Issue #203  5/13/2014
AIPAD at the Park Avenue Armory: A High Energy Affair with Elegance

By Matt Damsker

The energy was high, the stars were out, attendance matched last year's record (an official 11,500), and sales were reportedly robust enough to mark the 34th annual AIPAD Photography Show New York as a genuine success during its four day run on April 10-13, 2014, at the Park Avenue Armory. Presented by The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), the show remains the longest-running and foremost exhibition of fine art photography, and this year 84 of the world's leading fine art photography galleries presented a wide range of museum-quality work--contemporary, modern, and 19th-century photographs, as well as photo-based art, video, and new media.

AIPAD 2014
AIPAD 2014

If there was any real news, it may have been that dealers were noting that collectors' emphasis on size for size's sake and, perhaps, their lust for splashy color work may be giving way to a greater appreciation of quality over scale or flash.

Broad trends are hard to gauge with any real accuracy, of course, but the observations of leading dealers are always worth considering. "I'm seeing less in the way of big, bad color work," offered Terry Etherton of Tucson's Etherton Gallery. "Dealers are showing, and buyers are responding to, more refined, more classic work." Etherton noted early sales of some rare images by Frederick Sommer, and by the show's mid-point noted that there was as much browsing as buying, but like most of the dealers interviewed, he agreed it was a solid show on all counts (Etherton ultimately sold 22 works, including a Sommer print for $40,000).

This year, Alex Novak of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works of Chalfont, PA, sought to bridge the contextual gaps that often arise when collectors and more casual viewers look at specific periods of photographic and fail to note the connections between them. Thus, the walls of his exhibit booth were a free mix of images juxtaposed from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that illuminated similarities in vision, experimentation and process, underscoring how generations of photographers copy, appropriate and build on previous historical work. It goes without saying that today's photographic avant-garde often builds transparently on the past, and Novak pointed out how, for example, photo collage draws from a deep, centuries-old tradition that was revived potently and enduringly by the new medium of photography.

Indeed, the early days of modernism mix well with the modern and post-modern in Novak's exhibition, for example, a 1930s Andre Kertesz distorted image paired with a 1960s classic of multiple printing by master neosurrealist Jerry Uelsmann, or the staged street photography of Arthur Tress and its influence on contemporary powerhouses such as Martin Parr (whose large color shot of a fashion shoot at a California gas station was a booth highlight). Abstraction, of course, is the great vortex of modern art, spanning media and eras, and in this case it spans the history of photography, as Novak pointed out with rare 1850s salt prints by Gustave Le Gray (in his travels with Mestral) of doorways and stone wall, juxtaposed with Aaron Siskind's pure abstractions of corroded paint and metal surfaces.

Large vintage Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, Berlin, 1935 (courtesy of Vintage Works, Ltd.)
Large vintage Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, Berlin, 1935 (courtesy of Vintage Works, Ltd.)

Novak was pleased with the response to the curated show, and to a broadening of the market. He noted that a good number of sales, as many as half at the show's midpoint, were dealer-to-dealer, which he called "a good sign." He also observed a welcome change: "Before, sales were largely at the top, but now smaller, less expensive prints are in demand for the right reasons. Our goal of putting contemporary work into context helps to clarify where photography comes from and where it keeps going. Once people see how, say, a Moholy-Nagy positive contact print from a 1925 photogram connects with a solarized photogram by Ray K. Metzker in the 1960s, the continuity that these images represent not only enhances their value in the viewer's mind, but enhances an understanding that the true quality of this art has to do with the vision and knowledge of the photographer, more so than with the scale or drama of an image."

Novak did indicate that some top images were still available, including the highly important Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, Berlin, 1935 and the Raoul Ubac, Le Combat des Penthesilees (Battle of the Amazons).

Other dealers seemed on the same page. "It's been really good this year, a good balance of the contemporary and the historical," said Stephen Bulger, whose Toronto gallery was showing a mix of striking regional work, including Clive Holden's digital "Trains of Winnipeg" software program that uses snippets of digitized film to make endlessly varied moving images, and Scott Conarroe's gorgeous long-exposure landscapes of Saskatchewan. "There's a lot more interest in contemporary work," said Bulger, "and it's great to introduce people to the best of Canadian talents. As the audience grows, we're doing what we should do--bringing what people should see versus what they buy."

Similarly, Catherine Couturier, from Houston, said that this year sales were mostly of contemporary work, "unlike last year, where we sold no contemporary." Couturier's walls were a mix of classic and contemporary, such as Elliott Erwitt's New York dogs, Kertesz's Parisian images, and a solid sampling of Maggie Taylor's distinctive dreamscapes from 2012 (juxtaposed with examples of her husband, Jerry Uelsmann's, famous eclipse nudes. And Brian Clamp of New York's ClampArt Gallery, reported "strong mid-range" sales, especially of younger photographers such as Mark Yankus.

