LOS ANGELES — Photography is a schizophrenic medium. Long serving documentary, fashion, and scientific purposes, it’s only more recently gained mainstream recognition as a fine art. These dichotomies carry over to the Photo LA fair, which opened its 24th year Thursday night. There, contemporary avant-garde photos share space with found vernacular snaps and celebrity glamour shots. (You’re not going to find “fashion” or “news” paintings at a contemporary art fair, after all.) Art Basel this ain’t, as Photo LA lacks both the trendiness and grandiosity now so prevalent in the art fair circuit.
Founded by dealer Stephen Cohen in 1992, Photo LA is the longest-running photo exposition west of the Mississippi. Despite its long history, it has a more informal air than other contemporary art fairs — more trade show than glitzy, exclusive affair. This may owe something to its origins as a table-top show at Butterfield’s Auction House, where dealers would literally put their stacks of photos on a table to peruse. This straightforward approach is still evident at the fair, where you can visit blue-chip gallery booths alongside vintage photo dealers and photographic supply vendors. A number of art schools also have their students’ work on display, granting emerging photographers early exposure — some would argue too early.
This year’s honoree is Catherine Opie, who first came to prominence in the ’90s with her frank portraits addressing gender, sexuality, and identity. On view are a number of Opie’s gorgeous, soft-focus landscapes from 2013. It’s great that she’s being recognized given her wide-ranging, often controversial, contributions to the medium, but it would have made sense to include some of her earlier, boundary-pushing work as well.
Another installation focuses on East LA–born photographer Anthony Hernandez, whose photos of wire-bound trees offer an unpeopled twist on the street life images he’s best known for.
There’s also a section devoted to LA women behind the lens, a welcome inclusion given the prominent role the female body plays in front of the lens elsewhere on view.
For the inaugural “Artist Series,” Fine Art Solutions and The Icon have chosen Australian photographer Polly Borland and Simon Toparovsky, a somewhat curious choice given that he’s primarily known as a sculptor (he created the crucifix for LA’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels). Both his 2D and 3D works have the weathered look of relics from an unknown ceremony.
Off the Clock, a curated personal photography exhibition, resembled an Instagram feed come to life.
As for the exhibitors, there were some standouts among the abundance of celebrity, documentary, and fashion photography.
Copenhagen’s In the Gallery had eerie nocturnal photos of farm animals by Carsten Ingemann, while Toronto’s Gallery on Wade was showing rainbow aerial scenes by Scott Christie that seemed to change with the light.
LA’s El Nopal Press had a nice selection of work from primarily Angeleno and Latin-American artists pushing the medium. German gallery Kunstkomplex was showing the work of Adele Mills, whose layered images used a scrim to create a sense of movement.
Amanasalto from Japan was exhibiting crisp, formal photos by architect Tadao Ando of his work. San Diego’s jdc was showing work from Jennifer Greenburg’s hilarious Revising History series, where she seamlessly integrates herself into vintage photos.
Fair founder Stephen Cohen had on view Siri Kaur’s portraits of celebrity impersonators and David Weldzius’s pedestrian views of LA. Both served to counter the ubiquitous images of glamour on display nearby, like those from slick Helmut Newton hack Tyler Shields at De Re Gallery.
Some of the most interesting work on view was outside of the traditional galleries. A video program put together by Calvin Lee was a promising attempt to bring a less commercial aspect to an event that is, after all, primarily about money. Unfortunately technical difficulties prevented proper viewing on opening night, but hopefully that was worked out before the doors were opened to the public.
Then there was the Blind Photographers Guild (yes, you read that right), whose members’ work could hold its own against much of their sighted colleagues output. Pete Eckert, who was a sculptor before losing his sight, captures images of Northern California redwoods, on top of which he overlays sprite-like women shot in his studio. He does all of this in camera, rewinding the film between shoots, so that the image is composed on one negative — a technical achievement regardless of one’s ability to see.
With its quirky mix of high-end galleries, vernacular photo dealers, camera peddlers, and art schools, Photo LA is somewhat removed from other over-the-top contemporary art fair extravaganzas. As with all fairs, it aims to draw collectors, but also appeals to working photographers, students, and photo enthusiasts. It may not be full of blockbuster installations and celebrity sightings, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to see.
The 24th annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition ran January 15–18 at the LA Mart (1933 Broadway, Downtown, Los Angeles).