Paris Photo / Paris Photo November 2017, reviewed by Simon Bowcock
“On the beach, women wear little more than a handkerchief. You don’t bat an eyelid. But in the evening, when they all have clothes on, your eyes are on stalks.”
– My Uncle Ray, Costa Brava, 1980s
Paris Photo is a bit like Uncle Ray: a little old fashioned, and a tad politically incorrect. Rather than a showcase of the latest developments in photographic practice, it is a classic commercial fair where the tried and tested works best.
Pictures of women are tried and tested (there’s a bit of Uncle Ray in all of us). Still today, even the more respectable broadsheet newspapers frequently employ the time-honoured tactic of putting pictures of women on their front pages as a thinly-veiled sales ploy. And as long as photography has existed, portraits of women wearing little or nothing have been a staple of the medium, as many a more popular newspaper still attests.
Despite its highbrow ambience in its Grand Palais setting, this fascination with the female nude is obvious at Paris Photo in 2017. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There are classic nudes, such as Bill Brandt’s Nude with Elbow, or André Kertész’s naked female Distortion, or Hiroshi Hamaya’s titillating nearly-nude (she’s almost wearing a shoe), or Helmut Newton’s typically risqué shot involving knickers and the Eiffel Tower. Uncle Ray might well describe these old masters’ pictures as ‘tasteful’. But despite all the virtuoso light control and technical innovation, these photographs of mainly young women by mainly older men generally don’t have a great deal to say.
It is pictures of women by women where things get more interesting. Karine Laval’s Untitled #7 (from The Pool) might have girls in bikinis, but it also has blissfully angular geometry and a blown-out, sun-kissed feel. Harley Weir may be best known as a fashion photographer, but her ‘Bits’ – a provocative picture of cloth sculpted into a graphic evocation of female genitalia – is the most explicit photograph at the fair. Francesca Woodman’s portrait of herself wearing nothing but a few clothes pegs takes us far beyond the physical, evoking a bleak state of mind and a strange, subjugated state of being. Similarly discomfiting, Françoise Janicot’s uncomfortable self-portrait bound in twine hints at a dark and suffocating existence of enslavement and subjugation.
Subjugation is also a theme among photographs of men at the fair this year. Don McCullin’s Unemployed men gathering coal at the shore.. is gritty, sombre and desperate. The subjugation is more temporary in Jimmy Nelson’s giant print of traditional Chinese cormorant-assisted fishermen who, standing glumly on rafts in their tourist-friendly outfits, look oppressed by the exacting demands of the photo shoot.
There is no such staging in Bertien van Manen’s newly-launched book I Will Be Wolf, a sequence of pictures of men and women in 1970s Hungary. Her small and skilful street snaps often show people trudging through the middle distance as if weighed down by an oppressive communist regime. A subtly complex book, carefully put together with the help of British photographer Stephen Gill, it exudes the kind of nostalgic wistfulness which good photographs often accumulate over time.
No such nostalgia pervades Victor Burgin’s 1970s men and women in the global centre of capitalism. In US77, Burgin’s large silver gelatin photographs are superimposed with text which subvert contemporaneous print-advertising style, presenting an America overlayed with a strong anti-capitalist message, its unwitting citizens complicit in their own oppression by ‘the man’. It’s the type of art which might make Donald Trump angry.
What’s actually causing Trump’s anger in Mishka Henner’s playful piece, Trompe l’oeil, is not known. Isolated by Henner and hung at the right, threatening height (around six feet off the ground), the president’s eyes rage at the viewer. This anger was physically reciprocated in Paris by an unidentified fair-goer, who literally tried to scratch Trump’s left eye out. If CCTV (a favoured technology of capitalists everywhere) eventually catches the Trump-scratcher, the culprit’s motives will hopefully be revealed. But only time will tell whether Trump’s ocular trauma will make Henner’s multi-layered contemporary artwork more or less valuable.
There’s more bad temper in Tom Wood’s Flash-lit strop, the park 1985, a gem of a picture of an angry young couple typical of Wood’s in-your-face approach. While Wood’s piercing and unpretentious pictures of men and women are more about escapism than subjugation, it is often clear that his subjects have little. And of all the female nudes at the fair, Wood’s Sump King is the most sophisticated: despite being a photograph of lots of photographs of naked women, it serves just as well as an incisive portrait of an unseen group of men.
Simon Roberts’s aloof and detached approach may be the antithesis of Wood’s, but his new book Merrie England is nonetheless full of engaging pictures which reward time spent. Redolent of classic English landscape paintings with their slightly elevated viewpoints and people scattered in the middle-distance (think Constable), they also carry a very contemporary air of detachment and a level of societal detail which invites repeated viewings.
But of all the people pictures in Paris, the most captivating are the liminal portraits of women by another fashion photographer. Sarah Moon, whose formative years were partly spent in Britain, is a perennial favourite at the fair. Her photographs may all be made in the physical realm, but they hover on the threshold of an ethereal dream world. An exquisite melancholy and a fragile longing hang over her mysterious, unsettling images in their trademark van-Gogh colours. In these beguiling pictures, Uncle Ray’s apparently unreconstructed comments ring true: here at Paris Photo, it is Moon’s fully-clothed women who hold the greatest allure.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Simon Bowcock
Bill Brandt was shown by Johannes Faber
André Kertész was shown by James Hyman
Hiroshi Hamaya and Harley Weir were shown by Michael Hoppen
Helmut Newton and Don McCullin were shown by Hamiltons
Karine Laval was shown by Robert Koch
Francesca Woodman and Françoise Janicot were shown by Richard Saltoun
Jimmy Nelson was shown by Atlas
Bertien van Manen’s book was launched by Mack
Victor Burgin was shown by Thomas Zander
Mishka Henner was shown by Bruce Silverstein
Tom Wood was shown by Augusta Edwards and Sit Down
Simon Roberts was shown by Flowers, and his book launched by Dewi Lewis
Sarah Moon was shown by Howard Greenberg and Camera Obscura