There are a bunch of fairs you can attend in London this month. If you want to upgrade your wardrobe and engage with the latest in clothes design, there’s London Fashion Week towards the end of the month. If you want to buy some weapons, hire your own private militia, or get some surveillance going, you can attend the Defence and Security Equipment International Arms Fair next week. And if you want to find out what is going on in the world of photography, there’s Photo London happening right now.
They all have a strong photography element, so I would have quite liked to attend all three. Things being what they are however, I chose Photo London. It’s worth remembering that there are people who do attend all three. Shopping is shopping after all.
That ultimately is what Photo London is all about; shopping. It’s a big retail market for images of all kinds, a market where art and commerce rub up against each other often in unfortunate ways, where passion meets pretension, where the depths of the photography in one booth looks out at the superficiality in another.
It’s a place where you can live out your love-hate relationship with images in a London setting where money, class, and conspicuous consumption are on display everywhere. It’s a place where you can endeavour to puzzle over what photography sells, who it sells to, how much it sells for, and why it sells for that much; nobody really knows what the solution to that puzzle is, except that money attracts money.
This year, however, Photo London felt like the first full-on proper photography event in the UK since Covid hit. It is a place where you can see work in real life, where you can meet people from the art, photography, and publishing worlds, where you can see how work is mounted, framed, hung.
It’s a fair for all tastes, starting with the key exhibitions by Shirin Neshat and Robert Capa. There is some work there that I absolutely detest, that sums up everything that is bad about photography, art, and galleries; work made by rich photographers for rich clients and sold by rich gallerists. The surface of these images drip with the pointlessness of it all.
But then you get images that exist in that same firmament, but glory in the tackiness of it all and are great. For £68,000, you can get a massive David La Chapelle print of Miley Cyrus that in a different universe with a different bank account and a different personality, I would really love to have.
In some places, photographs are encased in £3,000 combinations of mount, frame and glass. The framing is the fetish and it clouds your judgement. You’re buying a piece of furniture in essence, the kind that wouldn’t look out of place in a boardroom or a hotel lobby. In other places, there is more of a functional approach to images. At Galerie Prints, brilliant photographs by Terry O’Neil and Brian Duffy come in edits of 25, 50, or 150. You can decorate your walls like teenager having a midlife crisis with pictures of Kate Moss, Frank Sinatra, or the Jam. The curating takes its cue from 19th century art salons where images are piled high, one on top of another. But again, in my parallel universe, I would be getting Sinatra on the Boardwalk, I would be buying a £12,000 Duffy Aladdin Sane print or (from a different booth) a Kevin Cummins Ian Curtis strip.
If you could get a spreadsheet revealing how much the different galleries make, I’m guessing it’s images like this that have the most steady income stream. These and the wonderful images that have shaped the history of photography; Steichen’s pictorialism, Ruth Orkin’s fabulous ‘An American Girl in Italy’ (around £20,000), Stephen Shame’s two kids with cigarettes in their nostrils, or the post-independence studio pictures of Malick Sidibe, Abdourrahmane Sakaly, or Adama Kouyaté.
Going across that spectrum of photographic history is one of the great pleasures of big photography fairs. But the greatest pleasure is seeing new work and it links up and reinvents themes evident in the greats of the past. So images by artists such as Hassan Hajjaj, Thandiwe Muriu Alia Ali with their rich use of colour, material and backdrop directly link in to that history.
Wallpaper figures large at Photo London, especially in Loreal Prystaj’s Nude Pepper, an installation that links in very smartly to Edward Weston and his nudes – and peppers. Hence the title. Similarly, Charlotte Abramow’s vulval foodscapes and sculptural portraits link to multiple feminist photographers of the 1960s and 1970s.
A lot of the more interesting work at Photo London is in the Discovery section. This is where you’ll find photographers at the cheaper end of the spectrum, making work that has a freshness of approach and experimentation.
There is work here that deals with historical processes, that engages with the material nature of film and paper, that plays with dimensions. Dafna Talnor’s creations of landscape (starting at just over £1,000 for the smaller ones. The postcards are free ) through cut up pieces of film are constructed into wonderfully displayed C-type prints. Here, the physicality of the work is flattened onto aluminum (perhaps) and is reinforced through wonderfully curated diptychs.
Doulgas Mandry’s reworking of archival images of the Swiss Alps also places material and process right at the heart of his practice, this time in lithographic images printed onto the geotextiles that are laid onto glaciers to (ineffectively) protect them from global warming.
Other photographers play with dimensions in other ways. At the very informative Black Box Projects, you can see Chris McGraw’s unique sunburn pictures. Made with very long exposures on immense military grade cameras, they track the sun as it moves across the sky. The unique images (costing in the region of of £12,000) are mounted above the baseboard, giving an almost sculptural affect as you view through the scorched photographic paper. This was perhaps my favourite booth with Brendan Barry’s camera obscura prints of flowers facing up to cynanotypes, photograms, and Joni Sternbach’s surfing tintypes.
In all of these examples, the flaw is an essential part of the work. You can see the joins, you can see the edges, you can see where the cuts have not been made by a laser, but a real life hand holding a real life knife. This is also apparent in the unique collages of Kensuke Koike. His reordering of found photographs are wonderful to see close up, little fragments of paper coming out from the edges. It’s a lesson in how captivating and inventive photography can be.
It’s Photo London though, so it’s not just about the fun. You need a bit of sour to go with the sweet. You can delight in images all you like, but no matter what your taste, you will also have something to moan about. Everybody does at Photo London, always. But you’ll be able to moan about it in public, in real life, with people you know or you have never met before. And once you’ve done that, you can let the delight flow over you, of being out in the city, at a fair, looking at pictures. It feels strange, it’s exhausting, it’s too much, but it’s wonderful.
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.