If there is one common truth about photography collectors, it is that we are prisoners of what we have seen. The corollary of this perhaps obvious insight is that by definition, we don’t know much about what we haven’t seen, or even where to look for it – the fact that we might realize that such photography does exist and might be worth tracking down is in many ways the first step toward getting out from underneath our own constraints, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I see a tremendous number of gallery and museum shows of photography every year, and go to my fair share of art fairs, so I can say with some confidence that if you travel long enough in the well worn ruts of Chelsea, our major New York museums, the biggest name fairs on the calendar, and the seasonal auctions at the major houses, you will start to see the same photography over and over again. The usual suspects vary a bit from category to category, but patterns certainly emerge over time, with familiar names coming up again and again. Optimists might see this as the natural sifting of the art world promoting the most deserving names to the top, while pessimists will see an entrenched insider-driven system that doesn’t allow much new entry from unexpected or unapproved sources. Either way, active collectors absolutely see certain kinds of work repeatedly, often to the point of dulling numbness.
So let’s assume for a second that we are thoughtful collectors and we have noticed this narrowing phenomenon, and want to do something about it. But what to do isn’t exactly obvious. We can try to follow foreign museums and galleries more closely, but that’s honestly pretty hard from far away, especially if we can’t visit these venues in person very often (or ever); only an elite few wealthy collectors have the time and resources to jet around tracking the most promising new exhibitions. We can surf the many photography sites on the net and subscribe to dozens of magazines, searching for inspiration and serendipitous connections; while this might be fun, it’s certainly time consuming and has a discouragingly low hit rate. Increasingly, we can buy photobooks from small publishers (and photographers directly), looking for exciting work that may not have found a home in the gallery system, but the discovery process for these books is difficult (part of the reason we are consciously reviewing more books on Collector Daily by the way), especially since many books are released in such small editions and without broad distribution; for less than perfectly well informed collectors, the “hot” books are almost always maddeningly gone by the time we hear about them.
The Unseen Photo Fair has bravely stepped into this yawning breach with the hopes of being the place where deserving “unseen” and overlooked work can find a home. While not exactly punk in its well designed, fresh-cut wood planking look and feel, in spirit, it is in many ways the anti-fair, a place where the outsiders can congregate, new work has a welcoming home, and risks can be taken. Having been to the Armory, Frieze, ABMB, Paris Photo, AIPAD, and others in all of the past few years, I can vouch that the work on view here (and the galleries presenting it) is verifiably different. For the record, there were no New York photo galleries exhibiting at the fair (and only one from the entire US, Kopeikin Gallery from Los Angeles), nor were there any major contemporary galleries who often show photography from the US or Europe taking part. It was a mostly European (with some Asian additions) group, and largely galleries that don’t run in the circuit that US collectors generally follow. Given my particular mindset, it was like a much needed breath of fresh air.
The very real danger that could occur with this kind of quietly contrarian model is that the work on view could be uniformly weak; maybe there is a good reason it isn’t being shown elsewhere. Without naming names, we can all bring to mind art fairs that lack the big players, and are filled with mediocre (or worse) photography – the kind that is unseen and should generally stay that way. And if I am honest, in advance of my first visit to Unseen this year, I was secretly a bit worried that this is what I might find. My plan was that if I found an uneven mix of photography, I’d just put together a few summary highlights, chalk it up to a learning experience, and call it a day.
But what you will find below is a complete booth by booth summary of the fair, just like we do for Paris Photo and AIPAD, which I hope reflects my respect for what Unseen has achieved. While there are soft spots to all art fairs, the work I found at Unseen was consistently solid, certainly comparable in quality to any of the major photo fairs on the calendar. Let’s be clear – there is no vintage work at all at Unseen, and not a lot of massively sized work, so there is very little photography priced higher than say $20000, and not many hang-your-hat household names to be found on the walls; in fact, there seems to be conscious push toward the lower end of the price range, with many featured works around $1000 (the Unseen Collection). But the fact that this fair is as full of intriguing contemporary photography as it is says there is a subculture alive and well flying under the radar of the mainstream photo market. I found this to be particularly true for work I had only seen in innovative photobooks and was now seeing in person for the first time. Perhaps a new cohort of galleries are coalescing around these emerging photographers in ways I had failed to previously understand (and as an aside, the thriving and well integrated book market at Unseen is a major positive in supporting the main fair).
The slideshow below (and the one to be found in Part 2 of this report) is organized around my path through the fair, starting with booths 1-11 in a side building and following through to booths 12-55 (no unlucky 13) in the main hall, a round space with a handy coffee bar/congregation point in the center. For each booth, the linked name of the gallery is followed by the discussion of a single work, with the photographer’s name, the price, and other description, commentary, and analysis to follow. The structured exercise of selecting just one work to feature from each and every booth certainly has its own strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole, I think it accurately reflects a broad sample of what’s on view, and allows me to dig into specific images with more focus than a wider higher level, arm waving summary might allow. It also gives collectors who read the summaries some actionable information, with names to write down and links to follow for images that catch they eye.
All in, Unseen has built something worthwhile in Amsterdam and intrepid collectors who want to step out of the increasingly deep ruts of photography should put it on the calendar for next year. As it matures, it has the potential to be that one pluckily energetic photo fair that is complementary to all the faceless others.
Part 2 of this summary report can be found here.