Issue #200  3/23/2014
Classic Photography LA Appears To Outclass Larger, More Claustrophobic Photo LA, But Dealers Do Ok At Both

By Alex Novak

One of the reasons that many dealers still exhibit at one or the other of the Los Angeles photography shows is that the weather is often so much better than where we live and work. In mid-January most of the dealers are coming from snowy and sub-freezing climes, and a brief stay (all too brief) in LA's 80-degree (at least this year) sunshine is a reprieve that most of us can appreciate, especially this Winter.

The market for photography in LA has, however, been a bit more erratic over the last six years or so, as several major collectors have gone to the sidelines or slowed down their activity. While newer photo collectors have taken up some of the slack, they don't seem to have the same level of commitment or dollar investment here—at least yet. And, unlike a decade ago, the number of people coming from out of state—or even internationally—has dropped. In addition, instead of one photography show, there are now three competing for attention: photo la, Classic Photographs LA and Paris Photo LA, as well as a number of art and ephemera fairs. And all this is happening during a greatly improved market globally for photography and art, so it strikes some of us as odd indeed that photo sales are sometimes tough to come by here; but, none-the-less, certain types of photography still do fairly well in L.A.

Ironically, mid-to high level contemporary photography ($20,000-400,000) seems to be the most unsaleable here. That flies in the face of "conventional" wisdom and the presence of the new Paris Photo LA, but certainly appears to be the case in terms of results at the three photo fairs here, and even some of the art fairs.

What does seem to work is a combination of contemporary photos of modest prices (think generally under $5,000-10,000) and of a more decorative nature, more traditional "name" contemporary photographers (think artists like William Eggleston) and vintage photography.

Paris Photo LA's exhibitors had rough sledding last May, and most of its dealers brought more expensive contemporary pieces that got few buyers here. Little vintage photography was to be seen. Originally projected for over 120 photography exhibitors, the show didn't even get to half that number. The show management smartly doubled the booth space for most exhibitors—at least the ones on the large sound stages at Universal Studios.

Paris Photo Los Angeles
Paris Photo Los Angeles

Worse than the lower number of exhibitors, virtually none of those who did exhibit (except a couple of book dealers) made any money, with many going home without a single sale. Some told me or my sources that they would stand by the show, "because, as one exhibitor told us, it took about three years to establish Art Basel Miami Beach." Others were more straightforward and told us they would not be back for another loss. None of the 30+ exhibitors we contacted told us they had made money. Only one local gallery claimed to have "sold out" their booth, but apparently that sale happened months before the show to one buyer. That didn't prevent them from getting some free press though out of the deal.

Visitors did enjoy Paris Photo LA's environment (except for the parking situation, which, as at this year's Photo LA opening, was horrendous), but often it seemed that they were more interested in seeing and being seen here, rather than buying anything. Whether Paris Photo LA can find and/or create a market here remains to be seen. They will try again April 24-27. That date is actually another issue: it is a mere two weeks after AIPAD's highly successful New York Photography show, which makes it hard on potential exhibitors and attendees alike. Given a choice, it is pretty clear that AIPAD's show is still the premier venue in the U.S., if not the world, for serious photography and for serious collectors, whether of the contemporary or traditional kind.


Show attendees more interested in seeing and being seen seemed to be an issue at this January's Photo LA as well. The show moved from Santa Monica to downtown LA and the LA Mart, where the ceiling touches the tops of the booths, lending--at least to me and a number of collectors that I spoke with--a very claustrophobic feel to most of the show. At the opening reception a disc jockey played techno music at a level to blow out ear drums. It physically hurt to be near the music, and collectors who attended both Photo LA and Classic Photographs LA continuously remarked negatively upon this to me. Numerous 20-somethings were there, but only a few seemed seriously interested in the photography on the walls. The rest seemed more intent on partying, taking advantage of the free drinks, hors d'oeuvres and dance music. Personally I think there are better ways to get younger collectors involved in photography.

Photo LA Opening Night Reception
Photo LA Opening Night Reception

The show promoters claimed that the attendance was up dramatically to 12,000 from last year's 9,000 (later claims put the number at 18,000, but that was frankly ridiculous). When you use clickers to count your audience, as they did here, the attendance figures are always highly suspect. And exhibitors rarely care about audience totals anyway. They'd rather see SALES totals, which are quite different. In fact, too many people often result in fewer sales. Quality of audience is everything.

