Midday on Friday yet almost dark, it was pouring down in Paris. Behind the gloomy arches in the Place des Vosges, it was even darker inside the former residence of esteemed 19th Century French writer Victor Hugo.
Scattered amongst the permanently-displayed paintings and period furniture were forty sombre photographs of the Guernsey house where Hugo had lived in exile. Recent work by French photographer Klavdij Sluban, these dismal monochrome photographs are mysterious and menacing. Even where light streams in from the window, it still fails to make much impression on the blackness inside. These are images of ostracism and despair which shared the gloom with Rodin's bust of Hugo as a downcast, world-weary old man.
[img_assist|nid=19948|title=Klavdij SLUBAN Hauteville House, Maison Victor Hugo, Guernesey 2013 Image Courtesy the Artist|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=350]
[img_assist|nid=19951|title=Klavdij SLUBAN Hauteville House, Maison Victor Hugo, Guernesey 2013 Image Courtesy the Artist|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=347]
Suddenly, hope streams into the final pictures: we are on the ferry, looking back at the wash, Guernsey no longer visible, a place forgotten, consigned to the past.
[img_assist|nid=19952|title=Klavdij SLUBAN Hauteville House, Maison Victor Hugo, Guernesey 2013 Image Courtesy the Artist|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=346]
I sought to lighten the mood at Photo Fever, a more down-to-earth commercial fair than Paris Photo. It showcased almost as many galleries from around the world as its more grandiose counterpart, and put nearly as much interesting photography on display. It also seemed almost as busy, testament to the depth of the French people’s interest in photography.
Prices started a little lower than at Paris Photo at just a few hundred Euros, but there was also plenty of similar fare at similar prices, particularly recognised masters from the mid 20th Century, such Willy Ronis, Andre Kertész, and the ubiquitous Mario Giacomelli. Highlights in this category included a dark, grim 1963 John Bulmer photograph of a Victorian-looking Stoke-on-Trent, all smog and grime, for which the phrase ‘grim up north’ could have been coined. The darkness had soon returned.
Contemporary prices also tended to mirror those at Paris Photo. For example, Copenhagen gallery In The Gallery had a threatening photograph almost 5 feet wide by Carsten Ingemann, priced at €5,000 (but rising to €7,000k as the edition of 6 sells out) and a similarly-sized Jacob Gils multiple exposure €18,000.
[img_assist|nid=19977|title=Jacob Gils: Copenhagen #21. C-print. 180 x 120 cm. Edition of 3. 2013 Courtesy In The Gallery, Copenhagen|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=346|height=520]
Also as at Paris Photo, some well-established galleries were sufficiently confident in one of their artists to put on a solo show. My favourite was Caroline Smulders’ exhibition of Gerard Malanga’s celebrity portraiture from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Malanga was where it mattered, particularly at Warhol's factory, and much of his work is a cut above the usual.
[img_assist|nid=19954|title=© Gerard Malanga, courtesy Caroline Smulders Gallery|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=390|height=520]
[img_assist|nid=19955|title=© Gerard Malanga, courtesy Caroline Smulders Gallery|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=413|height=520]
Again mirroring Paris Photo, lots of the contemporary photographs were large, and a lot of them depicted women. One notable trend was for square-metre-plus-sized pictures which looked like famous paintings, typically priced at around €4,000: Swiss artist Régis Colombo’s collage of the Mona Lisa was composed of one-inch-square photographs of naked ladies; and Belgian Joel Moens de Hase's collage of Girl with the Pearl Earring comprised lots of tiny photographs of women’s midriffs. For me, however, the standout famous-painting-referencing pictures of women were Chinese photographer Zhang Wei's melancholic and well-executed Old Master reconstructions.
[img_assist|nid=19957|title=© 798 Photo Gallery Beijing|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=520]
Much of the more interesting work at Photo Fever was from the Far East, particularly Japan, which on the evidence here looks set to remain the rich photographic treasure-trove it has long been. Tokyo’s Ginza Gallery G2 showed Masayoshi Nakano’s painterly photographs of naked women and, more unusually, a naked man, but these are something special: Nakano is a make-up artist who uses body paint to create these truly remarkable prints, which are both vibrantly colourful and disquietingly dark.
[img_assist|nid=19975|title=Courtesy Ginza Gallery G2 Tokyo|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=390|height=520]
Tight and careful curation was a little less of a feature at Photo Fever than at Paris Photo. But Kana Kawanishi, who runs another Tokyo gallery, stood out from the crowd by showing just two intriguing photographers. Takashi Suzuki studied under Thomas Ruff, and it shows in his rigorous approach to these tiny pictures of dolly mixture-esque foam sculptures.
