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Paris Photo 2021: Getting All the Angles

Thursday, November 11, 2:00 pm, picture this: bustling isles, shuttering cameras, and sales of thousands of dollars happening on the spot. A promising opening day to Paris Photo 2021. The Grand Palais Éphémère, so named because it stands in for the permanent exhibition hall situated across the Seine, appears the ideal location for the return of Paris Photo’s 24th edition, a celebration of an art form that captures the transient image. The largest international photography fair welcomes a community of collectors and photographers eager to abandon JPEGs and over 200 exhibitors ready to host in-person art experiences.

“Seeing images on a screen is not the same as the physical encounter with them in person. It gives another dimension to the image, it’s more alive,” Gosette Lubondo, a photographer from Congo and winner of the Maison Ruinart Prize, says discussing her series Manu Solerti (meaning “with an expert hand”). Lubondo is very much inspired by place, and when considering how to best capture Ruinart’s champagne estate she asked herself “why not render an image of the people who are as present in this space as the three-hundred-year-old caves themselves?” Her photographs pay homage to the unseen work of the women and men who produce Ruinart champagne. Lubondo superimposes images of her subjects, both opaque and nearly transparent, to “insist on the temporality of life, on the presence of one person at a specific time, in a specific location.”

On location

At Paris Photo, the importance of physical presence cannot be overstated. Valerie Whitacre, sales director of Hamiltons Gallery in London, notes “photographs bring groups together to discuss in the present, while also serving as artifacts of a time and place, of a person and a project they completed.”

Indeed, gallerists took into great consideration the in-person viewing experience of exhibited works. Hamiltons turns its stall into a dark room with exposed light bulbs, with the result akin to a camera obscura effect on the works displayed. In the dim-lit stall, the subjects positioned against white backgrounds in Richard Avedon’s series In The American West almost demand face to face confrontation. The dramatic scale of the photographer’s work calls upon visitors to pass the threshold of the image and glimpse their own humanity in the sitters’ raw emotions. While at Pace Gallery, curators take care to give equal attention to master photographers as well as emerging artists. The stall lures visitors with bright, white-washed walls that feature a single photograph without regard to the image’s size. Erin Sigoloff, sales assistant at Pace, explains, “The way the booth is organized is not something you can get on the Internet.”

Changing the Focus

Despite the massive overwhelming presentation of images what makes Pairs Photo special is encounters with photographers. At THE PLATFORM, new artistic perspectives and ideas are exchanged on the hour. It’s here that Zora J Murff discusses the inspiration behind his images that depict construction spaces. The artist photographed the work-in-progress structures during lockdown because “everything was so quiet, but construction kept going.” He was inspired by the way in which temporary infrastructure held the walls in place. The series coincided with the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man killed by three white men because when Arbery stopped on his jog at a construction site, his assailants believed he stole something and “found him suspicious.” Arbery’s death prompted Murff to reflect on how easily he could have been marked as “suspicious” for merely pursuing his art as he examined the foundations of construction sites.

As visitors jostle in Curiosa, the emerging artists sector of the fair, rushing to get to the next book signing or critical conversation, many pause at the stand of one of this year’s Carte Blanche Student 2021 laureates, Francesca Hummler. The twenty-four-year-old photographer embodies the value of sharing artistic experiences in person. Hummler holds hands with her mother as she describes the inspiration for her Unsere Puppenstube (Our Dollhouse) series. For Hummler, the photos of her younger sister Masantu, adopted from Ethiopia by her German-American parents, evoke, “something really personal.” She uses her camera as a vehicle for strengthening the relationship between her and her sister. “It is the culmination of all our identities.”

Where identity has an intimate expression in Hummler’s work, it has a wider focus at Silk Road Gallery, the only booth from Iran. While Western galleries fill the aisles, the stands representing the Middle East and Asia are far less numerous. Silk Road’s chief curator, Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh, notes that “What’s important to us is that there is content, not just an image that may or may not appeal to the aesthetic side. All the photographers in this booth are talking about real issues – immigration, the proliferation of suburbs all over the outskirts of big cities – the photographers are by Iranian artists but the subjects of immigration, depression, isolation, are not local subjects.” She says that one of the roles of her gallery’s presence at Paris Photo is to change “the negative image of Iran with the brilliant work of our photographers. We try to inform people about the art that is circulating in Iran.”

The stall for Paris-based Bonne Espérance (Good Hope) hosts a space for South African creativity. This year, it presents a monographic exhibit of Jürgen Shadeberg’s works, an artist famously invited by Nelson Mandela to photograph his return to Robben Island in 1994. Shadeburg is also known for documenting the National Party’s destruction of Sophiatown as an implementation of the apartheid regime. The photographer’s captivating images are not only a testament to his keen eye but to the powerful jazz and resistance figures who changed the cultural, social, and political fabric of the country in the 1950s.

Bonne Espérance was set to do a retrospective of Shadeberg’s works in 2020 but, due to the pandemic, the show never took place. Given that Shadeberg passed away later that year, the gallery sees Paris Photo as an opportunity to display a retrospective of the photographer’s works worthy of an exhibit in a museum. According to Claudia Tennant, a representative of the gallery, the name not only conjures the spirit of South Africa but of hope, a thread that connects Shadeberg’s powerful images throughout his career. Tennant admires the works on the walls as she says, “The exhibit is a real experience for visitors. The work is from the past, but it touches them in the present.”

A New Lens

For Lubondo and Hummler, this is their first time attending Paris Photo (although Lubondo has shown her work in previous editions of the exhibition). Lubondo adjusts her face mask and smiles, “It’s nice after taking the photos to get to interact with people, to see how people receive this work and share it.” And Hummler has a similar view: it’s an exciting time to be a photographer, “you can feel in the room a newfound energy and enthusiasm for the arts.”

Close up, the photographs capture in a single frame the vibrancy, diversity, and depth of the human experience. Zooming out, the exposition invites visitors to stop and glimpse the sheen of a mounted image, to take in the length and breadth of a picture, to engage with a moment in time. Paris Photo 2021 unites an international audience with snapshots of where we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re going.

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