Certainly the attendance at this opening was at least substantially higher than last year's opening's rather poor showing in Santa Monica's Convention Center, which is now closed for renovation; but the rest of the days were sparsely attended, according to the exhibitors and attendees that I spoke to. That was amazing in one sense, because it sure appeared that you would need the whole weekend to get out of the parking lots, which each had a single exit that had to be processed by an attendant that took about three minutes a car. Multiply that by hundreds of cars all trying to get out at the same time at closing and you get the picture. Reportedly, this will be fixed before next year's show, which is scheduled for the same venue.

The number of exhibitors appeared to have gone up a bit to almost 90, but more than half appeared to be non-profits or vendors that were clearly not selling photographs here and were being used to "fill out" the larger space.

I did get around to some of the handful of dealers there that I actually knew. Dealer Louis Klaitman (Oakland, CA) told me afterwards that he "sold enough to just about cover the cost of my booth, and, if I close the few sales I am working on from show contacts, I will do ok."

Klaitman continued, "Most of what I sold was on the lower end, but the good news is that all but two of the buyers were new and young. Although I have some contemporary images, the young people were interested in more traditional photographs--although they were out of their price range. That is the good news for our market. But it's a wake up call that if we don't pursue new young and upcoming buyers, who are we going to sell to in five, ten or 20 years?"

Klaitman and other exhibitors did say that "the show staff was phenomenal, and the show over all was extremely well organized, the best I have seen in all the years that I have been doing Photo LA."

AIPAD dealer Sid Monroe (Monroe Gallery, Santa Fe, NM) did even better here apparently, selling over 20 photos, including a number from the Civil Rights era, Steve Schapiro's gelatin silver prints (for more than $3,000 each), and a large-format color work by Stephen Wilkes for $20,000.

Monroe was a bit worried about topping last year's record show, but he told us he came very close. "In 2013, we had our best Photo LA ever in terms of sales, we knew it would be ambitious to expect to top that this year, but we came close. We spoke with a few museum curators and institutions, and sold to new clients as well as existing ones.

"We were a bit apprehensive about how things would go in the new venue. The presentation in the LA Mart was excellent, very upscale and upbeat. It was much larger, so it was difficult at times to judge the crowd, but there definitely was a very good turnout. I did see a lot of our regular LA visitors, including many who frequent both photo la and Classic photo. The fair organizers were very accommodating from start to finish. We had follow-up sales starting the Monday after the fair, and closed a $10,000 sale from the fair recently, and there are still follow-ups to do. So I am very happy after all is said in done about this years edition."

LA Gallerist Susan Spiritus told us that she felt that "the venue (for photo la) changed for the better. I think everyone really liked the new home. They are planning on returning in 2015."

She also noted that "the crowd has changed. My eyes did not register many or, if any, collectors." But, she said, "sales were quite evident all around with some galleries having brisker sales than others. I, for one, had several, with more post-fair sales. For me what sold was strictly contemporary work. Of all the works which I sold, most were by one artist (Deborah Parkin) and all gelatin silver."

While she described opening night numbers as "quite high," she noted that "many were there for the food, drink and noise! Were they buyers? They looked very young."

Collector and former dealer Robin Venuti said, "One third of photo la exhibitors were vendors and college programs, which, as a collector, I was not interested in. It also had predominantly large contemporary pieces. My favorite gallery was the one from Queensland, Australia. The work represented was incredible. Photo la lacked all the bins of material that Classic Photographs had so it took no time at all to go through photo la.

"Also, the docent tours there were too expensive, and I wanted to know who was giving them before I signed up. Additionally, I miss the catalogue for any show. I use it as a reference and take notes on gallery pages. When I get home it helps me digest all I saw with contact information for the galleries. LA Art had a catalogue that one could buy for $20."

One museum curator remarked that the "new venue was a nice surprise--easy to get to, with adequate parking, and enough room for the show itself; however, the quality of the show, overall, was mixed: some excellent galleries, as well as others that were decidedly secondary."

It might have been easy to get to if you didn't use a GPS or Mapquest. Many, including myself, were sent to Santa Monica with the show address given. Even exhibitor Susan Spiritus had difficulties. "Mapquest gave us all wrong directions on day one, and we got lost and taken to a wrong place."

Several collectors and curators mentioned that the collector program of lectures and seminars at photo la was quite good this year. The topics and participants seemed top-notch and a big improvement over previous years. More importantly it was the only serious collector program among the three photo shows here in L.A.


Over at the Classic Photographs LA show at Bonham's the 26 exhibitors (three more than last year, but most in bigger booth areas) were spread this year over two large rooms (preview area and auction room) that took up virtually all the first floor of the auction house in West Hollywood, about a 70% increase in space. The attendance numbers while much smaller than the other shows didn't tell the whole story. It was the fact that the attendees here were much more serious about collecting, rather than about having a good time and being seen.

