Ever since I moved to the British capital I have been visiting Photo London at Somerset House and, despite all the criticism the fair may receive, I have always managed to find interesting hidden gems. Not for nothing is it the fair I have visited the most over the years. For those of you who have never been, Somerset House is a gallery complex in the centre of London, consisting of a large central square and a U-shaped building. During the fair, galleries are distributed throughout the ground floors of the building and in the centre of the square is the Main Section. The first floor is dedicated to photographic institutions and organisations, while the basements house the discovery section and special exhibitions.
Despite the complexity of some of the spaces, the galleries always manage to make the most of them, presenting mid-career and established photographers from different backgrounds and countries. This year in particular there was an interesting presence from countries I hadn’t had under my radar and it was gratifying to get to know their programmes.
Photo London made me ask myself many questions about the photography market that I may compile in a future article. But for this one, let me share with you some of my favourite selections from this edition.
I have been following John Yuyi’s practice for the past few years, but for some reason I have never taken the time to sit down and properly reflect on her work. Yuyi’s images are widely known, as she often works for fashion brands such as Kenzo, Chanel or Gucci. Luckily, 193 Gallery brought some interesting works that allowed me to rediscover her and pay attention to her message again. Fully immersed in contemporary culture, fashion and social media, John Yuyi uses the body as a medium to criticise society’s online presence.
Pay 3 was the work that caught my attention the most. It is a great example of one of the concepts that strikes me most about Yuyi’s art: the economy of identity. This idea opens up many lines of debate and John Yuyi uses it in her practice to show how social media and mass culture affect the perception of the human body and its own integrity. She uses her body and the temporary tattooing as her own artistic medium, exposing the effects of technology and social media.
Japanese photographers have a very particular way of capturing intimacy. When we think of the works of some of the photographers who work on this theme, sensitive, sincere and raw images come to mind. Perhaps one of the best known representatives of this genre is Nobuyoshi Araki, with his extremely raw and explicit images. What people may not know is that Araki had for a long time an assistant who accompanied him during his shoots and learned a formula that he will reinterpret lately.
Sakiko Nomura’s work (albeit a little late) is a great discovery for me this year, no doubt. It is never too late. The images exhibited at the Galerie Echo 119 stand reminded me directly of the series Araki took of his wife Yoko. Comparisons are inevitable, but there is one important difference I notice between them and that is the way Nomura approaches his models and nudity. While Araki’s images present the subjects practically as objects, Nomura’s are not so straight forward. She shows nudity and sex from an intimate point of view and definitely in a more gentle way.
Before any fair begins, I take the time to review the participating galleries and the artists who will be presenting. The first gallery that caught my eye in this edition was Gaotai Gallery. They are based in Xinjiang, China, and represent an interesting selection of Chinese and international photographers who are well worth a look. It was the first time I had heard of them. Gaotai was one of the galleries located at the beginning of the Discovery section and was exhibiting a solo booth by Chinese artist Hailun Ma.
Without a doubt, Hailun Ma’s work is one of the discoveries of the year. Her career is notably inspired by fashion and the time she spent as a student in New York. It was this experience in the big city that encouraged her to rediscover her hometown, Xinjiang, through contemporary visual culture. Although Ma has a very personal language when it comes to portraiture, I wanted to highlight her exceptional ability to compose conventional scenes and how these are presented in a very innovative way towards her ethnic community.
From my point of view, documentary or street photography is more than just capturing beautiful, well-composed scenes. What really excites me about this genre is the ability to create connections and tell stories. In this sense, the role of the photographer is to be able to bring the viewer into the place being documented, to accompany them through its streets, its warmth and its smells. And this is something that Sam Wright has captured to perfection in his latest series.
Like a painting, Wright’s images have a light that outlines the intensity of the colours and the shapes of the bodies. One feels the warmth of Naples directly. The images show a kind of stillness in the midst of one of Italy’s most active cities. Viewed in their entirety, Sam Wright’s photographs are textural and convey a unique atmosphere that connects the viewer directly to the coastal city.
Entering the dedicated space of the OstLicht Gallery was truly inspiring. Visually, there was a clear connection between the three artists on display. Formally, the images worked very well with each other. The room’s neoclassical architecture accentuated the links between the works on display. In conjunction with Francesca Catastini’s images, OstLicht presented a series of works by Viennese shareholders. Undoubtedly a risky commercial decision, but a necessary one for those of us who are interested in linking artists from different generations and backgrounds.
The presentation was a visual and generational dialogue. Viennese Actionism was a radical artistic movement highly critical of the relationship between art and society, and the members of the group challenged the conventional values of the time through photography and performance. Seeing the works of Rudolf Schwarzkopler and Gunter Brus coexist in the same space as Catastini’s contemporary works opens the door to new possibilities. Undoubtedly, the decision to have Catastini’s works in conversation with those of Brus and Schwarzkogler, besides being brave, activates a process of multiple readings around the human body and builds bridges on how we perceive images.
Fairs are places for purely economic commerce, but when art is involved this changes. Photography fairs are still quite conservative when it comes to curating their booths and most tend to opt for a more traditional way of presenting their artists’ work. In a very small, carpeted room, TJ Boulting presented a carefully curated series by Maisie Cousins. Walking Back to Happiness invites the viewer to come closer, to enter Cousins’ world and discover her obsession with childhood memories.
There is something about Cousins’ images that draws the viewer in. The colours are vivid and bright, but the subjects are haunting. When Cousins was a child, she visited Blobbyland with her grandfather. Unfortunately, all those videos were accidentally destroyed and she decided to start using AI to try to recover the memories she still had of her favourite amusement park. Combining AI imagery with a spatial installation and sound, Cousins’ aim is to relive those memories of a British childhood in the 1970s. His work expands the contemporary notion of photography and shows the opportunities that AI can open up for exploration.