Yesterday was a great day in Los Angeles, eighty degrees under hazy blue skies, and a happy throng of Angelenos turned out for the last day of the three-day Photo L.A. exposition (The eighteenth annual Los Angeles Photographic Print Exposition), held this year at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport.
Though the crowd was good, it seemed to me that actual photo sales were thin—in a two-hour visit, I never saw anybody actually buying a photo, and the red-dotted "sold" stickers were scarce. However, it’s possible and maybe even likely that the biggest photography enthusiasts showed up on the first two days of the show, and sales were better then, and they took the photos with them.
A few notes at random:
Several photographers were showing Gregory Crewdson-style night scenes—selectively lit lonely houses and still, vaguely foreboding neighborhoods. With the high ISO cameras now available, this fashion may be with us for a while.
Lots of female nudity. I don’t know exactly how these would be displayed by a collector, since so many of them—especially the life-size Jock Sturges nudes—were so in-your-face. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have a hard time eating a Subway BMT with extra cheese while staring at the high-res pudenda of a fourteen-year-old.
I’d never heard of Michael Garlington, who apparently is well-known in northern California, but he showed a very nice, near life-size (non-nude) black-and-white print called "The Fishmonger’s Daughter" (left). I liked it; it seemed almost 19th Century, with an amused smile behind it. While I was looking at it, I noticed that the wall label quoted him as saying that one of the interesting things about photography is that "you can look into someone’s eyes for as long as you want, without having to look away." That stuck with me because I saw a guy with his nose about two inches from one of the very largest Sturgis nudes, and I wondered, "What in the hell is he looking at? The grain?"
Hendrik Kerstens, who did the "Bag" photograph displayed on this blog a few days ago (the Vermeer-like portrait of the girl with the white plastic bag on her head), had several more large portraits of Paula, who is his daughter, in somewhat the same vein. In one shot, her hair is elaborately done up with paper towels still on the cardboard rolls; in another, she had a black plastic wastebasket on her head, the kind you might buy at a Target store; in another, a black plastic garbage bag in a kind of throw-back veil; another, with a second white plastic bag; and then a couple of fairly straight photos. They were all individually quite interesting, but as a group, began to come off as a kind of trick. (On the second reading of this, "trick" seems a little unfair, because the quality was so good, the girl’s face so striking, and the ideas so clever; but I leave it because that really was my most immediate impression.) The photo that Mike put up here a few days ago was easily the best, in my humble opinion. In the others, the actual nature of the headdress is more obviously apparent, and that takes away a bit of the sudden, amused realization of what you’re seeing. The girl has an amazingly sixteenth-century face; it has a fine blue quality that absolutely would have rung Vermeer’s bell.
One gallery was showing three very nice Ansel Adams silver prints, all "printed later." The asking price for "Moonrise" was $150,000, which I think is absurd for a non-vintage (printed 1977) print, especially in the essentially unlimited edition that Moonrise is. The print was beautiful, though.
Lots of C prints, beautifully done, at least to my eye—Ctein might feel otherwise. I considered buying one, a huge 78-inch wide photo of a super-cell storm apparently taken somewhere on the high plains. The problem was, the gloss on the photo was so high that you could not stand in any one place in the display and see the entire photograph, because there was always a reflected hot-spot on it somewhere. It occurred to me that with the lights in my house (an old house with center ceiling lights in each big room) that you would never be able to see the whole print at night, because of the reflections. Hmm. I don’t know what that means, but the photo was nice.
Lots of manipulated photos—photo montages, cutouts, pastiches, etc. On the whole, I thought, not very interesting.
The eye-catching photos often were black-and white, despite acres of color stuff, and very often done by older, modernist photographers. On about my third lap around the place, I decided it was because the modernists were schooled in structure, design, composition; a lot of newer photographers seem to simply look for interesting stuff to shoot. But even if the stuff is inherently interesting, if the design and composition isn’t there, it doesn’t really reach out and grab you across a room. I saw Andre Kertesz’s "Satiric Dancer" ($28,000) from fifty feet away, and knew it in an instant, because of the design of the thing.
A Robert Mapplethorpe silver portrait of Isabella Rossellini absolutely leapt off the walls, even surrounded by other portraits. Say what you want about R.M., the guy could shoot a portrait.
There were a lot of interesting landscapes in the Adams mode—high res, well-printed wilderness scenes with clearing clouds, but those of Californian Mitch Dobrowner seemed to stand out. He does digital prints and as fine as the C prints are, I would have to say that digital, to my eye, now holds its own, even with the C’s.
At the same time Photo L.A. was going on, there was a sale of vernacular photos across the street in another hangar. I don’t have anything to say about that, because everything I know about the vernacular enthusiasm you could write on the back of a postage stamp.
A final observation: there was a large collection of really good-looking women, of all ages, at the show. Most of the guys, on the other hand, looked like they’d just fallen off a turnip truck. I don’t know why this should be. Anyway, if I were 26, male, and looking, I’d go to photos shows. I thought you’d like to know that.
Featured Comment by Stephen Gillette: "John, I don't think that sales were robust in the two days preceding your visit to photola. I was even surprised by the thin crowds on Friday, when I went, wondering if Saturday and Sunday would be better.
"Obviously, I don't have much insight into actual sales, but by 2 p.m. on Friday (just two hours into the show) I could see small pods of dealers talking with one another in the aisles. Usually that doesn't happen until near closing time.
"Last year's photola seemed to have much more energy, both in terms of images being shown, and floor buzz. This year seemed predictably flat, given the economic storm swirling. Even the portable bathrooms outside the hanger were less swank than last year. (You had to have seen last year's to know what I'm talking about.)
"One highlight for me was the ongoing performance by artist Tiffany Trenda. She reproduced a classic old box camera at a very large scale. In fact, she did her performance inside the camera. The viewers looked in through the lens to watch her. And, it turned out, to watch themselves: she 'wore' a video-monitor headdress that displayed the viewer in real time, captured by a hidden camera. As viewer/participants moved, she mimicked their motions, much like an animatronic robot. The performance was funny, light and thought-provoking.
"Across the street in another hanger (and yes, the sound of small jets and prop planes is the constant background noise at Barker Hanger, located at the Santa Monica Airport), the work of Barbara Grover was in its final weekend at Sherry Frumkin Gallery. Barbara spent nearly two months visiting a Darfuri refuge camp, and the resulting collection of images is powerfully beautiful, despite the tragic back story. The images were masterfully captured (in a very difficult environment—Barbara told me that she never removed the lenses on her two digital camera bodies, and taped over every seam she could see to keep out the blowing dust and sand) and wonderfully printed. The heart, purpose and presentation of the exhibition, which was not formerly a part of photola, stood in stark contrast to the 'big show' just across the street. Hopefully, photola visitors managed to discover Grover's fine work."