LOS ANGELES — The red carpet at Paramount Pictures Studios didn’t lead to a movie premiere or an awards ceremony, but rather the Lower East Side — or at least its facsimile in the studio’s New York backlot, where brownstone and cast-iron buildings hosted pop-up galleries and bookshops. This was the second year that international photography fair Paris Photo returned to Los Angeles for its American offshoot. Three cavernous sound stages and a backlot hosted 81 galleries and art-book dealers, a cross section of the global art market that included exhibitors from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
The studio’s ersatz New York looked and felt like Manhattan, albeit without the smells and the energy of the city. Storefronts advertised mom-and-pop businesses, like a bakery and dry cleaners, but inside were exhibitors dealing in pictures and art books, as if gentrification had spread through the neighborhood so quickly there wasn’t enough time to change the signs. The illusion ended upon encountering improbable geographies: the Upper East Side adjacent to Greenwich Village and Soho, next to a small block of Chicago.
In his opening statement, Paris Photo Director Julien Frydman described the mission of the fair as placing photography in relation to art history and bridging the relationship between still and moving images. The latter was the impetus to present not only sound- and film-based works, but also images that reflect the imagination of Hollywood cinema, with exhibitions like Unedited!: The LAPD Photo Archives and a tribute to the photographic work of Dennis Hopper. Cinematic inroads aside, Paris Photo LA offered a wide-ranging survey of photography past and present, with works by contemporary artists responding to the pulse of the present.
Paranoia and surveillance characterize the work of Garry Kennedy and David Deutsch. At the booth of Vancouver gallery the Apartment, Kennedy’s “Spotted” (2004) comprised photographs of airplanes allegedly used by the CIA for the transport of prisoners during extraordinary rendition. Washed out in an ominous blue and hung at an askew angle, the images were sourced from photographs taken by amateur plane spotters. Galerie de Roussan featured David Deutsch’s “Large Drive by/Fly by 2000/2001-2008,” a series of black-and-white prints depicting helicopter views of suburban homes in New Jersey. The illuminated aerial shots of backyards and front stoops suggest police surveillance or a nighttime chase.
At Ambach & Rice’s booth, artist Abigail Reynolds uncovered radical histories with her work combining photography and book making. Images from vintage books and photographs were cut and folded into collage forms and architectural models so that they revealed sites of protest or contested geographies. In a similar process of redaction and revision, Cristina de Middel, with Black Ship Gallery, used Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book of quotations to create a kind of blackout poetry responding to contemporary China. Pairing these redacted texts with photographs from her travels, de Middel contrasts Mao’s revolutionary vision with the realities of Chinese society today.
Many exhibitors stretched the photographic form to encompass abstraction, sculpture, and technology. Mariah Robertson, at the booth of M+B gallery, turned an accident in the darkroom into abstract paintings on sheets of photo paper. Dark, muddy hues of splattered blue and yellow suggested the harsh materials of film photography, a chemical process as much as an aesthetic one. Brian Bress covered the walls of Cherry and Martin’s space with images of foliage in addition to wall-mounted screens playing his video collage of faces and human forms morphed by found imagery and photography.
Not quite 3D printing and not exactly a 2D image, Ry Rocklen’s “Pieter’s Chair” (2014) at the Thomas Solomon booth was an inkjet print on aluminum that resembled a twisted and contorted metal chair. Gina Osterloh, also playing with concepts of flatness and surface at François Ghebaly, was showing images that depict cardboard cutouts of her subjects’ shadows. The work recalls early forms of photography (i.e., the use of shadows to reproduce an image), and the physical act of tracing results in a both intimate and impersonal record of the humans who were there.
In addition to the usual suspects of photography, among them William Eggleston, whose exhibition of black-and-white work seemed beside the point, exhibitors presented some less familiar names. The Christophe Gaillard booth mounted a show called Troubled Gender, with photographic work depicting gender confusion and cross-dressing, including that of surrealist Pierre Molinier, a contemporary of André Breton who produced lurid photomontages and self-portraits of himself as a woman. Etherton Gallery brought the photography of Danny Lyon, black-and-white documents depicting southern civil rights activists, biker gangs, and other communities of the 1960s counterculture. Most unsettling were his photographs of prisons, a series that documents the potential consequences of rebelling against the state.
Demand for large-format photos seemed healthily fulfilled by Josef Hoflehner’s (Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska) and Edward Burtynsky’s (Howard Greenberg Gallery) wide aerial shots, impressive enough to fill a palatial hallway. Veering towards a more human scale, MAGNIN-A Gallery, which specializes in the work of African photographers, juxtaposed photographs by Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta with those by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop. The former’s work consists of black-and-white portraits of men and women dressed in African and European fashions, many of them with intricate patterns; the latter’s work continues a similar portraiture in color, with contemporary clothing rooted in traditional styles.
Among the notable noncommercial exhibits at Paris Photo LA was Sound and Vision, which presented film and video work by such artists as Moyra Davey, whose “Les Goddesses” (2011) recounts in the form of filmic essay her personal history and the life of writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Also included were Slater Bradley’s “Sequioa” (2013) and Wilhelm Sasnal’s “Mojave” (2006), tributes to Alfred Hitchcock and Chris Marker with their meditations on film and memory. Experimental filmmaker Len Lye’s “Trade Tattoo” (1937) was also a standout, an explosion of abstract patterns that combined footage from old British post office documentaries and Cuban dance music to celebrate the “rhythms” of working-class Britain.
Inside the utility room of one of the sound stages, Unedited!: The LAPD Photo Archives drew large crowds with a small sampling of LAPD evidence photos from the past half century. Unlike most of the pictures presented at the fair, the LAPD photos have no single author, only the procedural style required of police photographers. Some are credited to a first or last name, but most are uncredited. The crimes shown run the gamut from drunk driving to murder; there are battered women and killed men whose agony has become spectacle. The desire to look at these photos is irrepressible.
The photos captured infamous scenes like the arrest of Charles Manson and the Black Dahlia murder, but more interesting were the images without context — a boy in whiteface makeup, two men murdered after enjoying a spaghetti dinner. The viewer may never know the real backstories of these pictures, but the imagination we gain from movies and television allows us to attempt to fill in the gaps. Our fascination with these images may represent the opportunity to get as close to death without having to experience it. As writer Luc Sante once wrote in Evidence, a book about NYPD photos:
Flailing about for some kind of satisfaction, we invent a religion for them—in the incidental effects of the photographic process we imagine we can see halos, just as we are wont to confuse the eye of the police with the eye of God. The reason for this is terror. These pictures are documentary evidence of an end we are afraid to recognize.
In a fair celebrating the simulacrum of experience, whether by photography or by cinema, these images reinforce the desire to escape from as well as the inevitability of death. It’s this sense of danger that underlies the sunshine myth of LA, exposing the reality behind the money, glitz, and glamour.
Paris Photo Los Angeles took place at the Paramount Pictures Studios (5555 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles) from April 25 to 27.