Whoever said too much is not enough probably hasn’t trekked across rainy Europe in winter, in pursuit of all things photographic. In the beginning, in 1984, there was one Mois de la Photographie a Paris, and it was good. Now, thanks to more money from the EU and the ambitions of Berlin and Vienna, three “Mois de la Photo” took place in three different cities at the same time. Two years from now, there are slated to be no fewer than six such events in cities including Moscow, Bratislava, and Rome. These “Mois” compete as well with “off-year” events in Berlin, Bratislava, and Moscow. There must be some point where there will be too many pictures chasing too little money. That does not even begin to address the question that, short of cloning or Star Trek-like teleportation, there is no physical way anybody, the most dedicated professionals and even fools notwithstanding, can catch but a glimpse of what is on offer in any two cities, let alone six.
The portmanteau nature of the Mois de la Photo makes it a grab bag of a celebration. It is, per se, uncurated and not bound to a single theme. There will always be extremely good and surprising work as well as the mediocre or just plain lousy. The thing to do is to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, always a personal take, and to try to come away inspired. What follows are a few highlights from Paris and Berlin.
In Paris three shows stood out among the retrospectives and solo shows. Agence Vu member Rip Hopkins’ Home and Away, a garish, smart documentary of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, at Galerie Camera Obscura is a perfect example of the intersection of ‘fine art’ and ‘photojournalism’ as currently practised. As for the old school, the show Robert Capa: Connu et Inconnu at the Bibliothèque Nationale was a simply brilliant exhibition with many rare images, magazine layouts, and the contact sheet from his last roll of film. In comparison, the retrospective, Agence France Presse: 1944-2004, on another floor of the Bibliothèque, was completely mediocre.
The intriguing Histoire(s) Parallèle(s) Création Confrontation France/Pays Bas at the Institut Néerlandais counter-posed contemporary Dutch works chosen by French curator Gabriel Bauret and French photographs chosen by advertising agency director Erik Kessels. Featuring the works of Céline Van Balen, Phoebe Maas, Anne-Valérie Gasc, Charlotte Dumas, and Roy Cymbalista, among others, it represented another crossover of art and documentary photography.
Berlin presented a different spectacle. Not surprisingly, with events celebrating the collapse of the Wall 15 years ago, East German photography and vintage work, both very old and from the Germanys of the 1960s and 1970s, was very much in evidence. Galerie Berinson presented late 19th century images of the city from the Atelier Panckow. Willy Römer bridged the centuries with street photography from 1888 to 1938. Gilles Peress’ Wall pictures were on view at C/O Berlin with spaces for commentary by visitors. His Bosnia work was also on display. In a more modernist vein, Marcos Lopez’s Sub-Realismo Criollo at the Instituto Cervantes was a mockumentary send up of Argentine cliches. Classic street photography from the 60s and 70s by Leonard Freed, Made in Germany, was at Galerie Argus Fotokunst whose curator, Norbert Bunge put together a major retrospective, Utopia and Reality: East German Photography 1956-1989, now at the Forum Fur Fotografie in Cologne.
Yet it was the work of East German photographers Georg Krause at Galerie M in Berlin-Marzahn and this year’s Hannah Hoch Prize winner Helga Paris at the Berlinische Galerie that should be worth remembering. Krause presented, among various travel images, a series of photographs and videos of football fans in one of the last remaining seatless stadia. Paris, who belongs to the generation of great if largely unknown East German photographers, including Arno Fischer and Evelyn Richter, who were active throughout almost the entire history of the GDR, documented workers, women in the bars of Berlin, the city of Halle, and East Berlin’s punk rock culture. It is remarkable work. She is the subject of a major retrospective at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover and is part of the must-see retrospective in Cologne.
What all of this tells us is not that there are too many pictures out there clamouring for your eyes, it is that one must pick and choose what one sees and what one may learn from in a limited amount of time. I never made it to Vienna.
For information about ongoing shows, see the Mois de la Photo website.