Highlights from the 2017 AIPAD Photography Show, Part 1 of 3

When the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (or AIPAD for short) announced last year that it was moving its annual art fair from its traditional stately home at the Park Avenue Armory to the larger and more contemporary art friendly Pier 94, many wondered about just what might happen. Was the venue too big for AIPAD? Would photo people travel to the piers? And could AIPAD temper its internal squabbling and institutional resistance to change, and pull off a dramatic jump to the art fair major leagues?

Just one day into the fair, it is too early to accurately gauge attendance figures and sales activity (the ultimate measure for dealers), but the organizers deserve hearty congratulations for knowingly taking a risk and then delivering what amounts to a wholesale upgrade to its offering. This AIPAD Photography Show has the confident look and feel of a leader, and while there are of course kinks to be worked out in this new venue, the reimagined fair is now a much more plausible contender to Paris Photo, the reigning champion of photo fairs.

The first thing you’ll notice about the new and improved AIPAD Photography Show is its roominess. Back in the Park Avenue Armory, things were getting a bit tight, and the cramped quarters and short walls were leading to an overstuffed quality that wasn’t entirely pleasant when the crowds got thicker over the weekend. In its new digs, the show is much more spacious and airy, with wide aisles, bigger booths, and broad open expanses.

This has several important consequences. First, the larger booths give the photography on view more room to breathe, and the addition of plenty of extra side and back walls has led most dealers (except for the gloriously crowded Winter Works on Paper) to take advantage of the space – there is more work on view. Painted color walls and more flexible lighting have also opened up more display choices for dealers. And even the stubborn ones who still want cluttery flip bins have found room for their inventory without detracting from the clean lines of the booths.

Second, the taller walls have made it much easier to show big photography, and so contemporary work has come out in droves, rebalancing the contentious split between old and new. This is deceptively important – if the fair wants to be relevant, it needs to bring fresh, challenging, non-traditional, international work to the market, in addition to its usual fare of superlative vintage (and largely back and white) rarities.

Third, the old saw about the fair being for AIPAD-member dealers only now seems like a quaint afterthought – there are dozens of new galleries showing this year, adding to the breadth and energy of the offerings. The flip side of this equation is absence of many notable stalwarts, some of whom haven’t come for years (like Pace/MacGill and Fraenkel) to others who have been consistent anchors (Taka Ishii and PGI from Japan, Kicken, Daniel Blau, James Hyman, HackelBury, and Johannes Faber from Europe, Yossi Milo, Weston, Benrubi, Janet Borden, Danziger, and M+B from the US, among others). So the gallery mix is certainly in flux, perhaps with many taking a year off to take stock of all the new changes.

The layout of the fair is not unlike the plan when the Armory Show is in town, with booths to the right of the entrance, down the length of the pier, and then again to the left, with a lounge area right behind the main ticket counter (there are now many more places to sit, stand, have a coffee, and linger, and so the social aspect of catching up with collectors, curators, and friends has been made easier). New this year is the “Discovery” section, which is code for a zone where smaller booths are ganged together in a tight warren. But with the wide aisles, this works fine – and in the future, it offers intriguing curatorial options, like focus geographies or solo presentations. There also seems to be ample room going forward to attract more of the top tier contemporary art galleries with strong photo programs, who have often felt missing in the past.

At the far left end of the floor plan, a long overdue photobook section has been bolted on to the booth area, and this is cause for celebration. The instinct here is spot on – photobooks are an increasingly intertwined manifestation of the medium, and the vibrancy of the photobook community can and should be leveraged across to the main body of fine art photography. This is a smart break with print dealers-only tradition and one that feels inclusive rather than exclusive, which is what photography needs.

