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At home in the dream factory

  • Paris Photo took over the Paramount Studios for its first LA fair. All images © Stephen McLaren

    Paris Photo took over the Paramount Studios for its first LA fair. All images © Stephen McLaren

  • Paris Photo took over the Paramount Studios for its first LA fair. All images © Stephen McLaren

    Paris Photo took over the Paramount Studios for its first LA fair. All images © Stephen McLaren

Paris Photo’s decision to open an offshoot in LA perplexed many, but Stephen McLaren reports that the art fair is a surprising success

In a bold experiment that has shaken up the world of photography fairs, Paris Photo, the most prestigious and financially secure event in the photography calendar, held its inaugural event in Los Angeles, California, in April.

With the Frieze Art Fair recently spreading its wings to New York, and Art Basel invading Hong Kong, it should not have been a surprise that a world-renowned photography fair would leap a continent in search of international sales, but for many this came as a shock move since Los Angeles has long been considered a relative backwater when it comes to the acquisition of photography.

Not surprisingly, the denizens of La La Land remain ultra- loyal to the film and television industries that have traditionally paid the rent. The extent of their willingness to turn out for an event championing the senior medium was unknown, especially as an existing annual trade fair, Photo LA, had lost much of its cachet for international galleries.

Streets of New York

In an audacious and inspired move, the organisers eschewed the formal and grandiose setting that characterises its traditional annual residency at Le Grand Palais and located its three-day extravaganza at Paramount Studios, a 65-acre compound of cavernous sound stages and fake New York street sets located in the heart of Hollywood.

Paramount is into its second century of operations and remains a movie business Mecca. Classics including Vertigo and The Ten Commandments were filmed here, and their directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B DeMille, regarded as demigods. Turning this restless dream factory over to photography’s market-makers was risky but LA still has money – and occasionally taste – and Paris Photo director Julien Frydman knows that both are required for a marketplace to thrive.

“Los Angeles is a creative hub with an amazing history in the visual arts,” says Frydman. “LA was an obvious choice because of its unique relationship to the construction of images both moving and still. It is a city that questions the language of images, and specifically photography.”

Rather than just pitch up and provide the galleries with a direct sales window to buyers, the organisers gave additional thought to how they could entice a wider audience to the event and engage them with photography in all its messy, occasionally introverted and sublime manifestations. Accordingly, a well thought-out programme of video screenings and discussions between cutting-edge contemporary photographers was put in place by curator Douglas Fogle to complement the weekend’s more commercial concerns.

“On the West Coast there is a tradition of modernity and perpetual renewals,” says Frydman. “Here, nothing is fixed; neither the artists, the galleries nor the institutions. The coast exudes change and interaction. It seemed necessary for me in this first edition to show the different trends in avant-garde photography – its new frontiers. And Los Angeles is already a world centre for photography. Sometimes it takes a great event like Paris Photo Los Angeles for people to realise [this].”

On the chosen weekend it was 22oC and sunny – a Southern Californian meteorological sweet-spot that brings people out of their homes to the beach, the mall and, occasionally, an international art event.

Sixty international galleries – four from the UK – and a dozen bookshops brought their wares to three sound stages and a whole sector of fake New York streetscapes that have been used to film Manhattan-based sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfeld. This relocation of a Parisian photography fair to California via a stand-in Manhattan proved to be a major draw for many of the 13,500 visitors and provided most of the weekend’s talking points.

As local gallerist Perry Rubenstein told the GalleristNY website: “I think this is the first time I have ever seen a fair capture the fabric and the machinery of a city so perfectly. What’s intriguing as a Los Angeles-based gallery is to actually be clustered with your  fellow galleries. It doesn’t actually happen. Every gallery is a unique destination – this is the closest thing to a village that we, as Los Angeles, have achieved.”

Mixing it up

Galleries offering a mixed assortment of artwork were allocated traditional but spacious and well-lit booths in the hangar- like studios. As photography is a boundary-bashing medium these days, all the bases were covered – sculptural, conceptual, distressed, discursive and collaged. To keep the high-end collectors interested, many vintage prints, from Man Ray to Robert Frank and August Sander to Helmut Newton, were on display at top-dollar prices. Unusually for a get-rich-or-die-trying town, the hard sell was not in evidence and as this was a première, the sales teams seemed cautious and approachable.

Photography bookstores from the likes of Taschen, Aperture and Artbook/DAP were interspersed throughout the New York backlot and achieved sales from those with tens, rather than thousands, of dollars to spend. High-profile photographers including Alec Soth and Todd Hido showed up to sign books and support their gallerists. It was fitting that Soth’s new publication, Three Valleys, a collaboration with writer Brad Zellar investigating three of California’s iconic valleys – Silicon, San Joaquin and Death – had been shot only two months before. It came to LA hot off the press and a healthy queue formed outside Harper’s Books for this compelling new publication.

Galleries with a solo artist offering were mischievously housed inside some of the imagineered New York apartment blocks and shops. Located in a brownstone apartment, up a flight of stairs on which Fred Astaire might have glided, Etherton Gallery in Tucson installed a selection of Alex Webb’s peak moments from the Caribbean, Mexico and Turkey.

