Issue #189  2/28/2012
Classic Photography Los Angeles Show a More Personally Sized Fair; Photo LA Struggles to Find Itself

By Alex Novak

When I switched over to the Classic Photographs Los Angeles Show from Photo LA this January, it was really just a financial decision, one that I struggled with for a while. After nearly a dozen years when I did fairly well (although tailing off the last six), my sales at Photo LA in 2011 were virtually non-existent. Even more frustratingly, I felt that I had assembled a world-class exhibit of top contemporary and classic images, putting together one of my best and creative efforts at a fair. I also took the show's largest booth space, and the expense of doing the show was very high for me.

Despite all of that, the sales numbers were pointedly a great deal less than at previous fairs, even here in L.A. I felt that the show had lost its major exhibitors and the national and international following it used to have, and the fair came to depend on just the same local crowd, not even drawing many from upstate. It has become a place to be seen rather than a place to buy photographs. One could argue about economic times, but other photography and art shows, such as AIPAD and Paris Photo, have come back strong over the last few years despite the financial headwinds.

Meanwhile a small, primarily table-top fair was making progress and developing a very good reputation here in L.A. The Classic Photographs Show was started by a few of the dealers who felt that the larger show had gone off the tracks a bit, and that there was a need for a more economical show aimed primarily at the classic/vintage photographs market place. Many also felt that a simpler, more focused show would provide buyers with an easier path to higher level photography material.

This show wasn't seeking a big turnout, but one that tried to get the top collectors and curators to come and spend some quality time with the exhibitors. A few exhibitors might have even hoped that Photo LA might get the message, wake up and turn itself around.

Whatever the reasons, most of the classic and vintage photography dealers and galleries moved over to the Classic Photography Los Angeles Show, especially this year when the show slightly expanded from 12 to 16 dealers and moved from its original location to a larger, perhaps more convenient space.

Despite the enlarged space, other dealers, including some current and former Photo LA dealers, have indicated that they want in, and the pressure is on the show managers (Michael Dawson, Amanda Doenitz and Richard Moore) to find a bigger space that doesn't give up the intimate feel of the show.

As one of the show organizers Amada Doenitz told me: "The goal is to create an environment that is conducive to looking for work. Notice I didn't say, 'looking at', but 'looking for'. There are no strollers at this fair, no couples with iPhones posing for pictures in front of your inventory, no VIP lounges. I want it to feel like it does when you have someone over. I want you to walk through that front door into a naturally lit room, music overhead, smell coffee (or the Singers' wine!), and spy Andy Smith's sleeping dog. And in that moment you know you are in a place that feels familiar and comfortable and that--for the next however many hours--will allow you to lose yourself in thought or to engage in an intelligent conversation, all the while looking for photographs.

"Imagine an environ that is as far away from the convention center art fair model as it can get. In my estimation this is a much healthier, more sustainable situation for conducting our particular business--the selling of classic photography."

And that's exactly the dilemma: when you have people clamoring for exhibit space, how exactly do you balance economics with that intimate quality that you would like to keep? Many shows either grow or die, which is another consideration. How does a show draw collectors and curators from outside its local community--almost a "must" in today's market--unless it can also draw enough quality dealers to exhibit? Yes, I suspect that the show's managers will have a few sleepless nights trying to address these problems.

Ironically, Photo LA has to be asking itself much the same questions. Over the last ten years the show has lost many of the top name dealers. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it still poses a major challenge for Photo LA. Without those dealers, it will simply not draw beyond its local community any more. In a further irony, the smaller Classical Photography Show might actually help Photo LA draw more of the important collectors and curators to LA. Most are coming now for the smaller show's high level of quality and because the show organizers are really contacting the top players; but sometimes these attendees cross over to check out Photo LA. It's a reversal of the roles that one might expect.

The smaller show is an amazingly compact way to see important photographs. After all, with the emphasis on the table top format you can see about ten thousand top vintage and classic images at the Classic Photographs Los Angeles Show from some of the top photography dealers in the world, most AIPAD members. That's not a bad draw, and it is sure to increase if show organizers find a larger space.

