By John Camp
Saturday was a glorious day in Los Angeles, sunny, temps in the high 70s and low 80s, so a friend and I set out for Santa Monica, where Photo LA continues through today (Sunday) at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Admission price is a stiff $20 per person. To summarize the usual stuff: the place was crowded, I witnessed some actual sales and what appeared to be serious negotiations, so I'd say the sales might have been reasonably good.
I saw less "classic" photography this year. I'm sure there must have been some, but I didn't see a single image by Ansel Adams—although I did see an advertisement at a rare book stand for Adams' Portfolio Number 1 for $95,000. I saw three images by Mapplethorpe, a couple by Irving Penn, a couple by Edward Weston (including a nice "Pepper" printed by his son), others by Robert Frank and Martin Parr, Danny Lyon and Alfred Eisenstaedt, and so on.
More interesting, to my eye, were the trends.
Photos have grown larger with the arrival of high-res printers. Where there were always a few photos printed large at photo shows, you now routinely see full-color photographs that are six feet long. In the case of Photo LA, I'd say they dominated the show. Inkjet prints are now the norm, in all but classic photos. There were some silver prints, etc., but the inkjets dominated. A few galleries still call them "giclée," which is a neologism derived from a French word meaning "nozzle" or "squirt," and, as we all now know, also French vulgar slang for male ejaculation.
There were several pictures printed on transparent substrates with rear lighting, so the light came out of the photo—and they didn't even look tricky.
There were photos going in somewhat new directions—in one case, somebody had shredded an unknown number of colorful, hi-res photos, assembled them into a collage, and sealed the shreddings into what appeared to be transparent acrylic. I would not be willing to vouch for either the archival qualities or the durability of the product, but it was not uninteresting. On the other hand, while it was entirely composed of photographs, it was not a photograph.
There were a number of street paintings that were taken (I think, judging from the accompanying labels) from Photoshopped photographs. In other words, a number of street scenes were composited into one "photo" and then that photo was transferred to canvas, in oil paints. A very nice young woman came over and spoke to me enthusiastically about them, and she was so pleasant that I nodded politely and smiled, possibly hypocritically, but I really didn't like them. They were neither fish nor fowl, and I would prefer one of the other. Also, the painting technique failed to light any fires with me.
Photoshopped work was everywhere, and you know what? Eh. Photoshopped photos, even when done with extreme skill, just didn't look like much. They missed both the hand-craftedness of paintings, and the "referent adheres" of photography, so they mostly struck you as postcards.
Some terrific street and semi-street photography—semi-street meaning on the street, with street people, but posed.
Prices: Why would a relatively unknown photographer think he could get between $3,000 and $5,000 for a print, admittedly large, in an "edition of five?" It's not even a unique object. But, maybe they do. Maybe $5,000 is no longer real money.
Generally, prices seem to me to be about the same as they have for the past several years, even including the pre-bust times.
Lots of names I didn't recognize, for high prices, and images whose style was unfamiliar.
Saw two young women with Rolleiflexes. No young men with them (with Rolleiflexes, not with young women.) Did see a young man with four-foot dreds. Lots of point-and-shoots. Relatively few DSLRs, and those were of the less expensive variety. Lots of black shirts and black jeans; in fact, some of the shirts looked to be 18% photo gray. Facial hair was not mandatory for men, but I'm sure you could get a discounted ticket if you had it.*
All in all, an interesting day.
UPDATE: A slight enlargement on the original post:
When I said "Photoshopped...eh..." I was really talking about what were otherwise conventional photos, in which the photographer had gone into Photoshop and pushed all the sliders to the right, increasing saturation, vibrance, contrast, sharpness and all the rest. In other words, photos that did not look natural, but didn't look like anything else, either. Images that are composited with Photoshop may have some potential—I didn't see any that really struck in my mind, other than the oil paintings—but that's not what I was talking about in the original comment.
I also gave somewhat short shrift to the book sellers. There were several book sellers there, and I bought several (non-vintage) books, but the stock would make your mouth water. And your wallet scream for mercy. I bought Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills, basically because I've never understood her work, and thought I would spend some time looking at it. But another volume, The Printed Picture, by Richard Benson, published by The Museum of Modern Art to accompany its 2008–2009 show that was, I believe, of the same name, is fascinating. It basically takes a page or two to examine all the different kinds of image making, starting with cave paintings 30,000 years old, through digital printing. It's a great bedroom book, possible to read a page or two at a time. It seems pretty comprehensive, at 338 large format pages, full color all the way through. [This was TOP's Book of the Year in 2008. —Ed.]
By the way, some of the very large prints were gorgeous. I didn't mean in any way to put them down—they can be just as good or bad as small prints. But they are everywhere. —JC
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by david bram: "For the last three years, I've gone to LA as a portfolio reviewer at ReviewLA and have always gone to PhotoLA because I get a free pass. This year, I even got (useless) VIP passes because I was 'media' (fractionmagazine.com).