It's worth noting that a number of new exhibitors represented the ever-globalizing nature of AIPAD. This year's first-timers included Feroz Galerie, Bonn, Germany; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York and San Francisco; Paci Contemporary, Brescia, Italy; Grundemark Nilsson Gallery-Swedish Photography, Berlin and Stockholm; Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo; and Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles. All showed intriguing work, but Paci Contemporary stirred interest and sales with the glass gellage photography of Michal Macku, a Czech artist whose images are layered, glass pane by pane, into stunning sculptural images that suavely straddle the art forms.

In 2014, of course, the importance of global art has never been more pronounced, and Robert Klein's Boston gallery made a strong impression introducing Iranian photographer Gohar Doshti, whose ambiguous narratives result from staged photographs of groups of people gathered amidst desert scrubland. Doshti's digital pigment prints shared space with vintage Diane Arbus and Irving Penn prints, and also with the intense artificiality of Chris Jordan, whose "Starry Night" is a deceptive (from a distance) replication of Van Gogh's painting of the same name, produced by a digital blending of the images of 50,000 multi-colored cigarette lighters. "Some people are angry when they see it, but it makes people look closely," said a Klein staffer.

Out of Santa Monica, CA, the Peter Fetterman Gallery showcased the large-format, saturated illusory realism of New York's Stephen Wilkes, who sets up his camera from a high vantage in the world's great cities and captures, through a day-long sequence of as many as 1500 photos, the span of morning to evening, melding people and scenes from the many photos into a single conflation of time and space. Wilkes calls his work "street photography from an epic view," inspired by his childhood fascination with Brueghel's and Bosch's teeming images. But his golden views of Paris (the Seine with Notre Dame centered in the distance), London, or the great swarm of humanity in New York's Union Square, are aggregates that suggest countless stories of urban life. They are also eye candy of a high order, and Fetterman praised them for bringing "great energy, great sales" to his booth.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing before the giant chains of the ship "Leviathan" (courtesy of Charles Schwartz, Ltd.)
Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing before the giant chains of the ship "Leviathan" (courtesy of Charles Schwartz, Ltd.)

On a more classic front, New York's Charles Schwartz, Ltd., displayed what Schwartz noted is "the most important 19th century portrait," a print of the famous Howlett portrait of master ship builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing before the giant chains of the ship "Leviathan." Amidst the vintage samurai ambrotypes, an evocative Edward Weston portrait of son Brett, and a handsome self-portrait of the great photographer of Native American nobility, Edward Curtis, the venerable Schwartz took pride in the evergreen nature of his small-scale yet richly historical offerings. "It's been a strong show for us, and sales are average," he said, "but there's a lot of interest in these works."

The Lee Gallery of Winchester, Mass., showcased the early 20th-century city views of Karl Struss, a German-American master. Michael Lee called the Struss work "A 20-year period collection, and we're passionate about his work. He was a pioneering modernist, making modern compositions of New York years before more famous photographers." Lee added that he was "very happy with the pace" of this year's AIPAD show, as viewers and collectors surged through the Armory on Saturday afternoon. The sentiment was shared at the Weinstein Gallery from Minneapolis, where vintage works by Le Gray and Lartigue shared space with Annie Leibovitz's 1990 views of the Hudson River and her 2009 pigment print of a Wagnerian-looking Niagara Falls, along with strong modernist images by Vera Lutter and a classic Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith. Vera Lutter had particularly high visibility the week of the show, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally installed her massive Pepsi warehouse image in a permanent position in the institution.

As for broader insights about the state of market, Paul Hertzmann--whose San Francisco gallery showed strong examples of everything from Atget to Weston, with Lange, Steiglitz and Walker Evans in between--noted "very strong interest in vintage photos on the part of museum curators. Overall, people are more open to learning about these photos." Added the gallery's Amanda Doenitz: "Museums don't have big enough accession budgets for all they want to buy, and two or three years ago that was not the case." Hertzmann acknowledged there was "pent-up demand" for vintage photos as the economy strengthened, but that the availability of the best works by the in-demand likes of Man Ray was thinning.

Meanwhile, Chicago photography dealer Stephen Daiter, noted that he has been a part of AIPAD for 20 years, "and the show keeps looking better." All the same, he wanted to avoid the complacency of showing familiar art, even though he said that he had sold three vintage Harry Callahans (in the $20,000 to $50,000 range) and three Kertesz prints in the first hour of the show (the Kertesz bounty included a print of the famously sprawled "Satiric Dancer" with unusual touching-up of the arms and legs).

