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Elliott Erwitt - Paris, France, 1989 © Elliott Erwitt/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Addressing reality in the familiar 0

Anna Arutyunova

Paris Photo
14 – 17 November

Julien Frydman became the director of the world's most important photo fair only two years ago. Up till then he was the head of the Paris chapter of Magnum agency and was one of those who actively fought equal rights for photography in the big world of art.  During his hitherto short tenure as director, Frydman has made substantial gains in his battle.  He has managed to further expand the reputation of Paris Photo among collectors and customers alike, open a fair under the same name in Los Angeles and launch, together with the American Aperture Foundation, an award for the best photo book of the year.  Anna Arutyunova met with Frydman on the eve of Paris Photo and interviewed him on the particulars regarding the fair, fashion in photography, photo books and atmosphere of Paris.

Julian Frydman

 At the recent Paris fair of contemporary art FIAC there were not many photographs.  Do you think that that was because the gallery people are waiting for Paris Photo?

I don't think that galleries are preparing substantially different exhibitions for different fairs: it is important for them to show their core authors and relate the main line of gallery development. Those for whom it is important to show photography will do so both at Fiac and at Paris Photo as well as at other fairs.  I was one of those who began to oppose separating photography from art.  And the current fair is another proof of that. We interpret photography as an integral part of contemporary art and are trying to explore different forms and measures of the language of photography. That is, we speak of photography as a means of artistic expression. Such an approach allows us to turn the fair into a platform for various currents, trends and ways of understanding photographs.  

The majority of gallerists and customers no longer perceive Paris Photo as a specialized fair of photography. Nevertheless, a fair must be specific, it must differ from others in order to lure collectors.  We work in a very competitive environment and autumn is a hot season: before Paris Photo there is Frieze and Fiac, and afterwards there is Art Basel Miami. We cannot count on customers doing nothing else but going from one city to the next, following the different fairs.

What is the contemporary geography of photo collecting?  

I can only talk about overall tendencies and up to now the lion's share of visitors of the fair, about 90%, was from Europe. As far as visitors are concerned, those who come to the fair not out of curiosity but to buy something are about 50% French and 50% international clients. Of the latter, 10-12% are American customers. Of course, the market number one for photography is still the US. And for that reason, we opened a branch in Los Angeles.

Bryan Adams, Amy Winehouse, London. Exhibited by Steidl

For many European fairs, the presence of American collectors is the first signal of success. Having launched Paris Photo LA in the US, are you not afraid to lose the American part of the audience of the Parisian event?  

Most Americans who come to Paris for the fair are first of all doing it for the pleasure of the very opportunity of coming to Paris. The city has a particular charm that affects the identity of the fair: it takes place in a historic location, Grand Palais, where there is a wide selection of European photography in particular. In Los Angeles the selection is completely different.  There we focus on avant-garde practitioners, on the interrelationships between video, cinema and photography. And for that reason, two fairs can exist on both sides of the Atlantic and not interfere with each other.

A fair means also experience, not just aesthetic but also spatial.  It is not a coincidence that we do not hold fairs in shopping centres but find special locations for them. Paramount Studios where Paris Photo LA is taking place is not for fun but a location which underscores the specifics of photography, relating to its history and proposing to think about its relationships with other forms of art, i.e. it forms a narrative, an atmosphere that lingers on the border between reality and imagination.  In other words, the aim is not to just visit a film studio but to approach the essence of photography. Overall, I perceive the fair as a market situation that also provides an opportunity to conduct a critical discussion and creates the basis for exploring the subject at hand.

Jun Ahn, Self-Portrait. Exhibited by Christophe Guye

What are your commercial expectations of the fair?

Since information of this kind is not made public, the only number that I can quote is the number of galleries that participated last year and decided to participate in 2013 -- percentagewise. That number is 97%. Our profits depend on the number of spaces rented to galleries, and our main effort is to make sure that gallerists make good deals and want to return to the fair. And there are of course sponsors for whom it is also important to create an adequate infrastructure.

After two successful Paris Photo events in Paris and Los Angeles, have you made stricter criteria for selecting galleries?

The criteria are the same. And the choice depends on the expert committee. There are some sort of common rules, for example, the age of the gallery: it should not be younger than three years; the reputation and programme of the gallery are also important as is a unique, different from others selection of works on display and, finally, a certain level of the exhibition.

How much can you affect the exhibition of a particular gallery?

Sometimes we have to hint to some participants that the previous year the works on display were not very fortunate. Of course, the particular stand is the work of the gallerist and as a director of the fair I cannot impose my own opinion. The most the expert committee and I can do is to send a warning to the gallery not to repeat its previous mistakes. Some fairs have a veto system.  My predecessor (Guillaume Piens, the current director of the Art Paris fair – Arterritory) sometimes asked to take particular works off the walls of some stands. I am trying not to do that or to prevent such situations in advance. As a matter of fact, the level of the galleries selected lets one not to get all worked up about such things.

Thomas Allen, Maneater. Ehibited by PHOTOetCONTEMPORARY

We talked about the fact that the interrelationship between photography and film makes for a special atmosphere at the Los Angeles fair. But what is the impact fashion has on contemporary photography? Moreover, since Paris is one of the fashion capitals.

Fashion has always been a part of photography. Here the aspect of "appearance," of looks is important. For we often hear the question of a person just photographed: «How did I turn out?» That question pertains to photography as a means of expression. Moreover, photography is directly related to how it is going to be used, for what purpose and in what context. It is open to new interpretations and possesses some sort of multilayered meaning. So for me fashion is just one of the contexts, one of the viewpoints from which one can look at photography. Yet not all fashion photography is powerful as photography per se. Concealed, additional meanings are needed.  Sometimes one needs time in order to see a work of art under the surface of fashion. A good example is the art of Guy Bourdin: originally it is fashion photography, yet it is so multifaceted that today it "works" in practically any exhibition, including the museum level ones.

Among the many events taking place within the ParisPhoto framework, one of the most curious ones is your launching of the book award.  Why today when everyone talks about the dying of the printed book you found it important to single out this genre?

A photo book is a part of photography.  Many authors are considering putting out a book instead of arranging for an exhibition, with photographs hanging on the walls. So a book is a special form of expression for which consistency is particularly important: the relationship between the image, text and graphic design. The contemporary photo book has turned into an object, a self-sufficient work in which a special way of photographic thinking and author's will become evident. Mitch Epstein once told me that a book is the only space over which a photographer can exercise almost total control, in contrast to the exhibition hall where one always has to work with different spaces and different curators. Under such circumstances, the result is impossible to control.  But a book, particularly if the photographer has a good relationship with the publisher is the most complete expression of the intention and vision of the photographer. All of this does not mean that photographs from the book will look bad on the wall. It is simply a different approach to work and interaction with reality. After all, the photographer is always "in the field", he is face to face with reality even though he hides behind the lens. The result of the interaction may take very different forms.