Classic Photographs LA (Photo by Robert Berg)
Classic Photographs LA (Photo by Robert Berg)

The pace and atmosphere were unhurried, sedate, personal and professional. The material was definitely upscale and more vintage-oriented, although a number of dealers showed some excellent contemporary material on their walls, including Santa Monica gallerist Rose Shoshana, who said: "I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of participating in 'classic photographs' this past January. Having previously been a part of Paris Photo, Paris Photo LA and several other 'large scale' fairs in the recent past, I can most heartily say that the Classic Photographs event, for me, was most gratifying. All that I have found lacking in the 'bigger' fairs, was there for me in the Classic Photographs event--the camaraderie, the focus on the works, the personal exchange between dealers and collectors were all so very meaningful and satisfying. My thoughts are that the challenge ahead for next year's fair is to bring forth the new generation of collectors. Keeping it 'small' and 'exclusive' is best, but also reaching out to a greater audience is most important."

Collector Michael Mattis noted, "Classic Photographs LA definitely hit critical mass this year and looked and felt like a mature art fair--no longer just a gathering of the tribe, although it is certainly that too! Judy and I were delighted to add to our collection a great early Walker Evans "Brooklyn, NY (clotheslines and smokestacks), 1928-30" from Paul Hertzmann, Inc. And a highpoint was a visit to the Leonard and Marjorie Vernon Collection at LACMA, which was inspirational."

I can second Mattis' praise of the LACMA exhibit of the Vernon collection, which I attended the Monday after the show with Amanda Doenitz, one of Classic Photographs partners and an LA appraiser.

My own company, Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, did well at the show. It's not as hectic and you don't make as many sales as at the AIPAD New York Photography Show or Paris Photo (in Paris), but it's a pleasant and very inexpensive venue. The people coming by are generally serious collectors who are genuinely interested in the work, and you have more time to actually have a conversation about the work.

We've sold 18 prints to date, but still have a few things in the works from the show. Barbara Kasten's vintage Polaroid Construction series was popular at the show and also from people looking at her work on our website at the same time. We have a group on hold for a museum, and three other collectors either bought or expressed interest in buying some. We sold a mix of vintage 19th-and 20th-century images, as well as a few more traditional contemporary photographs by such photographers as Arthur Tress (whom we represent), Jerry Uelsmann and Charles Swedlund. Tom Baril's contemporary large-format floral photos from wet-plate glass negatives drew a lot of interest too. These range unframed from only $1,500 (20 x 16 in. paper) to $3,500 (30 x 24 in.) to $6,000 (40 x 30 in. paper). They are stunning and you can see some of them on the I Photo Central website. We also sold an early and important Andre Kertesz, whose rare earlier prints we continue to add to our inventory.

Tucson gallerist Terry Etherton said, "We had a good show. We sold a Garry Winogrand 15 Big Shots portfolio, two Joel-Peter Witkins, a Richard Misrach split-toned print from the Night Desert Series, a Brett Weston, a Pirkle Jones, two Imogen Cunninghams, and few other things. We did not sell a few items that I really like including a large Joel-Peter Witkin, titled White on White, Paris, 2006; an Ansel Adams of Antelope House Ruin from Portfolio VI; two stellar Frederick Sommer Arizona landscapes; and a Richard Misrach split-toned image of Stonehenge."

Etherton continued, "I love the expanded venue. It's much less congested and with more wall space. I think that the show looked really good this year, and I was really happy to have Weinstein Gallery, Rose Gallery, Stephen Wirtz Gallery and Robert Klein on board (all new exhibitors)."

Collector Michael Whalen told me, that "the show looked great. The expanded space was an improvement. The material was pretty interesting. Parking was a bit difficult." He did confirm that he bought some material at the fair.

Curator April Watson from the Nelson-Atkins Museum said, "Certainly I would agree with many that Classic Photo LA was far better in terms of overall quality than photo la, which really was not very interesting at all, athough I did very much enjoy the talk with Britt Salvesen, Robbert Flick and Susan Rankaitis. The atmosphere at Classic Photo was also more intimate than AIPAD. I really enjoyed it."

Her boss, curator Keith Davis, commented, "This show (Classic) is great fun: a combination of excellent dealers and a setting that is pleasant, comfortable, and intimate. The addition of space was a great idea, letting everyone spread out a bit compared to last year."