"I thought it was important to bring political photography," Daiter said. "So I'm especially proud to display the 1971 Robert Heineken image of a Cambodian soldier, and the black-and-white portraits of Dawoud Bey." The Heineken images, a sequence of varied prints of the soldier holding severed heads, is a striking mix of Warholesque printing and Vietnam-era anti-war spirit. Bey's portraits of two generations of American black women are astonishing studies in specificity and dignity.

As for the Lawrence Miller Gallery of New York, it was celebrating its 30th anniversary, and showcasing a strong sampling of Ray K. Metzker's 1965 black-and-white urban abstractions and 1992 photo-mosaics, asserting Metzker's under-appreciated mastery. Global themes were also on display with the epic Asian forest and city views of Dodo Jin Ming and Toshio Shibata. "Metzker is our best-kept secret," Miller said. "At every fair, people say, How come I've never heard of him? The quality of his work is standing the test of time." More generally, Miller opined that "the cloud is lifting off of the art world, there's a good vibe now, people are more open to start spending again. And as painting has become too expensive, that's good for photography."

By contrast, this marked the fifth year of exhibition for L. Parker Stephenson, whose New York gallery was displaying an impressive range of decades in photography. There were John Cohen's nostalgic candids of a young Bob Dylan dragging on a cigarette in 1962, along with shots of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie in their prime, and the 2010 political work of Raphael Dellaporta, who makes strong statements against war and the horrific manglings of land mines in his images of ripped-out spinal cords, human organs, the machinery of pacemakers and the like. Such difficult but powerful art drew attendees who were "more admiring than acquiring," said Stephenson, but she was encouraged by the interest of curators at the AIPAD opening.

As for the Barry Singer Gallery, from Petaluma, CA, Gretchen Singer acknowledged that "we're doing well, but not rocking out as much as last year at this time." Even so, the gallery had red sales stickers on some classic W. Eugene Smith Welsh miner prints, and some strong interest in an untitled Cindy Sherman and two John Gutmann nudes, along with a signed work by Ben Glahn that attracted some interest and confusion (people were wondering if it was Ben Shahn).

If anything, the primacy of vintage art was felt throughout the show, as crowds descended late on Saturday afternoon on such staples of the collecting world as the booth of Hans P. Kraus, Jr., whose New York gallery offered strong images by Atget, Negre (a bearded man), a calotype from 1842-3 by Fox Talbot (under a velvet cover to shield it from damaging light), and a superb Parisian image by Charles Marville from 1875, work from Julia Margaret Cameron, and wonderful pencil drawings, from camera lucida photographs of the English countryside, by Sir John Herschel. "The show was very positive," noted Kraus, who sold albumen prints by Atget for $155,000 and Marville for $30,000.

"It was a stunning exhibition of a wide range of photography, and the collectors were passionate, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable," said Kraige Block, of Throckmorton Fine Art, New York, who sold more than 20 works including a platinum print by Tina Modotti.

Robert Mann Gallery, of New York, reportedly sold 20 works by Jeff Brouws, Julie Blackmon, Maroesjka Lavigne, and others, while Henry Feldstein Forest Hills, NY, sold at least 20 prints by Weegee.

"The look of the show was consistently high level. We saw many local collectors who are precious clients as well as people from across the U.S. and Europe," said Richard Moore of Oakland, CA, who sold 33 photographs including images by Ansel Adams.

Lindsey Stewart of Bernard Quaritch, Ltd., London, said the show was "More elegant than ever and there was a good number and quality of visitors including experienced private collectors, and directors and senior curators from major U.S. institutions."

Chuck Isaacs of Charles Isaacs Photographs, Inc., New York, said he sold work by Le Gray, Marville, Atget, and Berenice Abbott. Galerie Johannes Faber, Vienna, sold a 1933 portrait of Meret Oppenheim by Man Ray for $45,000. Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, sold more than 20 prints by Vee Speers and work by Mona Kuhn as well as a number of others.

Hailed as a marked success, the VIP program drew rave reviews and offered private access to talks by leading curators and the homes of important collectors. Looking ahead to the future of photography collecting, AIPAD also had the wisdom to host its first-ever young collectors night on Friday, April 11.

As for the stars, notables from the worlds of art, entertainment, fashion, finance, and the media were on hand for the April 9 opening gala and throughout the show. They included Parker Posey, Daniel Boulud, Beth DeWoody, Elliott Erwitt, Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor, Jill Freedman, Alison Rossiter, Jeff Mermelstein, Mary Ellen Mark, K8 Hardy, Cig Harvey, Matthew Pillsbury, Neal Slavin, David Maisel--the list goes on, as does AIPAD, with another strong showing in the midst of uncertain geopolitical and economic winds that, it might be said, bode well for both the artistic vitality of the medium and for its viability as an investment.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.

He currently reviews books and exhibits for both the E-Photo Newsletter and U.S.A. Today.