Photo London / Photo London 2016 reviewed
Just prior to this year’s Photo London, co-director Michael Benson reflected on last year’s inaugural fair. “The sceptics who said there was no British photography market were wrong. It may have been hidden and discrete for years, but Photo London proved to be the focus for an enormous outpouring of energy and a huge interest in collecting photography,” he said. Benson and his team increased the event’s size and scope for 2016, making this May’s Photo London “the largest ever photography event to take place in the UK” (according to the press release).
Such a big commercial fair with a significant and varied non-commercial programme attached could easily warrant a book. But don’t worry, there isn’t time for that. Instead, here’s a (necessarily partial and subjective) review of what was a great event.
Given the huge variety of photographs on show, from mid-19th Century salt prints to giant tintypes made during the event itself, there’s little point trying to identify an overall trend or to pick out a photographic direction of travel. That said, the real highlights tended to fall into two distinct categories: quiet landscapes and pictures of women.
Let’s start with the pictures of women. The 1980s seemed to dominate, but fortunately it wasn’t all pointlessly outsized prints of gaggles of supermodels on beaches (although these were easy to find – this is a commercial fair, after all). No, there were many good (and some great) photographs. Like those in a blockbuster room devoted to the British trio of Chris Killip, Tom Wood and Graham Smith, the centrepiece being Wood’s Rachel, aged 17 (1985), her fragile confidence only just failing to convince. Or like the 1984 multiple-exposure portrait of Siouxsie Sioux in the shadows, unmasked by a streak of light across her eyes, one of six pictures by Brian Griffin which reminded us that a commercial photographer can also be a serious artist.
Other standout 1980s pictures of women were more disquieting. In Craigie Horsfield’s dark portrait Carol X (1982), her doleful eyes are filled with all the sorrows of the world. Horsfield’s sinister picture of a woman’s bare leg, barely there in the shadows, is almost as discomfiting. Something seems seriously wrong, but what? Stanley Greene’s Creatures of the Night, Paris (1986) is also unsettling in its ambiguity: a woman’s kinetic face is either laughing madly or screaming desperately, either just horsing around or fighting for real with the shadowy man whose arm she clenches.
If all this suggests the 1980s was dominated by male photographers, that’s probably because it was. But by the 21st Century perhaps times have changed, and plenty of strong recent work by female photographers was on show. German artist Esther Teichmann’s wall-sized installation Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears (2012-14) – where a woman is mired in muddy water in a gloomy, threatening forest – hints simultaneously at both birth and profound loss. Brazilian artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s cut-out montaged self-portraits are less disquieting, but no less interesting. They call to mind many antecedents: the viscerality of a Francis Bacon painting; the movement in the Futurist photo-dynamism of the Bragaglia brothers; and the writhing flesh pile of of Henri Le Secq’s Bas-relief, Les Filles de Niobé (c.1854), which was exhibited nearby. Yet they retain their own very feminine originality.
Men do still get a look in, of course. Despite depicting two women as beautiful as any gaggle of 1980s supermodels, Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol’s 2012 portrait of long-limbed twins in Russia is uncomfortable to look at. They remain resolutely imperfect in Sobol’s picture, an effect heightened by the grainy high contrast of the print. One’s face suggests benign superciliousness, the other’s suspicion, an impression underlined by the tight clasp of her hands. This single uneasy portrait holds more fascination than any number of 1980s Vogue photoshoots.
But if the present feels uncomfortable, then maybe the past was more light hearted. Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov’s Photoprovocations are filled with playful performance, more often than not by women. Their centrepiece is Alaryr (1995), which also depicts two women – one reticent and demurely dressed, the other a more free-spirted exhibitionist. These nostalgic photographs evoke happy times past, and are beguiling. So much so that Zach Condon, a prodigious teenage American musician, used the pictures for both the front and back covers of his debut album (despite knowing nothing about them), doubtless because they were a perfect match for his optimistic celebration of Eastern European musical traditions.
Almost as carefree is the late American photographer Saul Leiter’s Blue Dress (1950s). Too high spirited to be a typical Leiter, it is nonetheless filled with his idiosyncrasies, peeking as it does through obstacles to catch a glimpse of a sharp punctum of colour. But the most joyous photograph in Somerset House was Guitty in Biarritz 1905 by the always-exuberant Jacques Henri Lartigue. Guitty is all running, twisting dynamism at the sea shore as the water laps at her feet. Even though she is turned away from us, and is so heavily clothed we don’t really see her at all, a vivacious joie de vivre shines through.
These were the women. But what of the quiet landscapes?
