Paris Photo LA 2015
Over this past weekend, I attended Paris Photo LA on the Paramount Pictures backlot. It’s the third time I’ve been to the show in as many years and in that time, it’s become the one show that I really look forward to. The fair has a fantastic cross-section of what’s happening in photography, with the work of icons like Richard Avedon and William Eggleston hanging alongside a host of relative newcomers who you may or may not have heard of. I’ve also been lucky enough to have some great experiences that have transcended the work on display. For example, in 2013, I got the chance to meet one of my photographic heroes, Gregory Crewdson and spend a few moments chatting with him one-on-one. Last year, I discovered the work of Jean-Claude Pondevie, a wonderful French photographer who I feel like I made a great connection with, despite our obvious language barrier. In fact, he contacted me nearly a year after we met to let me know that he wouldn’t be at this year’s Paris Photo, but would like to send me a copy of his book to thank me for the nice things I had to say about his work. So, yes, it’s a great place to see great work, but it’s also a place to make terrific connections beyond just looking at the work.
This year’s Paris Photo did not disappoint in the least. There was still an obscene amount of terrific photography, though there didn’t seem to be as many of the iconic names compared to previous years. Some of the big names were still there—Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Andre Kertész—but they were fewer and farther between. In fact, I don’t remember seeing anything from Avedon, Eggleston or Gregory Crewdson, all of whom were present in 2013 and 2014. This year, there were a lot more names that I either didn’t recognize at all or had only recently been introduced to—names like Mona Kuhn, Cristina de Middel (who I met last year) and Ben Cauchi, to mention just a few. I also got to meet Joni Sternbach, a fantastic wet plate photographer from Brooklyn who makes stunning environmental portraits of surfers. The warm, buttery-yellow toning in her wet plate work is unlike anything I’ve seen and is a perfect expression of the beachy-dreamy subject matter—and she’s an absolute sweetheart.
Of the 265 or so photographers represented, there were three that really stood out for me, for different reasons.
The first photograph I ever saw by Dutch photographer Alex Timmermans was a shot of a butler waist-deep in a pond, with a tea towel over his right forearm and a full tea service in his left hand, with the tray partially resting on his shoulder. The butler is tack sharp, but the rest of the scene blurs away into creamy, slightly radial bokeh—a characteristic of the 12×12 glass plates and 150-year-old Petzval lenses Timmermans uses to produce his wonderful work. His photographs are delightfully quirky—home built-flying machines, storm clouds inside abandoned warehouses, even a mysterious traveler with what looks to be a wild boar as a companion are a few of the characters and scenes that escape from Timmermans’ rich imagination. His portraiture is just as compelling as his narrative work, perhaps even more so. The photographs are intimate and honest, made all the more interesting by the century-plus old process he uses to capture them. I got the chance to meet and talk to Alex about his process and inspiration…well, as much as I could in a crowded booth full of admirers of his work. He gave me a little background on his process and where he wants to go with his Storytellers series. I asked if he might be willing to have more of a proper conversation as a guest on my new show and I am happy to say that he agreed. Even in the brief time we had to chat, I found him extremely engaging and am very much looking forward to a longer conversation.
The work of Michal Macku caught me by surprise. At first glance, it appears to be figures somehow etched into glass blocks. On further inspection, however, you realize that these aren’t blocks of glass, but rather individual quarter-inch thick sheets laminated together. And rather than a single engraving or etching, the figures are multiple carbon prints that when viewed together, take on the parallax and depth of three dimensional sculpture. I feel like I’m not doing the work justice in the way I’m describing it, but I can assure you that it is absolutely stunning in person. In speaking to his gallerist, I learned that it took Macku seventeen years to perfect his unique “Gellage” process and the resulting work is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have since done some research into the carbon printing process and can tell you that printing one image on paper seems difficult enough, let alone printing multiple images on glass that have to line up perfectly in order to achieve the desired effect. Brilliant.
I nearly missed the work of Bill Anderson as I walked through Stage 14. I walked right by it the first time and it was only because of my friend Brian that I happened to see it at all—and I am so thankful that I did. Brian asked me what some of my favorite things that I’d seen were and I told him about Alex Timmermans and Michal Macku and about meeting Joni Sternbach. He asked if I’d seen Bill Anderson. I said that I hadn’t. He told me that it was the best stuff he’d seen all day and so we made our way back to Stage 14. Brian was right. Bill’s work was by far the most thought-provoking work of the show for me. It is exactly what I want art to be: challenging both aesthetically and emotionally and yet somehow comforting, whether by being beautiful or by something more abstract. Brian had spoken to Bill the day before about his work and was kind enough to introduce me. He seems like a terrific person and we had a very nice chat. As I had done with Alex earlier, I told Bill about my new show and asked if he would be willing to be a guest and talk about his work and the process of making pictures. “Absolutely,” he said and he handed me one of his cards. “Send me an email and we’ll set something up.”
As I mentioned at the top of the article, there is a ton of fantastic work to be seen at Paris Photo LA, and I feel like I saw about as much as I could handle in one day. But more than that, this year I wanted to make real connections—I wanted to lay the groundwork for future conversations about creativity and the process making art. I can’t wait to see where it leads.