Sun Tzu’s adage, “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted,” should resonate with every photojournalist. Understanding one’s subject matter is, like understanding one’s own personal style, as much a part of a successful photograph or portfolio as being in the right place at the right time with a camera. This is equally true for photographers wishing to enter the art market. Fortunately, there are plenty of venues where one can learn about photography galleries without spending vast sums of hard-won cash. One key step is to attend a photography fair that brings together a wide range of galleries, curators and collectors as well as numerous other photographers both famous and not so famous.
Two dealers’ shows provide ample opportunity for learning about the process and how one can best profit from it. The recent Photo New York, which took place in New York City’s current art Mecca, Chelsea, is the latest in Los Angeles gallerist Stephen Cohen’s series of successful photography fairs that follows those in LA and San Francisco and represents one approach. This new fair presented a mix of 33 galleries from the US, Europe and Latin America with a very good mix of new, established contemporary, and vintage photography and represents an alternative to Aipad’s (the Association of Independent Photography Art Dealers) Photography Show.
The emphasis was on new work – vital for keeping the photography scene fresh. New galleries such as Lyonswier, Katrina Doerner, and Foley, from New York, Brown Bag Contemporary of San Francisco, and Galerie Poller of Frankfurt prominently featured new material. For a new photographer this is a Godsend, but with this opportunity comes a cautionary note. It is extremely important to do research at these fairs, to learn the tastes of the galleries, to see which might be appropriate for one’s own work, to gather cards and get on mailing lists – but absolutely not to bother the gallerists by asking to show work or by pretending to be a collector. And under no circumstances attempt to come between a dealer and a potential client. The key here is to do the necessary reconnaissance and to do the follow up later. As Stephen Cohen points out, to intrude during a sales opportunity is certainly the fastest way to be put on the gallery’s reject list.
For European-based photographers, the annual Paris Photo fair which takes place in the Carrousel du Louvre in the centre of the French capital each November is another golden opportunity. There a broader spectrum of photography that ranges from classic reportage, to contemporary fine art, fashion, and vintage work. Paris Photo is much larger with 105 galleries from 16 countries. With collectors’ seminars, special events, and a tie-in to the Mois de la Photo a Paris, organised by the Maison Européene de la Photographie, with myriad photo shows scattered throughout the City of Light, Paris Photo is both more exciting and more challenging for emerging photographers because of the preponderance of established galleries with equally established photographers.
Still, as an educational opportunity and the chance to mingle with other photographers and friends it can be extremely rewarding. The same rules apply: check out the galleries, take cards, get on lists, and don’t hassle anyone. In Paris even more money is at stake. In any case, Paris Photo can also serve as practice for the forthcoming Photo London that will take place in the Royal Academy in London in May 2005.
Follow up is everything. A well-presented and well-edited portfolio, of 10-20 images – today, CDs are perfectly in order despite a lingering love for real prints – a brief statement, contact information on everything and much patience is vital. There is a vast amount of highly talented competition out there, and preparation and determination to stick with it, as well as a certain grace under fire, are one’s best weapons.
The traditional vision of photography from the Arab world seems to consist exclusively of sepia-toned images of camels and pyramids, photos of massed prayer ceremonies or funerals, and the bloody images from the ongoing conflicts in Palestine and Iraq. So this year’s incarnation of Noorderlicht, the Dutch photography festival, is a well-needed correction to Western myopias and prejudices. Titled Nazar from the Arabic for seeing, insight, and vision, and curated by festival director Wim Melis and spread across three venues in Leeuwarden in central Holland, more than 50 exhibitions of vintage and contemporary work by Western, Arab and Iranian photographers, cover more than 100 years of material across a world ranging from Morocco to Iran. Works featured include the classic movie stars and celebrities from the Van Leo Studio and Youssef Nabil of 1920s- 40s Cairo and the Arab Image Foundation’s archive of pre-1948 Palestine imagery. There is work from the early days of the Algerian war by Dutch Magnum member Kryn Taconis and French Army photographer Marc Garanger’s almost arty identity portraits of unveiled Algerian women.
If Western media are dominated by Western photographers who fulfill Western clichés, it is good to see work like that of Syrian Issaa Touma’s portfolio of Sufi dervishes, Saudi photographer Reem al Faisal’s images of the Hadj, or the Tina Barney-like family sequences by the Lebanese-Canadian Rawi Hage. The ability to be accepted as local, or, indeed, to be local, provides an immediacy of access and understanding that potentially allows Arab photographers to present deeper stories. Likewise, the only positive thing that may be said about the horrors of the Intifada and the war in Iraq is that despite the kidnappings, beheadings, and limited access to Western photographers, the photo agencies, led by AFP, have been supporting their stringers in the field and thus creating a new crop of talented photojournalists whose work will doubtless be seen everywhere in the future.