In its first foray into New York’s Armory Week, Photofairs, dedicated to photography and digital media, opens today, September 8, at the Javits Center, running alongside the massive Armory Show. Originally from Shanghai (save for a two-year stint in San Francisco), the three-day fair held its preview on Thursday, a scorching 96℉ day that made the breezy walk from Penn Station more of a treacherous hike through Midtown hell. Still, even though I had sweated through my clothes and my feet were covered in blisters, as a photography lover, I remained optimistic about what the show had to offer. Once I had taken refuge in the convention center’s air conditioning and bandaged my swollen toes, I made my way into Photofairs, located to the far right of the center, sandwiched between a curious plant-based event and an expo sponsored by a photo and video equipment retailer.
I was greeted by a towering film reel installation by Argentinian visual artist Andrés Denegri and relieved to find the event’s layout refreshingly spacious and navigable, especially in comparison to claustrophobic fairs that feel akin to an inescapable labyrinth of commercialism and opulence. A mix of gallery displays and nonprofit partner exhibitions, Photofairs gathered more than 150 artists and 50 exhibitors from around the world in its New York debut to showcase an expansive range of photo-based work and digital art, spanning prints, collages, sculpture, video installations, art books, and even AI-generated displays.
At the Center for Photography at Woodstock booth, which featured artists from the center’s 2022 AIR residency, I found myself lingering by Cheryl Mukherji’s vibrant photographs, matchbox works, and manipulated newspaper print. Taken in her Crown Heights apartment, her reimagined matrimonial pictures are modeled on her mother’s and grandmother’s own bridal photos (which Mukherji playfully referred to as vintage “thirst traps”) that their families used to showcase their availability for marriage. Straddling both a rejection of convention and an honoring of familial and cultural heritage, Mukherji’s self-portraits reminded me of Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons (2006) series in their similar studio-style approach, as well as the artists’ deliberate choice to look directly at the camera lens, and by extension, the audience.
I then hopped over to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, where a trove of photographic relics were on display including works by Gordon Parks, Joel Meyerowitz, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, and Robert Frank. In the midst of a fair that includes NFTs and artificially generated works, this was an ode to the 20th-century artists who helped usher in photography as an art form at a time when many refused to accept the camera as an artist’s tool.
Fair organizers Helen Toomer and Scott Gray expressed an openness to “welcoming” the new digitized visual forms.
“I always think about photography as the heart, and image-making as this thread through film and through digital,” Toomer said. The director of this year’s fair, Toomer also founded the upstate Stoneleaf Retreat and Residency and co-created the Art Mamas Alliance.
“I’ve been really beautifully surprised at the amount of emotion that the works have evoked from me,” Toomer said.
When I asked Gray about the fair’s brief time in San Francisco before it was canceled in 2019, the British entrepreneur who founded Creo, the parent company behind Photofairs, explained how the market has evolved since then.
“I think how photography is consumed and bought and appreciated has changed over the last decade,” Gray said, pointing to how the versatility and accessibility of the medium has made room for amateur artists and hobbyists.
Continuing on into the fair, I weaved in and out of booths, trying to keep an open mind, especially when I saw the interactive photo booth experience featuring generative artworks from Huntrezz Janos that felt more like a life-sized TikTok video. I was drawn to Emanuel Hahn’s display of photographs from his ongoing American Fever series that explores the intersections of the post-war Korean immigrant experience and romanticized ideals embedded in Hollywood cinema and the mythological American West. In talking with Eric Hart Jr., whose stylized black-and-white portraits invert notions of heteronormative Black masculinity with illuminated acrylic nails and lacy parasols, the New York-based artist explained how while he continues to use monochrome digital photography as his primary medium, he also has begun warily exploring the ways AI can help grow his own art, such as in mood-boarding and sketching.
“I’m not gonna fight it. I feel like there’s a way to use AI in a way that warrants innovation,” Hart said. “I’m all for the future. I just don’t want it to overtake the practice. I feel like that’s where we should just be cautious of how we’re using it.”
Franco-Senegalese visual artist Delphine Diallo, whose powerful mixed-media collages at the Fisheye Gallery booth mix iconographic portraiture, African cult objects, and sprinkled with technological bits, expressed a similar openness to AI.
“There is no limitation,” Diallo said. “These people say AI is negative, so instead of reacting negatively to AI, I’m like, ‘I hear you! Let me investigate.’”