Paris Photo 2019: Behind the Scenes with Curator Gregory Harris at the World’s Largest Photography Fair
The High Museum’s Gregory Harris takes us along for his Parisian tour of photographs (and pastries).
By Gregory Harris, Associate Curator of Photography, High Museum of Art
Early in November, some 70,000 photography lovers, artists, curators, collectors, dealers, and publishers from all over the world descended on the Grand Palais, a massive, glass-domed Art Nouveau–style exhibition hall on the Champs-Élysées, for Paris Photo, the largest art fair dedicated to photography.
For the High’s photography curators — Sarah Kennel, Keough Family Curator of Photography, and me — Paris Photo is an unparalleled opportunity to scout potential acquisitions for the High’s collection, discover new work by contemporary artists, connect with colleagues from other institutions, and share our expertise and opinions with High Museum patrons who also attend the fair.
Photography dealers fill their booths with rare prints from the nineteenth century, stunning examples by modern icons, and innovative work by contemporary practitioners.
Over the course of several days, we looked at hundreds of photographs, flipped through numerous photobooks, and engaged in countless conversations with fellow photo nerds. We ate a fair bit of French pastry and sipped some wine (or beer, in my case) along the way because even a curator can’t survive on pictures alone.
What follows are some highlights of the things we saw in Paris to give you a sense of what curators look for when we’re on the road.
*A note of apology: I took all of these pictures on my iPhone, so reflections of me and my hands will be making frequent appearances throughout this post. The photography professional in me wishes I could have better images.*
Before the fair kicked off, I ventured out to Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery where many famous artists — including Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Eugène Delacroix — are laid to rest.
One of the lesser-known artists buried there is Clarence John Laughlin, the New Orleans–born surrealist photographer. The High holds one of the largest collections of Laughlin’s work, and after curating the recent exhibition Strange Light (which closed on November 10), I felt compelled to visit Clarence. Laughlin aspired to be a writer (note that he lists photographer last among his occupations) was a great admirer of French Symbolist literature. Even though he never called Paris home, after his death he wanted to be surrounded by the artists who had inspired him and purchased a plot in the columbarium.
One of my all-time favorite photographers, the great nineteenth-century portraitist Nadar, is also buried in Père Lachaise, so I made sure to pay my respects to him as well.
Paris Photo kicks off with a preview the night before the public opening. I’m overly ambitious and try to see everything that is on display at the fair. My tactic is to walk up and own every aisle, briefly poking my head into each booth to get a sense for what is on view. I intend to then spend the next several days going back to the booths that most piqued my interest and take a closer look. I inevitably get sidetracked by something across the room that catches my eye, or I get lost in a conversation with an old friend and my plan goes out the window, so I instead end up wandering aimlessly taking everything in.
Our first stop is always to the booth of Galerie Lumière des Roses, a Paris gallery that specializes in unusual but intriguing photographs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as this cyanotype test strip by Eugene Dumoulin.
While many booths display prints by a number of different photographers, occasionally a gallery will dedicate its space to the work of one artist.
One of the standout booths was Casemore Kirkeby, which presented a selection of prints, collages, and objects from Jim Goldberg’s series Raised by Wolves.
For a decade in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Goldberg befriended a number of homeless teenagers in California and created a detailed record of their lives. Goldberg often collaborated with his subjects, asking them to write directly onto the surfaces of the photographs about how they felt about their portrayal or what memories the pictures elicited for them.
Raised by Wolves became a landmark project because it challenged the conventional power dynamics often present in documentary practice by foregrounding the agency of those depicted. The project had not been exhibited since 1994, so it was a rare opportunity to see this work in person. Later during the fair, Jim also gave a talk to a group of collectors from Atlanta as we showed them around.
One of the most exciting parts of Paris Photo is discovering new photographers based in other countries. Even though you can see just about anything on the Internet, nothing compares with seeing the work in person. South African photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa had several powerful photographs about life in the townships of Johannesburg on display. Keep an eye on Sobekwa as he’ll be coming to Atlanta in the Spring of 2020 for a residency at the High.
Chinese artist Ning Wang showed a beguiling piece that was created using slide film installed perpendicular to the wall and lit from above to project an image of a forest down onto the display surface. A “photograph of thought” by Mexican artist Armando Salas Portugal left me scratching my head, trying to figure out how he had used his mind to create this abstract image. Ayana V. Jackson, a Spelman College alum who now lives in South Africa, showed arresting work that critiques the portrayal of black women throughout the history of art.
Paris Photo never disappoints when it comes to the classics of photography. It’s always thrilling to see work by masters such as Charles Nègre and Charles Marville — some of the medium’s earliest practitioners, who recorded life in nineteenth-century Paris — or Eastern European artists Éva Besnyö, Germaine Krull, and György Kepes, who pushed the language of photography in completely new directions during the first decades of the twentieth century, and Doris Ulmann, who photographed life in the rural American South before the Great Depression.
As I said, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs on display during Paris Photo, so this is just scratching the surface of what you could see there.
Mark your calendars for the first week in November. Hope to see you in Paris next year!