Sadly, the layout of the photobook area is inexplicably poor. Following the standard practice at nearly any book fair you might attend (the New York Art Book Fair, Offprint, Polycopies, etc), the publishers and rare book dealers have been given tables instead of hard walled booths. The problem here is that the tables have been set in rows and all oriented to face a center stage, and the layers of tables have been put so close together that even a single person looking at the books on a given table clogs the ability of anyone else to pass by. While the idea of a central stage with talks and presentations by artists and publishers has merit (as it will create excitement as well as educational/promotional opportunities), the flow of this area of the fair is maddening, and I shudder to think what it will be like over the weekend with even more people bustling around and book signings creating clusters and lines. The photobook section is a wonderful new addition to the show, but it needs a thorough redesign (and a dozen more innovative small publishers) next year. I am usually a buyer with cash burning a hole in my pocket at photobook fairs, but given my circulation frustrations, I gave up after a quick wander.

Mixed in among the gallery booths are a series of special exhibits that are worth seeking out. The best of these is the Structures of Identity show put on by the Walther Collection in a winding spiral of spaces. This exhibit echoes one that was on view in the collection’s space in Germany and in Arles, but here it has been narrowed to typologies and series of portraiture (aside from the Blossfeldts and Bechers on the outside walls). It runs from daguerreotypes and occupational tintypes to Sander, Avedon, and Ruff, with a strong emphasis on African photographers (Keïta, Tillim, Sidibé, Fosso, Ojeikere, and others). New to me were the 1950s portraits of couples from the Colombian studio of Manuel Garcia Fernandez (with long handwritten inscriptions) and Guy Tillim’s portraits of Mai Mai soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, many camouflaged with sprigs of greenery.

The exhibit of works drawn from the collection of Martin Margulies is much more sprawling and eclectic, spanning fifteen countries. Pieter Hugo jumps to Zoe Leonard, Wael Shawky transitions to Chema Madoz, and Peter Bialobrzeski connects to Jackie Nickerson as the globe continues to spin. New discoveries for me included George Osodi from Nigeria and Simcha Shirman from Israel (with pictures from Poland), with an early image by Justine Kurland (of kids in a rusted out car) and a Barbara Probst instantaneous time sequence (both on the outside walls) especially catching my eye.

Other special exhibits include a selection of recent works from Cuba from the collection of Madeleine Plonsker (frustratingly hung without wall labels and unattended by staff, so it was impossible to learn who made what or gain much education from the show), a show of the finalists from the 2017 Arnold Newman Prize (given for new directions in photographic portraiture, this year’s $20K recipient being the deserving Daniella Zalcman, reviewed here), and a booth with the world’s first digital camera in use.

In the past, I have taken on the comprehensive task of selecting one worthy image from each and every booth at the AIPAD Photography Show, and even though I talked with several collectors who bracingly encouraged me to soldier on and do the same for this year’s fair, I have opted to reduce my selections to a more edited bunch this year.

This decision comes as a result of being faced with two kinds of booths that give me fits – the ones that replicate their gallery program so closely (two pictures from each show in the past year) that if they are located in New York, we have already reviewed the works we found of interest, and the booths that use the exact same formula for every fair, to the point that it is nearly impossible to distinguish this year’s booth from that of any previous year (time seems to have eerily halted in these booths). Both offer few options for finding something new to consider.

So in the two reports that follow, I have only selected roughly 60 works (about 30 in each post) that felt deserving of further discussion or thought. As usual, linked gallery names, artist names, and prices are followed by some additional analysis and commentary, and in a few cases, I have selected more than one work from a single booth. With this tighter screen in pace, I’d like to think there are few if any repeats from recent shows or previous years.

While many may feel left out from this less inclusive approach, perhaps it is just the reality of entering the art fair big leagues, where the competition for air time is more ruthless. The good news is that this new AIPAD Photography Show has upped its game dramatically, re-cementing its place as the key photo fair in the US. It is a welcome and impressive reinvention, and one that will provide the platform for additional entrepreneurial risk taking in the years to come.

Continue to Part 2 of this report here. Part 3 can be found here.

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Read more about: Barbara Probst, George Osodi, Guy Tillim, Justine Kurland, Manuel Garcia Fernandez, Seydou Keïta, Simcha Shirman, AIPAD Photography Show

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