A third curator, Robert Flynn Johnson reported that he "did not get to photo la at all. I intended to go, and I had a number of friends showing there, but attempting to drive downtown in intense traffic to a venue I had never been to before defeated me after more than an hour; and I turned around and went back to West L.A. Classic Photographs continues to be a class act. Amanda Doenitz was so detail-oriented planning the Friday opening, which had terrific wine and food and which tried to accommodate as many guests as possible considering the tight space. The dealer's tables and stands were exactly right: simple table cloths, a few wall hangings but there is no question it is a serious fair for serious collectors--no fru fru. The level of dealers is universally high. The only drawback--not for me, but maybe for others--was the tight space, which was not conducive for display of large contemporary photographs. Overall, it is a fair I have looked forward to every year and have acquired one or more works each time. This time I acquired a number of terrific vintage press photographs from Connecticut Willie Schaeffer. The show is the Rolls Royce of table-top photography fairs, and I say that as a true compliment."

Johnson may have been partially correct about dearth of wall space, but the show also provided many exhibitors with at least some good wall space, although perhaps not as much as at other art fairs, nor as consistently. But this may have contributed to the more personal atmosphere of the show.

Denmark photo dealer and new exhibitor Andrew Daneman said, "I think the three promoters, Amanda Doenitz, Michael Dawson and Richard Moore, do an excellent job producing this show. I thought it was well laid out, and visitor friendly. I did well and look forward to the possibility of participating next year.

"I sold images that I have had in inventory for years and for days. The interest was varied, which is why I bring so much material to shows. I never know who will show up or what they might be interested in. I sell primarily to dealers and a few visually astute collectors. I still have available a very rare collection of early (before 1910) large x-rays on glass of mis-formed embryos, fetus and infants--some in stereo. I also have a beautiful view by Giorgio Sommer taken in the crater of Vesuvius in 1892."

San Francisco dealer Paul Hertzmann reported that "we did better than expected at Classic Photographs. Our sales were to collectors, museum and our colleagues. Photographs purchased by collectors included a vintage, early New York Walker Evans, and a very large, early important Minor White of San Francisco, as well as two excellent Carleton Watkins. A very rich-toned Charnay of Chichen Itza sold to a museum and other 20th-century photographs sold to our colleagues. Pictures we're in love with but still have include a palladium 1926 Weston from Mexico and Dorothea Lange’s iconic The Road West."

Hertzmann concluded, "Amanda Doenitz, Richard Moore and Michael Dawson produced a well-run, smoothly operating fair, with the dealers in mind when it came to the details. The participants are primarily AIPAD members with an excellent selection of pictures. Classic Photographs is the go-to event for photography aficionados in January in Los Angeles."

Santa Monica gallerist Peter Fetterman said, "This was a very user-friendly exhibitor experience. It is so refreshing to be in a collegial atmosphere surrounded by great images of quality, instead of the usual hyped-up" junk" one normally sees in many contemporary art fairs. But there was one crucial thing missing: a new generation of interested, qualified collectors. For this fair to survive and prosper innovative marketing has to be implemented. Running a successful fair in this day and age is a full-time job and needs a sophisticated well-funded organization with strategic sponsorship attached to deliver and reach a new audience, so that the exhibitors can justify the time and expense involved in participating. I hope this can be done, as there is an obvious void to be filled here."

On the other hand, local collector Michael Blasgen told me, "I enjoyed my short visit to Classic Photo LA very much. I did not attend photo la. I didn't buy anything during my visit, but I did buy a piece last year at the same show. Compared to other shows I have attended, this is my favorite. The number of dealers is manageable, and I know most of them. It's a way to catch up with dealers that I've known for years. The material that the dealers bring is great, including the stuff that you brought. That Classic is, in fact, classic, is just fine with me. I cannot find a way to get in touch with contemporary photographic art. The stuff that is new that uses the approaches of earlier photographers is easy to understand but why bother? The stuff that is new (nothing involved that is sensitive to light, no camera, no darkroom, etc.) and super conceptual leaves me cold. So this is a venue I can love. Of course I'm 70 years old and maybe I'm not the target demographic of you dealers."

It will be interesting to find a solution to bridge this gap with new younger collectors profitably, but AIPAD New York and Paris Photo seem to be the most successful to date doing this.

Collector Manfred Heiting took in both photo la and Classic Photographs LA. He told me that photo la was surprisingly crowded at the opening evening. "Ran into a few people I knew (most participated in the "Collectors Choice" with one print each). I also remember Stephen Cohen, of course. He most likely had better material than most of the others. And Nazraeli Press (a bit misplaced and probably better off at Classic). There were a lot of other dealers that I did not know. Certainly it's my problem--too old. Everything on the walls was probably "cool" and a mixed bag (so was the crowd). I am sure that the new organizer and new location brings photo la to a new level (I am not sure about sales) than the dying past, but if I am interested in "that stuff", I would prefer the LA Art Book Fair at the Geffen last week--which had a lot of photography as well as all the printed matter (less organized, less flashy--but more real). You can certainly say that Photo LA was revitalized but we will have to see if it holds up: the jury is still out.