It is unusual for art fairs to select photographers for a mini exhibition, and this would be an innovation that would test the powers of concentration and intelligence of visitors. Terry Etherton, the gallery’s owner, said he found this to be a rewarding experience, even though he had to drive seven hours to LA with a stockpile of framed prints. “It was very unusual for a trade fair in that we had a store on the New York backlot, so we weren’t interacting with our neighbours in the next  booth, which is normal for fairs of this kind,” he said. “But it did mean we had everyone’s total attention for the time they were with us and there was an overwhelmingly positive response to Webb’s work. We sold enough to make it work. The media picked up on the show and Alex’s pictures were shown in many outlets. We would certainly consider returning next year.”

Nearby, Robert Morat’s Hamburg gallery presented an exhibition by Berlin-based Jessica Backhaus. In an astute move likely to enhance her sales and reputation, Backhaus was on hand all weekend to talk to the public and explain her dreamy and perfectly calibrated everyday scenes.

John Matkowsky from local gallery drkrm, which specialises in mid-20th century documentary photography – epitomised by last year’s immensely rude and enjoyable Camera Night at the Ivar exhibition – decided not to take the risk of participating in this year’s inaugural event.

“LA is so disparate, and the galleries and collectors are all over the place, so it’s hard to generate a buzz about photography,” says Matkowsky. “I didn’t know what to expect, but the layout was spectacular and I was surprised at how many European galleries showed up. The ’cool factor’ is very important in this town and next year could be huge once the word-of-mouth factor kicks in.”

London-based Brancolini Grimaldi took work by four photographers, including Miles Aldridge and Dan Holdsworth, to the fair. “We have been showing at Paris Photo for eight years, so we were keen to engage and reconnect with our American collectors and it was good to be there for a first edition. It was slow at the beginning, but by the end things went well and we had good sales,” said a spokesperson.

Los Angeles’ intimate relationship with Hollywood has long presented photography, as the senior medium, with a problem. Even though cinematic-leaning work shot in Los Angeles by the likes of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia and Katy Grannan is well-known, photography’s aspiration to record faithfully, offer pause for thought and encourage the longer gaze seems slightly quaint and last- century to Angelenos.

As a consequence, dedicated photography spaces have been few and far between, and major exhibitions have tended to play it safe, with well-lit portraits from the masters or abstract work that feels closer in tone to modern art’s visual concerns.

In a bid to bring the mediums within kissing distance, Paris Photo LA made the canny move of encouraging galleries to present work that engaged with the moving image and movie culture in general.

Although San Francisco’s trendsetting and widely respected Fraenkel Gallery brought with it a greatest hits selection, which included superior prints from the likes of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, for the main feature it reserved three of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s expansive prints of historic movie theatres. Shot with long exposures to leave ornate but empty theatres with a featureless white screen, these images are a perfect mediation on how two mediums can complement and comment on one another.

Hollywood celebrities such as Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Judd Apatow attended a red carpet private view on the Thursday evening, but Hollywood’s movers and shakers did not appear en masse over the weekend and the infamous habit of looking over someone’s shoulder during conversation was mercifully restrained. However, when the unmistakable shock of white hair belonging to David Lynch strode past as the auteur made his way to Stage 5, heads turned. As a well- known lover of photography, Lynch was more likely to be buying prints than revisiting the studio where he filmed Mulholland Drive.

Still Renaissance

While photographers in the LA area may bemoan the lack of attention their medium receives, a wave of recent blockbuster exhibitions might be evidence that the city has turned a corner. Taryn Simon’s work was shown at the Geffen Contemporary at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and there were Robert Mapplethorpe, William Eggleston and Daido Moriyama exhibitions at the Getty Center, Gagosian Gallery and LA County Museum of Art, respectively.

Even the groundbreaking and all-encompassing Stanley Kubrick exhibition, also at LACMA, served up his stills archive from the days when he was a contributing photographer to Look magazine. LA also now has a dedicated venue, the Annenberg Space for Photography, which shows themed exhibits.

In spite of upbeat briefings from the organisers, there is still some doubt regarding the long-term viability of an event such as Paris Photo LA. AIPAD, New York’s long-running photography trade fair, remains a staple on the international calendar and it had only closed its doors three weeks before Paris Photo LA. Many serious international collectors must have spent their yearly budget by the time the latter came calling. The French mothership event delivers four times the footfall and twice as many galleries, so it will be interesting to see how the LA event can grow organically.

Perhaps the idea of a ‘fair’ is an outmoded concept, and some kind of hybrid photography festival and sales event will grow a young, aspirational audience that will become future collectors, as Unseen in Amsterdam is attempting. Certainly the forward-thinking education programme, and the addition of major sponsors such as Armani, suggest that Paris Photo does not regard its LA excursion as a one-off. Indeed, with the huge array of events and displays on offer, and the availability of food truck pitstops and on-set photo opportunities, you could easily spend two whole days at Paramount Studios and think of it more as a photography-centred vacation.

Visit www.parisphoto.com/losangeles 

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