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Last Thursday, I went to Paris Photo for a couple of hours. Living vicariously through the pictures and words of curator J. Sybylla Smith, gallery owner Robert Klein and one of the famous photographers Klein featured at his booth there, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, I joined a packed house at the Griffin Museum for an entertaining and illuminating panel discussion.
First, an aperitif. In November 2013, Paris Photo held its 17th annual four day exhibition at the glass-roofed, 19th century architectural gem, Grand Palais. Considered by many to be the world’s top photo fair, Paris Photo is certainly the largest, with 136 galleries representing nearly 2600 artists, 28 photobook specialists, and guaranteed hours-long waits for over 55,000 attendees. Enormous enough to be completely overwhelming, it is also irresistible eye candy for anyone lucky enough to go.
Next, the entree. Photography is an art but it is also a business. Robert Klein, owner of the esteemed Newbury Street gallery bearing his name, has exhibited at Paris Photo since its 2nd year. He spoke of the “agonizing turmoil” of deciding which work to bring to Paris each year, weighing the “broader vocabulary of aesthetics” present at an international fair with the motivation to display work that is sufficiently distinctive from other galleries. Klein usually brings a cross-section of vintage photographs (Irving Penn is highly sought after) balanced with more experimental work on a larger physical scale that “allows photography to hold up in comparison to the market for paintings.”
Smith and Klein agreed that the international Paris Photo attendees seemed well educated in art history and, not surprisingly, seemed to place a higher value on photographic art than Americans do. Klein outlined the enormous overhead associated with bringing work overseas: the exhibit booth, framing, insurance and shipping. To defer expenses, Klein sometimes prints his largest images in Europe or does some of his framing there. Nonetheless, his lowest print prices hovered around $2,500 – $3000. And it was not unusual to see photographs selling in the tens of thousands of Euros.
The relatively high price of photographs at Paris Photo did nothing to deter interest or attendance, but Klein observed that it led to the breakdown of collectors into two general groups: those who purchased original prints and those whose collecting was constrained to books by their favorite artists. This induced Klein to include books in his booth this year and, in an interesting development, has prompted gallerists to take note of the best book sales as they seek out new photographers.
Curator Sybylla Smith, who organized and served as moderator for this panel discussion, provided an illustrated tour of the awe-inspiring expanse of photography both in and around the Grand Palais, ranging from street and Metro art to auxiliary events such as the seventy or so concurrent gallery exhibits, several photography auctions and, of course, the large portfolio review event. Smith was clearly energized by her experience, which brought her face-to-face with artists like Elliot Erwitt and Sebastiao Salgado. For me it was a mind-boggling journey, all the more sensational for Smith’s palpable exuberance.
The Finnish-American environmental self-portraitist, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, a featured artist in Robert Klein’s Paris Photo booth, spoke from a photographer’s perspective. “It was humbling to see so many talents there – a real learning experience that brought me inspiration.” Wandering Paris with his iPhone, Minkkinen felt “Paris elevated photography like a Monet!” The Finnish Tourist Board utilized some of Minkkinen’s images in their ads on the Paris Metro, which he was pleased to report actually doubled the number of tourists to his native land. Another boon to Minkkinen and other photographers were the photography journals that featured the work shown at Paris Photo “within a couple of months”. Luckily for us, Minkkinen was also inspired to employ his signature approach to the Parisian landscape and he treated us to a few of his creations.
In just one evening, I got lost in the immensity of artwork and events encompassing and surrounding Paris Photo. And I found the vibrancy and excitement of an entire city, swept up in the celebration of photography. In Minkkinen’s words, “Paris is inspiration.”
To get your own taste of Paris Photo, visit their official website: http://www.parisphoto.com/