"This year, the opening night party, which was well attended, was hosted by Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, both of whom received lots of attention from the attendees. When each gentleman entered the auditorium, it was if Elvis had entered the room. They were rushed by fans and photographers. Lots of cameras and lots of flashes. Kind of crazy. This year seemed a bit thin as far as work and traffic were concerned, especially on Sunday, when I spent several hours there. One trend I spotted was food and miniature, plastic people photographs, which I find very odd and not very appealing.
"As for the lack of 'classic' photography, those dealers have defected and formed something called classicphotographsla.com. The only 'classic' dealer I recognized was the Monroe Gallery of Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose booth was jam-packed every time I went by and had many red dots on the walls.
"I am starting to find giant color digital prints really annoying. I've been advising photographers during reviews 'just because you can, doesn't mean you should.' Not everything has to be 30x40 or bigger.
"I am also perplexed by the trend of unknown photographers who have prints for sale at the obscene and ridiculous price of $3000–$5000. These are not realistic no matter how small the edition and certainly do not help the artist or the collector. (I could go on but will save it for another time).
"I did enjoy the free tequila tasting and the people watching. Lots of guys all in black (I was one of them) and lots of women in very short skirts.
"It's a fun time whenever I go and I hope the dealers made some money or at least covered their expenses. I know there is a fair amount of money in L.A., but I am coming home with nothing (not sure I was actually in the market to start with). On the other hand, Brad Pitt stopped by twice, caused a great ruckus, and purchased work (what he purchased was not made public). Unfortunately for me, my bank account is much different from Brad's. With that being said, I am not sure I would have purchased anything, even with an eight figure bank account."
Featured Comment by Dan Milnor: "I've lost track of how many years I've gone to Photo LA. This year, like many of the past, I was greeted with complaints by friends who beat me to the gathering. I found this year's show to be about what I expected, and I didn't find anything too negative to dwell on.
"I was very pleased to see three Chinese galleries in attendance, as well as the Kahmann gallery from Amsterdam and Riflemaker from London, all of whom were friendly, interested and seemed to have a sense of humor when it came to the industry in general.
"The enormous, technology-based print size of the past five years seems to be slowly retracting, but the large prints are still associated with large dollars so I don't see them going away anytime soon.
"I think the economy is reflected in the trends. Derivative work has always been a part of the show, but now I'm seeing derivative work based on work that came out two years ago. I think this reflects the realities of the market. People need money, photographers chase content and galleries do the same. Copy what style of image was hot last year or the year before and then get it on the wall.
"In my opinion, the aspect of the show that hit a home run was the bookseller component, with Phaidon being at the top. Beautiful, editioned books, from various publishers, ranging from a few bucks to $15,000. Book as object is becoming as interesting as anything else in the photo-world.
"My one main question I come away with...where are the young gallery owners? And by young, I'll say 40! We need new blood and new direction in the photo-art world, and I really hope the next generation will step up and show us something new."
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "I also visited Photo LA this weekend while I was attending Review LA. Unfortunately, the single most memorable impression I took from the event is that L.A. traffic sucks! I found quite a few places where I would like to photograph someday (or night, actually), but just the thought of having to drive in that city again gives me a headache, let alone actually doing it. On Thursday night, for example, it took me an hour to drive a whopping seven miles, almost evenly split between freeway and surface streets...ugh!
"The second most memorable thing was seeing prints from several of my favorite photographers close-up and personally instead of reproduced in a book or magazine or as a .jpg on a monitor. In the case of the vintage stuff, the reproductions I've seen in books and magazines over the years were about equally split between a) failing to do the original prints justice and b) making them look much better than they do in reality. I was surprised by the latter, because I had simply assumed the original prints would always look better than a reproduction, but I now know this is far from a universal truth.
"The third most memorable thing is a tie between the prices being asked for certain photos—$75,000 for a Helmut Newton print?! $85,000 for a Richard Avedon print?! $2,500 for a Helen Levitt miniature 'print' that was (apparently) cut from a contact sheet?! $7,500–20,000 for non-vintage HCB prints?!—and watching a man whip out his black AMEX card and in two minutes time, buy ~$3,000 worth of limited-edition and autographed photo books based upon the man with him pointing at each of them and saying 'You should get this one, that one, two of those, this one, this one, and that one.' It sure must be nice to have that kind of money, eh?
"The fourth most memorable thing was listening to some of the exhibitors as they sold their wares. The crap that came out of their mouths sometimes, especially concerning various technical aspects of photography, was just amazing.
"Beyond this point, everything sort of blurs together, but other highlights that come to mind were meeting an internet acquiantance for the first time and seeing his ex-Chinese Air Force Nanchang CJ-6 warbird trainer (no time for a flight, alas); watching a film crew shoot a scene in a residential part of Santa Monica at 2 a.m., while I was out photographing in the area myself; and getting my car stuck on the shoulder of Hwy. 62 after I foolishly ignored the 'soft shoulder' signs and stopped to photograph some rock formations near the Joshua Tree National Park....
"Overall, while I can't say that I'll ever go back again, I certainly am glad that I went to the event this year. It was an education for me in many respects."