Photo London

Photo London opens to the public today – and I went to the Press View yesterday. I found it rather tiring, not least because I was determined to see everything I could on one day, and also had a couple of protests to photograph, at Canary Wharf and on Northumberland Ave.

I’d recommend taking it rather easier. The days start at noon, and I’d suggest doing an hour or so and then retiring for a leisurely lunch – if you want it on the cheap there are a couple of Wetherspoons not far away at Holborn, because you will be in need of refreshment, and a little food to keep you going. And for a tea break later there’s a Sam Smiths pub a short way west on the other side of the Strand. I made the mistake of tackling the show alcohol-free, and found it difficult. Best take a friend or two for support too.

As this may suggest, I find it a difficult event, though I’m still pleased I made the effort, because there certainly are works worth seeing, even if many of them are old favourites. But for me its rather too much like going to Mayfair – the smell of money disgusts. Silly things on sale at silly prices. And far too much work that is corporate decor rather than any significant photography. But it is still worth making the effort, as there is nothing like it unless you make a trip to Paris or further afield.

I enter the corridors in what is something of a truffle hunt, looking for photography among the heaps of arty rubbish. Its not actually quite that bad, but there are a number of extremely depressing galleries exhibiting and encouraging some extremely trite photography. But there are a number of things worth finding, though nothing that would get me taking out my cheque book (I do still have one and a reasonably healthy bank balance) at the asking prices. Even for pictures I really like there seemed to be one or two noughts too many. The problem is that photography is no longer just supporting photographers but supporting a huge superstructure of galleries, curators, gallerists – and expensive shows like this. And actually not supporting enough serious photographers.

Photo Paris – which I’ve been to half a dozen times – seems to do it much better. A wider range of work – and rather less of the dull arty stuff, and set in a less confusing space. And Paris and France has much more of a photographic rather than an art culture – and considerably less of a class-based nature.

I liked seeing the giant Klein murals – at their best on the outside of the Pavillion and one of the more impressive aspects of the show. Magnum’s contribution with the prints swapped by David Hurn was also a fine display. Back when I began in photography, the kind of print-swapping that this exhibits was widespread – virtually all of us swapped prints with other photographers that we knew.

Swapping prints wasn’t – as the wall text of the Magnum show suggests – a bright idea of David Hurn, who did extremely well out of his exchanges and was fortunate to be able to keep up the practice with his Magnum colleagues after it had largely died out elsewhere, and in almost every instance the wall shows he got the best of the deal. But in what seems to me a supreme irony is that the practice was stopped by the rise of the galleries which Photo London represents, with a corresponding increase in the price of photographs. Many photographers now have to sign contracts which prevent them swapping prints, and commit to limited editions which make swapping more difficult.

It’s a shame too that such a small section of the show is devoted to photographic books, although some galleries also have them on their stands. The book is I think most often the ideal representation of photography, and I felt this on looking at one of the two large sets of Korean photography on the east and west sides of the Pavilion. While the trees by Bae Bien-U certainly gained something from being more or less life-sized (though I did think I’d rather go and walk through a real wood – which I can do at a short bike ride from where I live) the images by Noh Suntag on the west side seemed to me to gain nothing from their scale – and would be better seen in a book.

I did enjoy the opportunity to see Isaac Julien‘s 1989 film ‘Looking for Langston‘ – Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes – though I didn’t have time to sit through the full hour-long movie, and there is only seating for a handful – I might drop back later, but felt the still images in the Pavillion were disappointing. Perhaps the images that inspired the film – particularly those by James Van DerZee and Roy Decarava – would have been a better accompaniment.

The work by Taryn Simon, the show’s ‘Master of Photography‘ was to my mind hardly appropriate, though of some mild interest, largely in showing how differently those who live in Iran see the world through internet search engines. I did try a couple of search terms myself – and got rather different sets of images returned for the UK than those I get from home from Google, and I wonder why – perhaps the search results are heavily influenced by cookies.

Other disappointments were that I was unable to see Matt Collishaw‘s ‘Thresholds’, a virtual reality recreation of W H F Talbot’s 1839 show in Birmingham; although we got him talking about it at the Press Launch. It sounded interesting, though again not photography. Jurgen Teller‘s special exhibition was also supposedly a highlight, but I found little special. His work has always seemed something something of the Emperor’s new clothes to me, though of course on the wall it was women who were without them.

I’m sorry to be rather negative. It would be good to have a real photo-festival in London, and most years recently we have done in the East London Photomonth, taking a rest this year. Photo London is a dealer show for wealthy collectors, and there were fools getting parted from their money today, but there are also a few crumbs which fall from those over-priced tables that make a visit for the rest of us worthwhile, even if we have to put up with much that lacks photographic interest.

Photo London continues until Sunday but if you can’t make it you can look at last year’s show on line in an impressive virtual tour. The pictures are shown in enough detail to recognise, but not really to view them, but at least you avoid the crowds. And the £29 for an adult day pass. The 2016 show was I think more interesting than this year’s event which I assume will also appear similarly at some time as I think I saw it being made today.

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