Photo London review

The UK's new photo fair hit the ground running, and appears to have succeeded beyond expectations, says Redeye's Paul Herrmann

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Here's a puzzle - how do you improve on Paris Photo? Now officially grown up (2014 was the eighteenth edition), taking place in the Grand Palais ("a monument dedicated by the Republic to the glory of French art") of the unofficial European capital of photography, it attracts well over 50,000 visitors to 140 gallery stands, and a surrounding programme of similarly epic proportions.

Meanwhile a previous Photo London, you might remember, appeared a couple of times in the first decade of the 2000s. Then Reed Exhibitions, the owners of Paris Photo, bought it, and closed it. 

The new version of Photo London is different; produced by Candlestar (Prix Pictet) and supported by the Luma Foundation (Rencontres D'Arles). There's a packed events programme. It aims to be something of a campus as well as a print sales fair.

Somerset House, Photo London's new home, couldn't be more different to the Grand Palais. It's an elegant warren, easy to get lost. Roughly 75 of its rooms, some little bigger than a domestic living room, on 4 levels, were turned over to Photo London. Most of the 70 galleries had a room, and most, with the polished wood floors and elegant chandeliers, looked good - often photos were framed and hung in sympathy with the décor and fittings. Very different to Paris's bright, trade show feel. It's retail, with all the subtle nuances that well-paid psychologists have explored for decades. The Somerset House maze layout works both for and against it - several people told me they came away with the sense that they might have missed something, but the experience in each gallery was more pleasant than Paris. The work on sale was mixed, and relatively safe - but it's commercial photography aimed squarely at a buying market. Big names were much in evidence. I imagine we'll find out in due course whether sales targets were reached - but money did seem to be changing hands, and dealers seemed content. 

Down a floor there was the Discovery section - a nod to Amsterdam's excellent Unseen, alongside The Royal College of Art ("This disregard for a fixed essence is photography's strength" says course leader Olivier Richon by way of introduction). Another floor down, near the Deadhouse (what it says - a bricked-up cemetery and part-time nightclub) were publishers' stands, and some special exhibitions.

Here was (and still is, until 24 August 2015) the highlight exhibition of the whole fair - a specially commissioned new selection from the Victoria and Albert Museum called Beneath the Surface. The idea is clever and appealing - an underground exhibition that uncovers much unexhibited work from the V&A's collection, exploring the broad subject of photographs that reveal what we don't usually see, many of them set in London. "I like old, brown, small pictures" joked the senior curator Martin Barnes. We got those - William Strudwick photographed scenes of the Thames as you've never seen it in the 1860s; but also big, bright new ones - Susan Derges, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Stephen Gill, and much in between. 

Strudwick, who was a storekeeper at the V&A, worked by candlelight in a makeshift darkroom under some stairs in a warehouse. His photos capture medieval London before wholesale demolition, and were bought by the museum thanks to Henry Cole himself. But Strudwick died a pauper, and the photos were spread around various boxes in the V&A archive; only recently was the collection bought back together.

Some of the other pieces: Henry Irving (not that one) obsessively photographed London's trees in winter and summer and made a set that reminded us a little of Mitch Epstein's made a century later, coincidentally showing upstairs in the fair. Susan Derges laid out giant sheets of photographic paper under the surface of rivers at night, and exposed them to a single flash that recorded the shadow of the water's surface. A pair of these images were on show - pictures that are both immediately recognisable but impossible to see without the cleverness of photography and the photographer. Stephen Gill also plays around with the possibilities of analogue photography, maybe more than anyone. Photographing east London streets, he took some of the creatures and small bits of rubbish he found there and put them inside the camera so they make shadows on the image like supersharp floaters. Two layers in each image. In fact in this show, there's multiple layers in all the pictures. It's a wonderful exploration of the possibilities of photography derived from the ingenuity both of the photographer and of the V&A staff in bringing these works together.

Back to the fair; its smartly-programmed events strand, helped by the courtyard layout and sunny weather, created the campus atmosphere sought by Photo London. Short debates, none more than 90 minutes long, discussed taste, curating, collecting, policy. There were talks with Don McCullin, Rankin, Ori Gersht, Chloe Dewe Matthews and many more. Almost all of them were full, with as much expertise in the audience as onstage.

Just as impressive an achievement was to involve most of the major art institutions in the city. Main galleries and museums had exhibitions or events to coincide, ranging from salt prints at Tate Britain to the Deutsche Börse at The Photographer's Gallery. Sothebys had a sale. If you wanted scale, Tate Modern obliged by stuffing its Turbine Hall with Offprint London - a sprawling jamboree of small and self publishers of books on art, design, illustration, research and philosophy among the photography.

A bit about timing. Much that goes on in UK photography is unfortunately shaped by the academic year. The majority of the festivals aim to hit the four mid-semester months of the year (February and March, October and November). I say unfortunately because that's usually when there's bad weather. We've  got cold and wet at Brighton, Derby, Carlisle, Aberystwyth, The Photography Show and Photomonth London, and now Diffusion Cardiff has rescheduled to fit. A few - Look in Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin - buck the trend, but might pay the price in reduced student numbers. At Paris Photo in November I usually bump into groups of students, but didn't notice that at Photo London. But I did notice conviviality; chats and coffee in the sun around the fountains of the main courtyard. The place was busy - 20,000 visitors, the organisers say, but director Michael Benson adds "our aim was not to be the biggest, simply to be the best and with our first edition we have taken a huge stride in that direction."

An interesting comment came from historian and dealer James Hyman. Talking about his new site devoted to British Photography he said: "It’s an irony that the most active support for photography is all outside London." Perhaps this echoes our industrial past - production in the regions, consumption in London. I've written elsewhere about the particular vibrancy of Northern England photography; Val Williams and Paul Hill have explored the Midlands school, while the recently established Institute for Photography in Scotland links the Scottish infrastructure. The lack of a photographic focus in central London has been notable, and unusual among European capitals. But Photo London with its public programme seeks to start joining things up in the capital city - recognising that without a strong community there won't be sales. It's made a great start, and deserves to thrive.

Photo London has announced it will return 19 to 22 May 2016, with a preview on 18th May.

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Photo above, by Paul Herrmann, shows Martin Barnes of the V&A giving a tour of Beneath the Surface

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