As an artistic genre, photography is experiencing something of a crisis. The ubiquity of smartphones and the explosion of image-based social media such as Instagram mean that people across the globe are photographing all the time, everywhere, relentlessly. Where decades ago the camera was a piece of fairly expensive equipment that required some training or skill for proper use, it is now appended to every mobile device, making it possible for just about anybody to take a passable picture. That makes the job of the 21st-century photographer difficult.
A tour of Paris Photo — the world’s most important photography fair — makes that reality pretty clear. It’s very tough for young photographers working in digital and in color to compete with the torrent of images bombarding the Internet every day.
This year’s fair, which ends November 11, puts female photographers in the spotlight, which is a great thing. The recent photographs on display are interesting when they illustrate themes that are in the moment, such as the everyday reality for transgender individuals. But the images in and of themselves sometimes look like glorified Instagram posts. Compounding the problem is the blurry and grainy quality of the prints that are blown up and presented on the wall. The standout color photography of our time is the work of big names such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth or Cindy Sherman, who have been at it for decades, have a very distinguishable style and signature, and studios where they produce their work.
The great German filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders sums up the situation pretty eloquently in a video message published by the BBC. “We’re all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it’s more dead than ever.”
The point, according to Wenders, is that it is the act of taking the photograph, rather than the photographic print itself, that counts most. “The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them,” he adds. “Even the people who take them don’t look at them anymore, and they certainly don’t make prints.”
Thankfully, photography enthusiasts roaming the Paris Photo fair this week still have plenty of treats to cast their eyes over. The vast majority of them are by photographers who were born in the 1940s if not before.
Prominently displayed are the famous pictures taken by the late Richard Avedon of Andy Warhol and his Factory. Gagosian has dedicated its stand to Warhol to coincide with the 90th anniversary of his birth (and a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art). A star highlight is the dramatic photograph of Andy Warhol’s scarred and perforated torso, taken in 1969; it hangs on a foil-covered wall. Price: $1 million. (There is also a smaller and cheaper version for those with slimmer budgets.) The adjacent wall has a large black-and-white mural polyptych of Warhol and members of his Factory, some of them naked.
What distinguishes Avedon from so many other photographers who have followed him is the quality of the composition and image — and the quality of the prints. These black-and-white photographs were all developed in his lifetime and by his studio, and they have an incredible sharpness and luminosity to them. That’s because Avedon would have his studio assistants produce a dozen different prints in the darkroom before he gave his approval, always demanding more drama and contrast. And the results speak for themselves.
Another outstanding black-and-white photographer to go looking for at Paris Photo this year is Lynn Davis (born in Minnesota in 1944). Her large photographs of world monuments and heritage sites are shown by the Karsten Greve Gallery, and they are stellar: ageless and beautifully composed depictions of the remnants of ancient cultures.
Davis started out as an assistant to the photographer Berenice Abbott, and for a time, she and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe produced nudes together. Thankfully, she turned her attention in the 1980s to landscape and architectural photography. That was after a trip to the Labrador coast in Greenland, when she saw the majestic ice-scapes and became enthralled by nature and the built environment.
Davis’s elegant representations of the ruins in Palmyra (Syria) quietly document monuments that, until recently, served as backdrops to carnage. Her interior views of the mosques of Isfahan (Iran) are so atmospheric, you feel as if you’re there. The Goodman Gallery, meanwhile, showcases the work of the South African master photographer David Goldblatt, whose parents were Lithuanian Jews escaping persecution, and who spent much of his career chronicling the brutal reality of the Apartheid years. The greatest picture on the stand shows a compartmentalised concrete wall; the compartments were actually bunks where black miners were accommodated until the 1950. Not only is the image pictorially powerful: it tells a potent human story.
There are plenty of other wonderful Goldblatt prints on the stand — of a weary woman in Soweto leaning on the side of a stove, of a flat cleaner wearing big fat gloves going for a walk on his afternoon off, of a young mother nursing her baby in a barren kitchen.
Gritty documentary shots of the desolate landscape of post-industrial 1970s Britain dominate the Augusta Edwards Gallery booth. They are the work of photographers Chris Killip and Graham Smith (both born in the 1940s).
And those nostalgic for mid-20th-century photojournalism can purchase small prints of works by giants of the time, led by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his wife Martine Franck, who have both passed.
Here’s hoping a next generation of great photographers will emerge.