Michael Lee of Lee Gallery said, "We did well at the fair. I sold mostly 19th-century photographs and a few 20th-century ones, including images by William Garnett and Robert Frank. We still have some nice Garnett's available. Prices are about $5000-10,000. The best piece I brought was a vintage subway portrait by Walker Evans and it is still available.

"I was very happy to see the show grow, and I thought the energy and enthusiasm of the collectors and curators was better than last year."

L.A. dealer Michael Dawson of Dawson Books, who was one of the organizers of the fair, said, "I thought work was well presented and the show was very well organized. I received many compliments from dealers who participated as well as from collectors and curators who attended the show. All appreciated the intimacy, the collegiality and the overall quality of work presented.

"While there is certainly room for this show to grow, the main strength of Classic Photographs Los Angeles is the coherency of the work presented, the affordability for the participating dealers and the intimate environment where collectors can view a great deal of material without being overwhelmed with a lot of extraneous distractions.

"As an exhibitor myself, I feel that I did very well for a show of this size with gross sales in the moderate five figures. I sold a number of photographs in the $1,500 to $4,000 range, as well as several books in the $2,500 to $3,500 range. There was strong interest in several reasonably priced vintage Adams pieces from the early 1930s as well as California Pictorialist work. I sold several photographs in the first week after the show to people who looked at work during the show and decided to purchase upon further reflection. I have had better follow up at this show than almost any other show I have done. I sold non-vintage Yavno's of Muscle Beach and Cable Car, San Francisco. There was also a lot of interest in several early prints of Daido Moriyama."

Oakland, CA dealer Richard Moore reported, "I was very happy with sales during the show and there was a couple of follow-up sales. We sold pictures ranging in price from $250 to $8,500. Considering the reasonable cost of exhibiting, our bottom line was much better than previous recent Photo LA outings."

Moore continued, "We sold a unique signed Margrethe Mather exhibition print from 1918. Mather had reused a mount from an Edward Weston exhibition print and the mount back has the title, Weston's name, studio address in Weston's handwriting as well as a stamp from the Pittsburgh Salon where the Weston print was shown in 1917. It was a fine example of Mather's work as well as an interesting object showing the intimate connection between the two photographers."

About the show itself, Moore noted, "There was a wide range of quality classic photography presented by some of the best dealers in the genre. As an exhibitor, the show was fairly stress-free, easy to set-up and break down, and was a very pleasant environment. A large part of the success was the great group of exhibitors in the room. The attendance was very good, but the room never felt overcrowded and the people attending were knowledgeable about photography and seemed to be enjoying themselves. I noticed several collectors returned to the show for the second day."

Tucson dealer Terry Etherton reportedly had a great fair, selling into six figures. It was a battle over who brought the most photos here to the show: Terry, Scott Nichols or myself. Despite the tough competition, I think I edged out Terry.

As for my own experience, I have to admit it was a lot of fun to do a show where you don't have so much money on the line and the camaraderie of the dealers and the collectors is so stress-free and just plain fun. I didn't have a record show by any means, but we did well enough to post a solid profit, and I sold both 19th-century and 20th-century photographs of all types, and I have some follow-up still to work on.

It was nice to be able to spend real time with clients who were actually interested in collecting photography. While the crowd was small, the enthusiasm and interest levels were really gratifying.

The show still has a ways to go to attract a lot of key players from a distance, but many did come from the East Coast and Midwest to this show. It will be a challenge to balance the growth in the audience of major collectors with the growth in number of dealers for this show.

Considering that a collector can already view nearly 10,000 top vintage photographs here, it is just a matter for collectors to wake up to the unique opportunity to see such a diversity of important work on the West Coast.

The set-up and break-down, which is usually highly stressful and exhausting, was actually a pleasure here. We were out in an hour after the show ended, and on to a pleasant dinner with Barry and Gretchen Singer and their wines (more on those wines below). That has to be a record for me.