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Entering the Park Avenue Armory is never not a majestic (though words like “intimidating” and “ominous” could also work) experience. All of its dark wooden staircases and gothic chandeliers make a visit feel more like a tour through a historic mansion than the reason I’m usually there once a year: The Photography Show, the annual gathering of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, also known as AIPAD.
For one long weekend each April, some of the best photography galleries in the world gather under one roof to display some of their most exciting works; this particular go-round features 86 dealers. The Photography Show has been going on for 36 years, making it one of the longest-running events of its kind.
Walking around the fair is quite literally a tour through photographic history, with some of the first-ever printed calotypes or albumen prints from the 1800s displayed next to screens flashing digital images that would have made William Henry Fox Talbot’s head explode in wonderment. It’s a chance to see works by the great masters of photography alongside new voices just beginning to be recognized.
A photographer myself, I go to the Photography Show for the same reason I go to any exhibition: to learn. I want to see the ways different eyes look and have looked at the world, thereby training my own eyes to see more. As with any art fair, the work is ultimately there to be bought and sold, and dealers do act accordingly — it’s both a gift and an annoyance to be ignored because you’re not carrying a thousand-dollar handbag. But when you can almost literally put your nose next to Mary Ellen Mark, Daido Moriyama, and Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs, turning down the opportunity to expand your worldview because a few people look the other way seems silly. (After all, you can ignore them, too.)
As I wind my way through the Armory’s aisles, time passes as amorphously as it does when one is inside a Las Vegas casino. With no windows or clocks in the space to hint at the minutes turning into hours, I wander in and out of the booths lost in my own mind, thinking my thoughts so loudly I’m surprised nobody has heard them. “OH, Jacques Henri Lartigue photographed in color???,” I wonder as I stop at the Hyperion Press Ltd. booth, pausing to indulge in his photographs “Marie Bailey, Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes, September 1977” and “Le Mains de Florette, Brie le Neflier, 1961” as bold rushes of color I’ve not grown to expect from Lartigue tickle my senses. Marie’s red lips pop against the bluish green water of a swimming pool while Florette’s red fingernails tease the back cover of a magazine that — in a gift of photographic serendipity, Lartigue’s signature sense of humor, or both — also features a woman with red fingernails. Lartigue has taught me an invaluable lesson in the fleeting nature of that ever-discussed decisive moment, when lipstick and angle and pool are perfectly in sync and when red nails line up just so. “The eye must always be ready,” he seems to whisper from the faraway waters of Cap d’Antibes, and I hear him loud and clear.
Before I know it, I have been at the show for two hours. It’s 2pm on Thursday, the day the fair opened to the public, and candy dishes have run dry; gallerinas are already tired, stretching their legs under petite white tables. Beginning to tire myself, I catch sight of Stephen Wilkes’s “Recycled Aluminum Can Study #1” (2015), on view at Monroe Gallery of Photography’s booth, and I am floored — or rather, benched, since there is, mercifully, a grey leather cushion directly in front of the work. It’s a photograph of soda cans flattened then compressed into wire-bound rectangles. I’m in awe not just of the potpourri of bright colors, but the idea that something so mundane and quite literally disposable could be so beautiful. Another lesson worth knowing: that no visual should be written off as unphotographable, that if you don’t see something you want to photograph, you should create it instead. One man’s trash … after all. I should like to have it in my home but, today at least, I do not have $20,000 to spare.
Not far away, in the Laurence Miller Gallery booth, is Simone Rosenbauer’s series Like Ice in the Sunshine (2014), for which she photographed several melting popsicles and ice cream treats neatly placed on solid pastel backgrounds. I smile, seeing in them the convergence of childhood and adulthood, the way we try to make something clean when it’s really meant to be messy and enjoyed as such. Rosenbauer teaches me in creamy, melting color how we bring our own experiences to every image, and how a still life sometimes offers us more of a space for projection because the photographed object has no voice to battle with our own.
It’s easy to feel dwarfed by the many-thousand-dollar price tags affixed to the majority of the works on display at a fair like the Photography Show, to feel distaste for the greed that’s become part of the art world. However, if you visit as an appreciator or a student, the results are worth much more. I realize this as I finish my rounds of the booths, my lessons completed, if only for the day.
The 2016 AIPAD Photography Show continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 17.