Not so long ago you would not have seen photography present at any serious art event but times change so I was interested to see to what extent photography had made inroads into the art market at the recent London Art Fair (15-19 January 2014).
The Fair bills itself as promoting modern British and contemporary art so although you won’t find Old Masters here, there is still a lot of scope for different works. The main fair contains 93 established galleries catering for a wide range of tastes – and pockets! Then there is the Art Projects section where you find more experimental, ideas-based work usually by less well-established artists. Finally Photo50, the section devoted to photography.
The opening day, Wednesday, was themed as Photography Focus Day, with 4 talks and 3 tours available. I attended 1 of each. The talk was hosted by the charity PhotoVoice that promotes participatory photography for social and individual change, in which 4 photographers provided insightful descriptions of their experience with the delicate and complex relationship between photographer and subject, and the often difficult and controversial decisions involved when making sensitive work publicly available. A common thread that emerged was the need to first understand the subject and the background and second to work collaboratively with the subject to make sure their interests are paramount.
The tour was a whistle-stop visit to most of the galleries displaying photography. Jean Wainwright was our expert guide and provided insights into the works and the artistic intent. It took well over an hour to visit all the photographic works, and that was without the questions and discussions that I sensed many of us were itching for. So there is no doubt that photography has reached firmly into the contemporary art market today.
I find myself having to adjust my definition of photography these days. Roland Barthes notion that something must have literally existed in front of the imaging device in order to produce a photograph still holds, but the idea of a photograph being a well-crafted single image from a camera is now confined to a small niche in the wall that is photography today. There is an increasing number of artists working with photography (or lens-based media as it is sometimes called) and they are much in evidence at this art fair. I have a rather simple view of the difference between an artist and a photographer: an artist has lots of ideas but lacks the craft skills to produce consistently good photographs (perhaps that’s why they often use other peoples’ images) and a photographer can produce well crafted images without artistic depth, but when the artist-side and photographer-side get together, well-crafted work with some intellectual depth can result. (for the sake of completeness I should say that “photography” also includes the moving image, which was represented at the London Art Fair but I didn’t have time to investigate it).
Alternative processes, particularly the cyanotype, were in use by several photographers: Tessa Shaw particularly impressed me with the 3-dimensionality of her prints. Re-working of archival material was in evidence and seemed to be selling well, with the uniqueness of each image being a strong selling point I suspect. Photo collage is thriving, especially using images appropriated from the Internet. I find the underlying social commentary about the quantity and quality of images on the ‘net now rather hackneyed, and not many artists seem to find an original way of using them. The Internet is just infrastructure; if photographers went out in the early 20th century and photographed all the cars on the new-fangled roads then most of these images are now consigned to the dustbin of history, and I suspect that’s what will happen to the majority of artworks derived from the industrial quantities of images on the Internet. The sooner artists get over this craze and into a post-Internet era the better. Image appropriation work has to be of an exceptionally high standard to impress me – of the calibre of Bloomberg & Chanarin – and I’m afraid that not much of this genre did it for me in Photo50.
It was good to see several of my favourite photographers’ work in the galleries: Lottie Davis and Emily Allchurch to name just two. It was also good to find a new name to add to my list: Ra Di Martino, whose exhibition I missed last year at the Tate but whose work was being shown by Tryon St. Gallery. Derelict factories and disused shipyards are popular subjects with some fine art photographers but Di Martino manages to subvert this by photographing old movie sets as if they were surreal archaeological sites. Here are a couple of examples:
She has lots of other interesting work so do check out her Web site.