As I was coming over on the night flight from New York for my annual trip to Paris Photo, I was thinking about what I could do to introduce a sense of freshness into my summary of the fair. For many years now, I have been reporting on the photography to be found at Paris Photo, systematically going from booth to booth, selecting one work from each and every stall in the sprawling Grand Palais. This process has had its own excitements and challenges, from being forced to choose from an embarrassment of riches to struggling to select even one picture worthy of recognition, and overall, such a sampler does I think provide a decent cross section of all the kinds of work on view for those that can’t make the trip themselves.
As I scrunched my too tall frame into my too small airplane seat and tried (and largely failed) to sleep, I was turning over the idea of using themes this year. Maybe I could break the posts up into several groups. There might be enough solid examples for a selection of classic/vintage work, and perhaps a grouping of “brand new pictures” made in the past year or two. Or maybe I could divide the fair geographically, with units of Asian photographs or African work, or alternately, I could slide into genres, like abstract imagery or portraiture. No immediate answers presented themselves as I tossed and turned, so I figured I would let the fair itself tell me what to do once I could see what was being shown.
I typically divide the fair into five sections, following the map provided by the organizers, and so when I arrived, I started at the front door and dove in. In my first booth (which happened to be Karsten Greve), I selected a surreal Ilse Bing image from a solo show of her work. In the second (Stevenson), I singled out a new overpainted work by Viviane Sassen. In the third (Les Filles du Calvaire), I chose an abstract tumble of wooden cubes by Noémie Goudal. And so the theme presented itself. Three booths, three female photographers.
But selecting a single work by a female photographer from every booth at Paris Photo turns out to be an impossible task. There are many booths, from solo presentations to multi-artist groups, where there are simply no works by women on view, and even though the gender of the maker may not always be the most relevant metric for evaluating an artwork, being forcefully faced with the absence of women in so many places was undeniably an eye-opener.
Faced with this reality, I decided to relax my stringent rules this year and allow myself to choose more than one work in a booth when the situation warranted it. So for this summary report, the booths with no work by women at all (or no particularly notable work by women), there is no selection; for the booths where women are represented more fully, there is a minimum of one selection, and in some cases, two or even three pictures are featured. When the dust settled, I still ended up with roughly 100 images to talk about more fully, spread across the five physical sections of the fair map.
Using gender to create a core sample from the overall terrain of Paris Photo certainly creates its own rhythms, distortions, and insights. Some themes and discoveries, as drawn out from my selections:
- By far, most of the available work made by women was created in the past decade or two.
- If a photograph made by a woman was created prior to 1980 and is being offered for sale at the fair, it was probably made by a “classic” name (Lange, Bourke-White, Abbott, et al., and while Arbus was to be found in many places, I didn’t actually pick any of her works for this review) or it has likely been rediscovered as part of the renewed interest in 1970s feminist photography.
- There was very little 19th century/early 20th century work by women on offer, and not many works by women artists from Asia being featured either (I found in few in each of these categories, but it took some effort). Whether this is because there were just fewer women photographers working during these periods or in these geographies or that the work of those women artists is simply less well known (or less directly aimed at collectors) isn’t clear.
- Nearly all of the portraiture made by women I ended up selecting was imagery actually of women – as self-portraiture, of other women or women’s roles, or of families.
What other patterns emerge from this sampler, I will leave to my readers to discern (and add in the comments section as appropriate).
Practically, this summary report is divided into five slideshows of image highlights, roughly organized by physical location in the Grand Palais. This first segment starts with the booths found in the center of the fair (from the perspective of standing at the main entrance) and each subsequent report (over the next few days) will follow my path through the fair, finishing up the first section and then moving to the left and right. The structure for the information remains same as in years past– gallery names/links are followed by notes and comments on the particular work featured, including the artist/photographer name and the price of the work (typically in euros or dollars) where available.