The opposite of Guitty in its silent stillness, the water’s edge is also the subject of Jungjin Lee’s desolate Wind 07-80 (2007), one of her typically lyrical landscape prints where the feel seems more important than the subject. Water also pervades Nadav Kander’s painterly Untitled IV (2016), a great vertical calm of dark green sea and light green sky pricked by a horizontal sliver of coast. It looks as much like a painting by Whistler as it does a contemporary photograph. By contrast, water only punctures the tranquility of Japanese photographer Takeshi Shikama’s vast Galician treescape, with its inaudible waterfall a tiny but vital detail in an overwhelming forest.
The quiet is (not unpleasantly) shattered by the trees in French artist Karine Laval’s large-scale imagery, a noisy cross-processed riot of garish purples, yellows and blues. Not quite as loud and lurid, the American photographer Chloe Sells’s deliberate discolourations of the landscape are more subtly disconcerting. But peace is unequivocally restored by Paul Hart’s Lundy’s Farm (2013), where a single bare tree stands by a ploughed field and a track in the quiet of the early morning mist, witness to the vulnerability of the landscape laid bare by modern agriculture. Erasing the Past (2012) by Rick Giles, where a fire stealthily encroaches on a treeless landscape, is also a testament to humankind’s destruction of its own environment.
The tree becomes more sinister in American photographer Diana Matar’s The Bird. A tiny white bird sits in a great mass of black foliage in the dead of night, part of Matar’s lyrical project on political disappearance, longing and absence. But perhaps the starkest landscapes of all are Iranian photographer Bahman Jalali’s no-holds-barred horrors of war: dead soldiers litter the barren land, photographed unflinchingly up close. You don’t get much quieter than the battlefield after the battle.
Or perhaps you do. In Argentinian Humberto Rivas’s early ‘80s pictures of shop fronts and corners, it is as if all the people in the world have disappeared. These exquisite photographs must count amongst the quietest ever made. No accident, then, that his 2006 exhibition at Barcelona’s national art museum was called El fotògraf del silenci. Little more is happening in the late Michael Ormerod’s urban landscapes, American photographs seen through British eyes. There is more evidence of humans here, but all is quiet and still except for the gentle shattering of the American Dream.
But the photographer of the human landscape par excellence at the fair was the late Italian Luigi Ghirri. His small prints, with their subtle humour and muted colours, manage to find joy amid the melancholy, and reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary.
Perhaps photographs are like songs. I once heard the musician John Grant explain that he doesn’t set out to write miserable songs – it’s just that happy songs are more difficult because they almost always turn out cheesy. It takes a very special songwriter to pull off a great happy song. If the same is true of photographs, then whether picturing people or quietly considering the landscape, perhaps Lartigue, Chilikov and Ghirri are those special photographers.
– Review by Simon Bowcock
Photo London was presented at Somerset House, London, from 19 – 22 May, 2016
Gallery information for images mentioned above:
Paul Hart, Chris Killip, Tom Wood and Graham Smith were shown by Eric Franck
Brian Griffin was shown by Steven Kasher
Craigie Horsfield, part of the public programme, was curated by the Wilson Centre for Photography
Stanley Greene and Jacob Aue Sobol were shown by Polka Galerie
Esther Teichmann and Nadav Kander were shown by Flowers Gallery
Juliana Cerqueira Leite was shown by TJ Boulting
Henri Le Secq was shown by James Hyman
Sergey Chilikov, part of the public programme, was curated by the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
Saul Leiter, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Jungjin Lee were shown by Howard Greenberg
Takeshi Shikama was shown by Amana Gallery
Karine Laval and Michael Ormerod were shown by Crane Kalman
Chloe Sells was shown by Michael Hoppen
Rick Giles was shown by Eleven Fine Art
Diana Matar was shown by Purdy Hicks
Brahman Jalali was shown by Ag Galerie
Humberto Rivas was shown by Rolf Art
Luigi Ghirri was shown by Galeria Valeria Bella
 The album was Gulag Orkestar by the band Beirut, released in 2005. It contains the sleeve note:
Cover and back photos were found in a library in Leipzig torn out of a book. If anybody knows the photographer, please get in touch.
 It’s a pity that much of the interested public doesn’t get to see them. Of course numbers must be managed at a commercial fair, and those put off by the £25 entry fee are unlikely to be spending far larger sums on prints. But it might be good public relations (and more profitable) to consider ways of broadening access a little, e.g. by offering reduced-price tickets for the earlier (quieter) sessions. Such measures may even turn some of today’s window shoppers into tomorrow’s collectors.