“Would you rather stew over the fraying of western democracy or soak in a deep pool of fine art photography?” And so I found myself at Paris Photo last week.
Paris Photo is both a trade show and an art expo. It’s advertised in the metro, on the street, where the unwashed masses can catch wind of it and subsequently attend in an effort to better themselves. But the show’s true raison d’etre is getting galleries together in one place to facilitate the Monopoly-money economics of the fine art world. There are presumably collectors prowling around, collecting, though they are not immediately identifiable. I assume the galleries do some horse trading among themselves as well. Prints are sold for 5,000 or 15,000 or 50,000 euros. You see a lot of bottles of champagne opened: commerce at this scale is thirsty work. This kind of transaction usually happens in rooms where the hoi palloi never tread, so there’s a voyeuristic thrill to be had in rubbing up against it while wearing pants from Old Navy.
Apart from its sheer size and total lack of curatorial unity, this is what sets Paris Photo apart from a museum show: you can stand right next to the great pounding pistons of the machine, tucking in any loose clothing to avoid mangling accident. The hood is off, you feel the thrum of it, see the teeth of gears meshing implacably, shining and smiling hard in the bright daylight-balanced illumination. You hear the ecstatic greetings of near strangers, witness the carefully presented facades of clothes and faces, the leaning close, the parted lips, the excitement of acquisition and being acquired. You sense the invisible flows of currency coursing through the veins and arteries of the show, the fuel that drives this engine for transmuting art into investment.
I go, not to increase the size of my collection of fine art (which contains not a single object or print, excepting my own), but to bask, to marinate, to steep myself in photography, potentially of excellent quality, and certainly of excellent print quality, especially if you like big prints. There is always art, real art, that resonates in the cockles and subcockles of my heart, shown at Paris Photo. A lot of it is canon, some of it is still damp from the womb, blinking in the bright light, untested.
The photographs hang naked on the freshly erected pre-fab walls, as honest and true as the artists that made them. That is, presumably, of greatly variable honesty and truth. There’s always a fair amount of stuff that does absolutely nothing for me, that I suspect, thought don’t quite have the courage to call out specifically in print, is dross of the most empty and cynical order. I strain to credit my own laziness, my closeted philistinism, for this interpretation, because it is depressing, enraging, to consider that in fact the gatekeepers and taste makers don’t know the difference, or more likely, know but don’t care, that their consideration of the bottom line outweighs all other considerations. If this is the case (and how, in this world, could it not be, at least often?) then I assume the buyers are complicit, more concerned with appreciating investments than appreciating art.
My frustration with the ratio of truth to trash at Paris Photo is offset by my secret delight in the worst work, which allows me to revel in a sense of superiority as I compare it to my own, ignoring for the moment that I am on the outside looking in, that I face the walls rather than face out at thousands of considering, judging eyes. These pieces allow me to indulge in that eternal fantasy of the unappreciated artist: that my work, as easily as some of this stuff, could be anointed, if only I were willing to play the game, dance with the vulpine elegance of gallerists, pander to fashion, etc.
Not all of the attendees with artistic aspirations are likely to be so bitter. A disproportionate number are photography students, dutifully toting heavy film cameras and notepads in which they scribble discerningly. I drift through them, vampirically savoring their youthful enthusiasm, stopping up my impulse to condescend, noticing how well their jeans fit. I never speak to them, would not spill the black ink of my cynicism on their clean white pages (they are almost always white). I imagine that they imagine themselves on those walls, that they are taking aim, carefully ignoring statistics, the preponderance of work by photographers who died before they themselves were born, the recurrence of certain names further slimming the room for new entrants. But as with the army of tiny fresh-hatched sea turtles blitzing the beach beneath the wheeling hungry gulls, some tiny percentage will make it. Under such withering fire, luck will play its role alongside ability. Such is the design of things.
Despite the nose-bleed elitism that drives Paris Photo, the event also embodies a wholesome democracy. A print that sells for more than a house reflects the same light into my eyes as it would into those of a collector with an exotic credit card. The galleries have staked their claim, merged money and mouth: this is what we have selected, what we think is best. And anyone can praise or piss on their selection (anyone with a disposable 30 euros and a free afternoon, anyway). For a few short days a year, the cards are all on the table. Then they’re folded back into dark, deep pockets.
Anyway, this year I saw some cool photography, familiar and not. I might mention it in another post. Also, a lot of people were carrying neat old cameras, which was fun to see. You’d think film never went out of style. BMW is still a sponsor, and JP Morgan attached its name and apparently lent out some photographs from its collection. Money and cars: the link to photography is oblique, but I believe it is there. Leica had a little pavilion where I saw the new TL, mated absurdly to the already absurd new-old 28mm Summaron. In its glass case under LED spotlighting, perhaps bathed in an inert argon atmosphere, the TL looked impossibly clean, too pristine for this world. I did not particularly yearn to profane it with my touch: it seemed distant, an idol once worshiped by a long-disappeared alien race.