[img_assist|nid=19976|title=Courtesy the artist, Takashi Suzuki and Kana Kawanishi Gallery, Tokyo
photo by © May Rohrer |desc=|link=none|align=center|width=347|height=520]
Kawanishi seems to be a savvy curator, and her other artist provided a stark contrast to Suzuki. Naoko Tamura produces enthralling Polaroids, and her work speaks of loss and even death, especially her black square overlaid with a black-typewritten poem.
[img_assist|nid=19959|title=Courtesy the artist, Naoko Tamura and Kana Kawanishi Gallery, Tokyo
photo by © May Rohrer |desc=|link=none|align=center|width=347|height=520]
[img_assist|nid=19961|title=Courtesy the artist, Naoko Tamura and Kana Kawanishi Gallery, Tokyo
photo by © May Rohrer |desc=|link=none|align=center|width=345|height=520]
Does photography get any darker?
It almost did at Le Bal, a cool concrete exhibition space devoted to photography. The place was packed, and not only because of the bustling café, a popular and posh Parisian greasy spoon. Around two hundred French photophiles had turned out to see a ‘Q&A’ with Belgian photographer Dirk Braekman, whose work was the subject of a high-profile solo show here, part of Le Mois de la Photo biennial.
Even compared with what I’d seen in Paris so far, Braekman’s work is exceptionally dark. From enormous black tableaux faintly imprinted with medieval painting to small black prints of re-photographed soft-porn magazines, he uses often banal images as starting points for photographic exploration.
[img_assist|nid=19962|title=Le Bal (c) Martin Argyroglo|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=347]
[img_assist|nid=19970|title=Le Bal (c) Martin Argyroglo|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=347]
‘No titles, no places, no names. It's giving meaning to a moment, but evading the context,’ Braekman (might have) said to a questioner in French.
It's a bit like some terrible darkroom accident which has somehow turned out well. One wall with three large near-black panels reminded me of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, giving the work an unexpected spiritual dimension. Viewing the other often giant pictures, all sorts of questions popped into my mind. Does that represent semen? Is that the inside of a freezer, or is it a mountain? Who is this confident woman? Is that a building or a giant cheese grater? And so on.
[img_assist|nid=19973|title=Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=347|height=520]
[img_assist|nid=19974|title=Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=347|height=520]
Just in case I needed further proof that the French go nuts for photos, I found hundreds of people queueing to get into the Maison Européene de la Photographie, where there were several major exhibitions.
The most noteworthy was a surprising and imaginative display of mainly 19th and early 20th century photographs, most of which were very small and many of which were by amateur or anonymous photographers. Put together by photo-historian Michel Frizot, ‘Every Photograph is an Enigma’ was an ambitious and fascinating attempt to look at the nature of photographs and why they are so interesting.
[img_assist|nid=19964|title=Copyright Private Collection, Courtesy of the Maison Europeene de la Photographie|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=314|height=520]
This poetic, complex and beautiful show demonstrated time and time again that looking at photographs is a fascinating experience, but trying to discern their meaning is a game you just can't win.
[img_assist|nid=19965|title=Copyright Private Collection, Courtesy of the Maison Europeene de la Photographie|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=378|height=520]
[img_assist|nid=19966|title=Copyright Private Collection, Courtesy of the Maison Europeene de la Photographie|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=337]
The show contained many powerful and thought-provoking photographs, but one stood out from the rest: in Austria at the beginning of 1939, sixteen new-born babies, all swaddled in white, are arranged carefully on a white sheet in the shape of a Swastika. Hope, optimism, purity, and a symbol of peace becomes intolerance, carnage death and hate.
White becomes black. Photography does indeed get darker.
I again went looking to lighten the mood, this time at Offprint, a charmingly no-frills book fair in the very grand School of Fine Art building. I could have spent days there and not done it justice, with hundreds of publishers and many thousands of books.
Again daunted by the scale of the event, I absent-mindedly picked up a display copy of Lebanese artist Ziad Antar’s ‘Expired’, photographs he made using out-of-date film from an abandoned photographic studio in his homeland. The book fell open at a page which, in several respects, summarized my entire visit to Paris in one photograph.
[img_assist|nid=19967|title=Ziad Antar Unknown, courtesy Selma Feriani Gallery, London and Tunis|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=520|height=515]
An unintelligible, dark picture of Paris. A woman? Darth Vader? I put the book down and walked outside, into the night.
In those many thousands of books, how many photographs had there been in just one room? A million? Perhaps Robert Frank was right: maybe there are too many photographs now. But despite the darkness of those I saw in the City of Light, I still want to see more.
Simon Bowcock writes about photography for various magazines and media in Austria, France, America, the Middle East and the UK. His own photographs have appeared in titles ranging from The Guardian to The British Journal of Photography, and will soon be in Time Out.