I Go to Paris Photo

It’s big. Really big.

I survived Paris Photo and left with a head full of questions.

Paris Photo is perhaps the most important fair for the photography world. More than 130 exhibitors show work on the main floor. These are the biggest cats in the jungle: Gagosian, Marlboro, and Magnum are among the illustrious hawking the work of the greats, the famous, and the soon-to-celebrated.

In a second section, more than 30 publishers have booths, and, again, these are the big names. For photography, anyway.

I arrived early. It was before the great wave of aficionados and boho hoi polloi swamped the hall. A club-like atmosphere hovered in the air. Old friends exchanged embraces. For many, it was the first time they’d seen in other in months, thanks to the restrictions of Covid-19. Bonhomie all around.

It was like being in a high-end restaurant — a sense of glamour and exclusivity washes over you, along with the happiness of being someplace special.

In other words, the scent of money was in the air. I felt the business of photography in my nerves in a way I never had. It’s a fair, a market. At its core, the scene at Paris Photo is another version of the open air market a few blocks away at La Motte Picquet where hawkers sell fish, cheese, scarves, and even postcards.

Armed with my trusty notebook and iPhone, I set out to make discoveries.

Photo by Paul Cupido

Three qualities stood out:

Narrative. Several photographers are making tableaux vivants, or movie stills from films that haven’t been made. Some of these are in series, others a single image. Many books use text to tell stories parallel to the images.

Photo by Kinsco Bede, an emerging talent

Anti-representation. Or, pushing the plain old photo into painterly territory. Distorting, collaging, bending and twisting the printing process, or putting paint on the photograph itself. 

Photo by Sergio Larrain – an old favorite

Variety. Despite what I’ve pointed out, I couldn’t discern any overarching tendencies. Any example you could cite would be undercut by another set of work.

Women. Pictures by female photographers were highlighted; you could even follow a preset “female path” through the exhibits. This is a useful and valuable idea. The excellent photographs by Deborah Turbeville, Zoë Ghertner, and Mona Schulzek — among others — were so strong they deserved as large an audience as possible.

One percent. This is an event for the global elite. The organizers made several attempts to open it up to those who can’t afford to buy, say, an Irving Penn photo. Still, how many people are ready to purchase a photobook? Starting $50 per copy, even the books have the feel of a luxury item, no matter what’s inside the pages.

The day wore on. I realized that relying on serendipity was foolish. More people kept pouring in. I was toast.

Next time, I’ll have a strategy and stick to it. I’ll spread out the fun over two or even three days, and be sure to read the critiques and reports that appear after the opening. Frankly, with so many photographers and so many exhibits, I need all the help I can get.

Let me tell you a dirty secret: Hardly any one spent more than 15 seconds in front of any photo. All that hard work, all that creativity, and, in some cases, physical danger to produce an inspired image merited less time than you’d spend on a kitty video on Instagram.

Of course, you hope that — later, in private — someone will linger over a photo for at least a minute or two. I’d like to believe that.

You wonder what the purpose of all this highly skilled image making is. In a world saturated with images, why add to the deluge? At what point does it all descend into visual noise? Yeah, I was one overwhelmed pup panting under the curved roof of Le Grand Palais Ephemere.

But aren’t we all? Nearly everyone I see stares at their smartphone whenever they can. In a short session on Instagram, I see more photos than Life magazine published in a year. How do we stop the restless, hungry, and bored eye?

Who dwells with a painting or photograph? How do we make images that matter, that stick in the mind, that make for an experience, esthetic or not?

These are questions that would take a career to respond to — assuming they can be answered at all.

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