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Guest article by J. Sybylla Smith
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women
Elles x Paris, the initiative bestowed upon independent curator, Fannie Escoulen, by the Minister of Culture dominated my experience of Paris Photo. This overdue clarion call highlights photography through the prism of women by retracing and acknowledging 100 works by women within the fair and organizing exhibitions and events citywide. Gender inequity was the focus of a full-on series of lectures, panels, discussions and debates in the Platform section of the fair. I sat riveted with headphones receiving simultaneous translation offered to engage the international audience. Especially moving was a performative aspect by 13 women photographers of multiple ethnicities who shared the stage and punctuated the delivery of the dismal statistics regarding representation of women artists by collectively stating ; “Look at us. Take your time. Listen to us. It’s time.” Work by women has never been absent – merely invisible. Work by women artists constitutes 3-5% of major American and European permanent collections (http://www.westmuse.org/articles/where-are-women), while further marginalization is experienced by women of color.
An Elles x Paris Photo publication features an annotated alphabet of images, a thumbnail of the 100 images chosen within the fair, a map of this history of images by women and a listing of all concurrent exhibits by women photographers throughout Paris. This is a significant step towards reclaiming the true narrative of the field of photography. My experience and encounter with these works mirrored that which the work expresses, namely – joy, tenderness, courage and outrage. The booklet opens with the same quote I shared in this blog space three years ago. Written in 1890 by Margaret Bisland it speaks to the fact photography, unlike painting and other fine arts, was practiced by women from its inception. She notes: “It is as if for six thousand years women had nourished a suppressed talent. She waited, accumulated her strength…do we not have the right to wait for our most famous photographers to be women?”
Pernod Ricard, a sponsor of Paris Photo, selects a contemporary photographer to be featured in their annual report and Paris Photo exhibition. The company offers carte blanche to a chosen photographer to visually capture one aspect of the qualities of their workforce. This year the theme was their staffs’ ability to consistently ‘raise the bar’. Canadian photographer Kourtney Roy, known for her cinematic style, was chosen and created the series, Go The Extra Mile. Culling from brand ambassadors, safety officers and executives worldwide, she transplanted her cast to Nevada, transformed their personalities and created film-still tableux vivants. It was arresting, cheeky and fun – plus our group was invited into their opening bash and munched on delectable confections while enjoying this exhibit.
It is a thrill to witness artists evolve and to watch their work gain agency. Two women I closely follow were justly recognized for their compelling visions. Spanish photographer Laia Abril was awarded the Aperture/ Paris Photo Best Photobook Award for her stunning archeological reveal, A History of Misogyny: Chapter One: On Abortion. Fearless and thorough, she brings a clarity and deep conceptual resonance to this most dire of issues. (Find my book review featured in the Fall issue of Zeke magazine.) Chinese photographer, Pixy Liao, (née Yijun Liao), received the Jurors Honorable Mention for her incisive and uncanny reveal of power plays within her domestic partnership in, Experimental Relationship, Vol. 1. Stay tuned to their creative output.
My Paris Photo guided tour includes 4 Gallery Director talks which provide context for the work exhibited. Cologne gallerist, Julian Sander, is known for his idiosyncratic precision in sartorial taste and cultural opinion. This was exemplified in the solo exhibition of multimedia artist, Chargesheimer. His chemograms, light graphic negatives, documentary silver gelatin prints and kinetic light sculptures demonstrate his intense curiosity and relentless innovation during the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s. Equally imaginative with a dose of sharp wit was the informative, The FEROZ Paper,Third Edition, Sander’s self-published newspaper filled with articles, interviews, exhibition timelines, including real obituaries and mock advertisements chronicling the profound impact and prolific output of this experimental German artist and photographer.
Gallery Director Cassandra Johnson of the Steven Kasher Gallery unpacked the process used by multimedia artist and bookmaker Joan Lyons in her solo exhibition. Working with the separate components of early Xerox machinery Lyon’s innovated from found materials to create her unique “electrostatic photographic drawings”. Lyons spoke with our group, humbly discussing her compulsion to make work in order “to know who I am”. Concurrently she was a mother, a mentor and the founder with her husband, Nathan Lyons, of the print press and education center Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester New York. Textiles, graphics, printmaking and sewing feature in her self-representative work from the 1970’s. Lyons was also in conversation with Gabriele Schor, in Platforms, where her work was contextualized within the canon of fellow feminists and avant-garde women artists from the 1960’s ’till now.
American gallerist Steve Harris of Shanghai M97 features contemporary examples of provocative Chinese artists who blend photography with painting, sculpture and installation. Journalist, Daphné Anglés, of the NY Times selected artist Cai Dongdong’s work from his Fountain series in her article, 8 Artists at the Paris Photo Fair Who Show Where Photography Is Going (Nov. 9, 2018). Dongdong recontextualizes archival Mao-era images to showcase how political realities create social change. Our group listened to Harris describe the material manipulations his four featured artists utilize in service of self-exploration and self-expression. This led to a discussion of my favorite subject, punctum. The concept of French philosopher and critic, Roland Barthes, as put forth in Camera Lucida. Punctum denotes that which is imbued within an image which pierces a viewers heart, an expression of the experience of being emotionally moved by a photograph. As noted by my Instagram hashtag and blog title, I am a confessed punctum junkie.
Berlin-based Camera Work gallery has a propensity for featuring images of iconic elegance belying the vast conceptual and procedural processes of their creators. Gallery Director Jan Burghardt shared his intimate knowledge of the exacting creative practices behind two of their featured artists, Italian/Swiss photographer Christian Tagliavini and British photographer Jimmy Nelson. Months of research and implementation go into each of their images. Nelson’s TED Talk describes his laborious work locating, building relationship and documenting disappearing aboriginal people around the globe in his ongoing series, Before They Part. We had the good fortune of speaking directly with Christian Tagliavini who joined us for a photo op.
Each year this largest of international fairs in photography affords viewers much to encounter and digest. I will give a slide presentation of my review on November 29th, 2018 at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Included will be edited favorites from each of my guided tour participants. A bientot!