Reflections on Paris Photo

I fell a lot better about having missed Paris Photo 2014 since reading 11 Must-See Works at Paris Photo, an editorial in Artsy! If you’ve never heard of this – and it had previously passed me by – it is a New York based site with a mission “to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

But unlike Piaf, I do have regrets, and there are certainly things in Lensculture’s mini-feature Paris Mois de la Photo-OFF 2014 that I’m sorry to have missed, and yet more in the full programme of the fringe festival. Its a festival with a buzz that we just don’t get in London, though photomonth does try. And there is also the Mois de la Photo itself.

I’ve still got until February 8 2015 to get over to see “Garry Winogrand” at the Jeu de Paume and I may just make it, though having spent some time studying the book (a really heavywieght 61/2lbs of it) I’m not sure seeing the actual prints would add much.

It is a show that does raise questions, many of which Arthur Lubow explored a few months back in the New York Times Lens blog in relation both to Winogrand and Vivian Maier, about the idea of posthumous production.

You can watch the video on which Winogrand makes the quotation with which Lubow ends his piece on Lensculture. When asked if he didn’t wish to make choices (I think he is talking about whether or not to take a picture rather than about which of his frames to print) he says “That I never do. All I do is say yes.”

The video is rather painful to watch, a question and answer session with students who had expected a lecture. Winogrand often doesn’t really answer their questions, and at times rather plays with them, sometimes seems to be refusing to examine his process or stone-walling, but he does come out with the occasional insight. In some ways it’s rather like his photography.

At one point he says something relevant to the piece I wrote yesterday:

“Is the photograph more dramatic than what was photographed? It has to be.”

 and later :

“I don’t have anything to do with what I’m photographing, ….I’m not running for mayor, I don’t get to know people when I’m photographing.”

Thinking about Winogrand and the show in one of Paris’s finest art galleries reminds me of Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries, by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian last week, where although to some extent I agree with him I think Jones perhaps seems to miss the point about photographs. Of course they seldom have the presence of great paintings, but to write:

A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it.

suggests that he fails to understand the essential mystery of the photograph, a different nature of relation to reality than a painting or drawing. Not to mention my conviction that the best photographs – like those of Winogrand – gain their power essentially from not being set up.

Jones is clearly right about those large empty colour images that have covered most of the wall space at Paris Photo in the years I’ve attended and sell for large sums on the art market because they are trying to do something that photography doesn’t do well. He’s right too that photographs are often better seen in books than on the gallery wall (and possibly about iPads, though I think I’d prefer my larger computer screen), but “A photograph in a gallery” is certainly not always “a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.”  Good shows are are good shows, and poor shows are poor shows whether they are made with paint or photography.

Winogrand is I think a photographer whose work is more suited to books or perhaps a box of prints or a portfolio; he wasn’t concerned with the photograph as object, though his work is better if well printed than if badly done. But for me good printing means that when you look at a photograph you don’t notice the printing, only what is depicted.

Where Jones dives to the extreme depths of silliness is in his last paragraph, where he suggests the experiment of looking at the Taylor Wessing Portrait show and then going around and comparing this rather bland photography with the National Gallery’s Rembrandt exhibition. “If“, he writes, “you can really see even a millionth of the vitality of a Rembrandt portrait in any of the NPG’s photos, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” But that is a test that would also write off the great majority of the art works in the rest of the National Gallery.

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