Directors of Photo London and Candlestar, the company producing this fair, Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad can rest easy for now; they seemed to have had one goal with Photo London, and that was to put up a legitimate challenge to the likes of AIPAD and Paris Photo.
As a first edition, it has worked out well – there are big name galleries, big name prints and big price tags to match. There is an impressive list of public talks and events aimed at curating, collecting and conversing between artists too. Even Offprint jumped the channel and has camped out in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall just across the river to give more of festival feel to the short but sweet affair.
Photo London has done what politicians have had to do in recent times, and that is appeal to the centre ground while convincing the old guard that they are still important all the while making the most of limited resources. As a result there are plenty of fresh contemporary works on display including a ‘Discovery and Emerging Talent Award’, yet there remains a large portion of old names from photography’s past – monochrome masters that haunt the halls of Somerset House, serenading the wealthy in their summer jackets and Italian hand-stitched shirts. This labyrinthine palace has a solid history; it was built by the elite to make a statement, infused with an establishment culture over the centuries and makes the perfect venue for Candlestar to stomp their feet in the throne room of photography today. Did you know the word ‘photography’ was first coined in Somerset House, back in 1839?
There is absolutely no point in talking about the Kertesz, Atget, Avedon or Weston prints. While we’re at it we can disregard Salgado, Leibovitz and even Eggleston (although it was quite amusing to see his iconic red ceiling precariously sitting atop of a radiator in the Rose Gallery booth). This gang don’t need any more attention and, despite their genius and contribution to the medium as an artistic practice, in many cases they only still hang around to make more money for the wealthy, which makes them fair fodder, and in such a place the least bit interesting.
While wandering through the gallery booths it was disconcerting to stumble upon those staged images of African tribesmen or aboriginal warriors posing in traditional garb with weaponry. It is quite mad to think that these colonial absurdities still exist, but then they wouldn’t be trotted out at fairs if a colonial absurdity wouldn’t be prepared to pay for them. There is a likewise feeling of panic when one encounters some incredibly dumb photography that is little more than framed gift-wrap paper, merely an exercise in technique rather than a picture of anything at all. It is bad enough that images like this remain in circulation, but that they contribute to a market many serious photographers find it incredibly difficult to enter can leave the young talent with a cynical feeling of defeatism. At a fair like Photo London, we do not want to come away with the idea that oldies, celebrities, exotic natives and flat shapes of colour are the only things with commercial value. The young blood needs hope.
Thankfully, Photo London provided more of that hope in quite a few places than anticipated, and it was much appreciated after spending six hours walking around Somerset House in a permanent sweat. Unsurprisingly, Flowers Gallery had a wonderful display making use of their prime spot with a magnificent view from a balcony. They were eager to be involved with the fair from the very beginning and their faith in Candlestar paid off with some quality real estate. This aside, they shone a fine example of a friendly, commercial gallery that maintains a strong ethos in supporting serious and exciting contemporary photography. When mixing Lorenzo Vitturi and Julie Cockburn with Edward Burtynsky and Nadav Kander the result is both pleasing and reassuring.
Equally so for Grimaldi Gavin, who presented intelligent and captivating work by Sophy Rickett and Clare Strand among others; and though a little squeezed and anemic, The Photographers’ Gallery did provide a breath of fresh air with Maurizio Anzeri’s surreal mobile display. Thomas Mailaender’s installation of cyanotypes at Roman Road’s booth was a giddy mix of blue-washed wit, while Katie Paterson’s conceptual sculpture comprising 2200 unique slides of darkness from throughout the universe at the Ingleby Gallery’s booth offset the onslaught of visceral aesthetic that can subdue one’s gaze at any fair.
There were other gems to be discovered throughout the maze too, with The Wapping Project Bankside offering an engaging array that included Elina Brotherus, Lydia Goldblatt, Mitra Tabrizian and a huge Edgar Martins work from his time spent at the European Space Agency. Noemie Goudal’s solo show at Edel Assanti’s booth was a successful inclusion made all the more pleasurable at seeing some new work by the artist. There was a pretty decent Asian invasion too, led by current superstar and winner of the John Kobal Residency Award Daisuke Yokota with his visceral technique spilling from the wall, while Yuji Hamada’s delicate, subtle prints were a delight to discover at Photo Gallery International’s booth. Though the younger and fresher talents were being well represented throughout the fair, not everything worked out particularly well: Michael Hoppen’s display of Eamonn Doyle’s lurid, predatory pictures of the elderly in Dublin came across like something from a second year BA degree show, though without the humility.
Meanwhile at the miniature book fair, it was great to see a handful of respected publishers getting in on the action. This section was buzzing with browsers and served well as a space to escape the corridors above. Hotshoe were displaying their newly launched print editions from artists such as Aaron McElroy, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Esther Teichmann, Seba Kurtis and Lucas Foglia. These signed and editioned prints were a bargain for any collector starting out and a reminder that print publishing is a tough market these days so alternative avenues for revenue are important.
Not every decision was perfect, not every moment was memorable, but it was a very strong statement made all the more dramatic by staging Photo London at the former seat of British Sea Power on the banks of the Themes. History cannot be escaped, but it can be built upon, and this renewed fair has begun that process in earnest.