"Classic is, of course, more enjoyable to me, much smaller and less people, more the usual suspects (all/many of the "heavy weights" in the field did come by--sales I do not know--but a very professional atmosphere). The material on display was top-middle class but no 'surprises'. Yes, I bought books from Nazareli and an early ephemera at Classic. This was the second time at the old B&B place. Yes, I like the expansion because of more "breathing" space. You can say something without having the next three tables listening in."

Barry Singer Gallery did very well at Classic Photographs LA. As Singer put it to me: "Two of LA's major collectors stepped up to the plate and hit home runs." Reportedly one of those collectors bought a six-figure Edward Weston here.

San Francisco gallerist Scott Nichols reported, "Our show was very successful. We sold two Ansel Adams, a small Paul Strand and a vintage Ruth Bernhard. In addition, our Vivian Maier display on the outer wall produced many "holds" which we're in the process of completing now. I liked the new expanded venue which I thought was elegant, classy and yet casual at the same time. There was a wonderful camaraderie among my colleagues as a lot of us have now been around 30+ years. The event just reminded me of the early days of photo la, but now Classic Photography has a wonderful touch of class and tons of camaraderie."

And what did Nichols feel got missed in his booth? "There were two Edward Weston photographs that were images that I feel should gotten a lot more attention that they did: one was Edward Weston's vintage palladium print of Robert Fuller, 1922 (most likely unique) and the other was Brooklyn, NY, from the Leaves of Grass series, 1941 (rare).

Alexandria, VA dealer Gary Edwards was another exhibitor who reported that he "had a successful show at Classic Photographs LA. I sold a considerable amount, and also bought some interesting 19th-century prints from colleagues at the fair. The show looked good and had impeccable management. Furthermore the weekend weather--warm and sunny--was a thrill for those coming from the very cold weather in the Northeast. The expansion of CPLA to a second room, and the participation of additional dealers was, to my mind, a great success. It was a very enjoyable and profitable weekend!

"My main sales included a collection of hand-colored salt print and full-plate tintype Civil War portraits that I had amassed over several years, and a number of charming Robert Doisneau vintage contact prints. The latter are small but appropriately inexpensive. I displayed 12 prints, and sold most of them. I have more Doisneaus and will show a larger group at AIPAD. Other interesting images that sold include a Tina Modotti, vintage portraits of American Indians, actors in a European pre-war Jewish theater company, and a variety of 19th century topographic prints. Some of the best photographs I displayed were a group of rare and beautiful hand-colored Felice Beatos from his earliest Japan period. I will show those remaining at AIPAD."

Show organizer and local dealer Michael Dawson told me that he "did ok at the show but was expecting a bit more. My emphasis was on California photography. I sold a beautiful hand-colored album of burglar and fire alarm equipment produced around 1910, an Ansel Adams print and a 19th-century mammoth plate view of Southern California by Herve Friend, among other things. I may be a bit biased but I think the venue really looked great. The expanded venue gave every dealer more space, as the exhibition almost doubled in square footage but only added several additional dealers."

New York City gallerist Tom Gitterman said, "We did well at the show. It is always a joy to be in LA in January and a treat to see clients and friends that I don't see during the rest of the year. We sold work by Oliver Gagliani and Josef Breitenbach and have some follow through with several collectors with work by Ferenc Berko, Andre Kertesz, Alma Lavenson and Paul Strand."

Gitterman continued, "I always like your question, "What are one or two items that you still have left that you really like?" but always find it difficult to answer since I only work with prints I really like. Here are a few: an early Henry Holmes Smith silver print from the 1940s of a light study, a Roger Parry from the 1930s of a fake murder scene, an Alma Lavenson of the St. Charles Hotel in Downieville, CA from 1934.

"I thought the space looked great and hope we can move beyond just "classic" photographs and invite more contemporary."

As photo la exhibitor and LA Gallerist Susan Spiritus noted wistfully though: "It sure would be nice if everyone could be under one roof and play in one sandbox together. If that is not possible, then perhaps being closer in proximity so less time is required going from one venue to another."

It may be too late to put the milk back in the bottle, but I understand Susan's wish that somehow the lost opportunity and golden years of photo la, which was at one time perhaps the premier venue for photography, might be recaptured. But I expect it is way too late and too complex an issue at this point, and so LA will have to deal with three separate photography fairs competing for attention and different market segments, and none of them quite fulfilling every need in the market.

Novak has over 45 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.