural landscapes, Huynh’s stunning portraits, and Hutte’s utterly unique prints on glass were for me “best in show.” In further investigating Axel Hutte I discovered his landscape work and how some of his philosophies are very similar to approaches I have been taking. But more about that in another post.
Edward Burtynsky’s aerial environmental work resonated strongly with me and the aesthetic captured in some of Todd Hido’s work, particularly Rivers at Night, made me think about how some of that technique might be applied to my practice.
Visits to other galleries and museums also proved helpful. I was struck by how differently I looked at art and photos. I was particularly intrigued at the Musee D’Orsay by how many of the landscapes included indistinct images of people going about their days in harmony with the landscape. This also resonated with me as it is what I have been trying to do during this module.
In the end it was a week well spent seeing things that are not readily available to me in NE Scotland or in South Carolina when I am in the US, interacting with cohort mates, exchanging ideas, deepening friendships and being thankful for the opportunities that life has brought me.