New York’s annual Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) fair is situated in Midtown Manhattan this year, a few blocks from the most commercial stretch of Fifth Avenue. As often happens at crowded art fairs, galleries’ attempts to catch the eye of overwhelmed visitors make the quieter, smaller, and darker works stand out. Some of those works were also the show’s best, tracing the history of photography over the medium’s nearly 200-year-long history. At their best, the works on view offer glimpses into other eras, other places, and the intimate details of other people’s lives.

The fair, open through Sunday, April 2, comprises two floors, each packed with booths presenting collections of shiny, vibrant, and blown-up prints. Many presentations center celebrity or personal portraits — whether on stage or in cramped kitchens or living rooms — and speak to a commonly held bias toward photography. As viewers, armed with cameras of our own to document our own lives, we often expect photographs to tell us stories about their subjects rather than offer us purely aesthetic or intellectual experiences. The fair is overwhelming, and the gallerists who manned the dozens of booths had no shortage of tales to tell about each work.

Tokuko Ushioda’s 1970s street photographs
Ushioda’s later photographs, which reflect a quieter life after the birth of her child

On the second floor, Tokyo’s PGI Gallery displayed a series of works by Japanese photographer Tokuko Ushioda. A group of six 1970s street portraits greets the viewer on the booth’s far wall. It’s the first time they’ve been exhibited.

PGI Director Sayaka Takahashi told Hyperallergic that Ushioda was encouraged by her teacher to go out and capture passersby on the street.

“She recognized that she was really good at doing that,” Takahashi said. “It’s not easy.”

Ushioda’s subjects are comfortable and self-assured. They show no awkwardness or embarrassment, evoking the sort of self-confidence of rockstars (they’re also dressed in classic ’70s attire).

“She found that the camera could be a weapon to get rid of something from the subject,” Takahashi explained. “Two years later, she got pregnant and gave birth.” On the adjacent wall, Ushioda’s later work portrays a calmer time in the artist’s life, after she pivoted away from street photography to take care of her child. A kitchen stove, a pair of feet on the dashboard, and an umbrella consume the photographs’ frames.

Gary Edwards Gallery exhibited 19th-century photographs
Two portraits of Civil War photographs, both captured as photographs and later painted over

While Ushioga’s work conveys confidence and self-assuredness, a collection of photographs on the other side of the fair — from the Southhampton-based Gary Edwards Gallery — shows the opposite. Edwards talked through the collection of Civil War photographs he hung on his section’s largest wall. The gallerist pointed to the grouping’s most eye-catching work: a photograph of a teenage boy who had recently enlisted. Edwards said that new soldiers would have their picture taken in a studio after joining the army. The boy looks “nervous,” according to Edwards, who pointed out that the sword he’s holding looks like a prop. (In contrast, more seasoned soldiers pose confidently in a portrait hanging next to the boy’s.)

In the mid-19th century, patrons commissioned photographs of themselves and then had the prints painted over in a bid to emulate the oil portraits of the wealthy. While many of Edwards’s photographs convey a distinct attempt to make the work appear fully hand-painted, others at the booth seem to display an early version of Instagram and TikTok beauty filters. The subjects have clear, youthful skin and rosy cheeks. Many of the sitters appear eerily similar to the flawless images of the models and influencers of 2023.

Photographs by Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz at the booth of Johannes Faber Gallery

Like Edwards’s, other AIPAD booths tell a story about the role of photography and its perception in visual culture. Vienna-based Galerie Johannes Faber is showing vintage prints by some of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. Works by Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz evoke the origins of contemporary aesthetics, especially as “Scandinavian” and Minimalist design trends continue to grip our visual imaginations. On another wall of the Faber booth, a Peter Beard photograph of a Rolling Stones fan looks like it could have been taken yesterday.

As AIPAD visitors peruse intimate photographs of celebrities and other sitters, Yancey Richardson Gallery, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, offers a more blatantly voyeuristic work, a large-scale print by Guanyu Xu titled “Resident Aliens” (2021). At first glance, the work appears to depict posters and photographs hung throughout a single space, but a closer inspection reveals an arrangement of even more personal images: a shower, a screenshot of a Spotify “year-in-review,” and a bedside table littered with a collection of mundane everyday objects. While AIPAD has its fair share of boundary-pushing photography, some of its best works are its oldest, and its most personal.

Guanyu Xu, “Resident Aliens” (2021)

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.