The Great Divide

Photography's Two Different Worlds

On the weekend of February 15, 82 members of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) filled two floors of the Hilton with photos both old and new. A week later, the 173 galleries invited to participate in this year's Armory Show, which bills itself as "the International Fair of New Art," filled two piers on the Hudson River with contemporary art, at least half of which was photography. One dealer joked that the Armory Show, like so many other international art fairs of late, had effectively turned a tired question on its head: "Is photography art?" has become "Is art photography?"

Since the answer to the latter is yes more often than not, one can't help but wonder why hardly any of that new photography shows up at AIPAD's annual exposition. Although not all of the association's 130 members participate in the show (and several key ones were absent this year), many of those who do exhibit make a point of bringing work from current or upcoming shows, so contemporary photographers have a definite presence at the Hilton. Which makes it all the more puzzling when barely a handful of them—Richard Misrach, Bill Jacobson, Malick Sidibé, Dieter Appelt, and perhaps one to two others—show up on the piers. With AIPAD and the Armory back-to-back again this year, photography's great divide has never been so obvious. At a time when the medium has reached a level of visibility, popularity, and market penetration inconceivable only a generation ago, it also appears to have split into two unequal parts.

Unfortunately, the photo dealers at AIPAD represent the smaller of those parts, both in number and in influence. Though they've seen prices rise beyond their wildest dreams in the past decade, their share of the contemporary market has eroded dramatically. There are crucial exceptions (Misrach and Sally Mann among them), but virtually every photographer in the medium's blue-chip avant-garde—including Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Thomas Ruff, Jeff Wall, Vik Muniz, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Thomas Demand—is in the stable of an art gallery. Perhaps to put this new work in historical perspective, a number of those galleries have begun to dabble in vintage photos as well. Andrea Rosen showed Walker Evans's late-career Polaroids; Matthew Marks hung Weegee's savage distortions and Robert Adams's black-and-white views of the strip-malled New West. These incursions into the photo dealers' traditional domain might be seen as an even more dangerous sort of erosion, but anyone who cares about photography values the wider recognition and intelligent recontextualization adventurous galleries provide.

Size matters: Sean Kelly's Armory Show booth with photos by James Casebere at left and Seydou Keïta through the doorway
photo: Robin Holland
Size matters: Sean Kelly's Armory Show booth with photos by James Casebere at left and Seydou Keïta through the doorway

Still, all this up-market activity leaves the pioneers in the photo field feeling even more ghettoized. "In the beginning," one AIPAD dealer explains, "there really was a need for photography to assert itself as a medium, and for us to establish photography qua photography. But now virtually all the photographers we work with are influenced by the world of art." That influence is hardly one-sided, but many of the artists who pick up a camera these days are reluctant to call themselves photographers or to show in photo galleries. So while huge, unframed color photos fill the booths and loom from the corridors of the Armory Show, the dealers at AIPAD tend to play to their strength, and most of them showed vintage work: solid, compact, often extraordinary pictures by acknowledged 19th- and 20th-century masters like Julia Margaret Cameron, Gustave Le Gray, Man Ray, Robert Frank, Josef Sudek, and Diane Arbus. The number of booths at the Hilton was reduced and the floor plan reconfigured this year to allow more wall space for oversize contemporary work, but much of it was overshadowed, with good reason, by images from the medium's history.

The price tags on many of those images made it clear that the vintage photo market is as healthy (or at least as ambitious) as the contemporary one. (And if the throngs in attendance at both the fairs—as well as at the Art Dealers Association of America's smaller, more traditional Art Show that took over the Seventh Regiment Armory the same weekend the Armory Show was in town—were any indication, the economy is ready to stroke those ambitions again.) Still, it's hard to counter the impression that even the most progressive photo dealers are being left in the sepia-toned dust. One European member of AIPAD, who had recently opened another gallery specifically dedicated to contemporary work, said he felt there was not enough material at the show that "pushes the medium forward rather than looking back."

Julie Saul—the only AIPAD member who has shown with the Armory Show organizers since they began in the rooms of the Gramercy Park Hotel, and (with Yossi Milo and Scalo) one of only three photo galleries at the fair—chose to skip AIPAD's expo this year. Her decision was partly practical: "It's exhausting for the staff to be working through the weekend two weekends in a row," she says, having done just that in 2001. But forced to make a choice, she went with the Armory primarily because she felt her pictures were more at home there. "I specialize in contemporary photo-based art," she says, "and the Armory is simply a more interesting environment to be seen in. I've always envisioned the work that I show being judged by the same standards as other contemporary art. To be able to show Bill Jacobson in an environment where Gerhard Richter is just a few yards away is great. Besides, at the Armory, photographs are seen as art objects, not just things that you flip through in a bin." Although Saul emphasizes her loyalty to the "family" at AIPAD—"I'm an art gallery, but I really have a foot firmly planted in both camps"—that loyalty has clearly been strained by the attractions of the Armory Show, where she's seen not just as a photo dealer but as a player in a larger and more forward-looking arena.

There's no question that the proliferation of photography at the Armory Show made that the place to be for passionate photo mavens as well. AIPAD still holds some surprises (often in the astonishing range of prices for vintage work), but this year, at least, only a few of the booths showed genuinely promising new artists. I was excited to see fresh work by Sally Mann, whose photos of her husband's bare arm summed up her synthesis of historic and modern approaches at Edwynn Houk, and Joan Fontcuberta's latest sly foray into photo parody—a wall of vivacious fake Picassos and Mirós at Zabriskie. And the startlingly muscular, black-and-white abstractions of Charles Lindsay, made by abrading the negative itself, looked great at William Floyd's booth.

But those highlights pale next to the many photographic diversions and discoveries at the Armory Show, where I filled page after notebook page with scribbled notes and names to investigate further. New work by James Welling, Esko Männikkö, Bill Henson, Vik Muniz, Dawoud Bey, Malerie Marder, Mariko Mori, Gary Schneider, and Robert Beck (the last with a knockout installation at CRG of 13 newsprint blowup portraits of teen-boy killers) set the quality level satisfyingly high. But a surprising number of newcomers met it. Among them: Sarah Dobai (at Entwistle), with large-scale color images that suggest a mindmeld of Nan Goldin and Sam Taylor-Wood; Noritoshi Hirakawa (Art & Public), whose panoramic slice-of-life images flirted with Playboy-style hedonism; Dirk Braeckman (Zeno X), who investigates darkness and anonymity with cold-eyed flair; and Vinca Petersen (Galeria Marta Cervera), who manages to make the footloose counterculture (in her case, rave-club nomads) look both inviting and alarming. Petersen's picture of a beatific boy sleeping in a green field with an orange frisbee as his pillow was one of the many photos I wanted to walk away with at the Armory.

There were plenty of photographs I coveted at AIPAD's fair, too, but nearly all of them were vintage. That in itself is not a problem; it isn't necessary to choose between the present and the past. But when history—no matter how vital—dims both the present and the future, maybe it's time to see things in a new light.

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