The eighth edition of Photo London, the UK's largest photography fair, returns to Somerset House (until 14 May). And—once again—it comes with a new director. Now this title is held by Kamiar Maleki, the former director of Contemporary Istanbul and Volta fairs, the latter of which has editions in Basel and New York. In his introductory address at yesterday's preview, he promised big things. His focus, he said, is on “bringing back the quality to the fair”. This involves “respecting the tradition” of photography while “embracing the new”—so does this year indeed offer fresh frontiers, or more of the same?
“After three very difficult years,” according to its founder, Michael Benson, the fair will show the offerings of 125 galleries from 56 cities, with an increasing focus on China and East Asia after Benson and his co-founder, Fariba Farshad, sold a 25% stake to Creo Arts, which runs Shanghai Photofairs. Benson considers Maleki's appointment to be something of a coup, describing him as a "brilliant" addition.
Maleki’s comments spoke of the tension at the heart of Photo London. With its Discovery section, the fair has often attempted to position itself as the place for acquiring the bleeding edge of contemporary photography—especially following the 2020 demise of Unseen, the photography fair in Amsterdam. This helps set it apart from Paris Photo, the world's leading photography fair, which reigns supreme for 19th-century and vintage material, and the New York gallery scene that has traditionally held a solid monopoly when it comes to classic moderns from the 20th century.
So does it live up to this promise?
Since Photo London's return in 2015, it has at times felt too well-grooved. The same work on the walls, the same dealers pouring the champagne, the same characters shuffling through. At first impression, the 2023 iteration of the fair is suffering from the same fate. The walls in the main section of the fair offer countless Peter Lindbergh-esque studies of the female form; arched backs, angular limbs and hard stares. Dealers still refer to the ‘Moss Index’—the number of photos of Kate Moss that have sold. Countless pictures of leopards or elephants or murmurations of birds are hung close by. Atlas Gallery in London is selling oversized Nick Brandt prints, including, queasily, a heavily romanticised picture of a Bolivian child posing alongside a monkey, for £4,920.
For all the steps taken by museums, fashion houses and agencies to embrace ideas of diversity, inclusion and representation, fairs like Photo London can serve as a reminder that the Lindbergh and Brandt era of photography—which to many in the business now feels very passé—is still alive and well in the market. This stuff sells.
But, further in, the fair begins to reveal itself. In the Discovery section, one quickly comes across Gaotai Gallery, the first contemporary art gallery located in Xinjiang, China. The booth is dedicated to the work of the Chinese photographer Hailun Ma, whose work includes intimate portraits of Uyghurs Chinese, created over the last five years. In the UK, it is easy to underestimate the risks a photographer takes in making work like this in China; it is here, in places like Photo London, that the work can be exhibited without risk of censorship or worse.
Fiumano Clase, the London gallery, serves to demonstrate how photography is an early adopter of artificial intelligence. On show is a series of intriguing works by the emerging British artist Sam Burford, including a cameraless, AI-created portrait of the classic Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman; a ghost in the machine. Burford, a PhD student at the Chelsea School of Art, has also created Abstract Expressionist works by photographing, with a long exposure, entire feature films; Clockwork Orange, The Empire Strikes Back, Mulholland Drive. These intertextual, culture-refracting works seem like a good investment, starting at £12,000.
In the Nikon booth, visitors can see the works of the London photographer Max Miechowski, the winner of Photo London’s emerging photographer award in 2022. After years of quiet progress, Miechowski’s technical prowess as a landscape photographer is really starting to show. Miechowski perhaps needs to develop more of a sense of conceptual and thematic rigour, but the individual images on show here demonstrate what a skilled image-maker he is. If you’re interested in sheer beauty, Miechowski is a safe bet.
For the first time, The Ian Parry Photojournalism Grant has taken a booth at Photo London. The charity was created out of the memory of Ian Parry, the much-loved photojournalist who was killed 32 years ago while covering the conflict surrounding the Romanian Revolution. The grant is overseen by Tristan Lund, a former curator of the Discovery section, who has managed to raise £250,000 in philanthropic funds over the last two years, and has thus re-established the grant as one of the most significant awards a young photojournalist can win. On sale are small works by previous winners of the grant, which includes Jonas Bendiksen, Simon Roberts, Rasha Al Jundi and Matt Eich. Works are available for as little as £50, with all funds supporting the resurgent charity.
Upstairs, the Los Angeles gallery Fabrik Projects has dedicated their booth to the work of the Californian artist Jessie Chaney. It stood out. Chaney works in the legacy of the New Topographics—photographers like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore. But Chaney’s images have a richness not always apparent in Shore and Baltz’s colder works. Chaney focuses on abandoned spaces that still retain a sense of presence; they’re ambient, potent works, inviting you to step into them.
Towards the upper end of the market, Michael Hoppen Gallery is showing, salon style, a stunning assortment of Japanese photography from the Provoke era. Original prints from Tetsuya Ichimura, Kikuji Kawada and Nobuyoshi Araki never fail to fascinate. Although an original print from Masahisa Fukase’s series From The Solitude of Ravens (1986) is perhaps the best prize here, for £28,000.
Downstairs, in the larger of Somerset House’s two Embankment Galleries, one can find a partial retrospective of the work of Martin Parr, the anointed Master of Photography for 2023. Few could claim Parr does not deserve such an accolade—Benson described him as “the Godfather of photography” when introducing the show. He has photographed the British isles for more than 50 years, creating what he calls an “inventory of the nation”.
Parr has also done a lot for raising the profile of other documentary photographers capturing Britain during the same period. Prints by documentary photographers like Ken Grant, Chris Killip, Tony Ray-Jones and Markéta Luskacová are available from numerous different galleries across the fair, their market established, in part because of the work Parr did to raise their profile after years of relative obscurity.
Standing opposite Parr’s work is Writing Her Own Script, a show focused on overlooked British female photographers. The work is taken from the gallerist and collector James Hyman, who successfully opened the Centre for British Photography in Jermyn Street, London, in the summer of 2022. The show looks at female photographers active from the 1930s to the present day, and focuses on two strands: how a female gaze overlaps with the larger traditition of humanistic documentary tradition, and how female photographers have explored personal issues through more performative practices.
The documentary element of the show is strong. Shirley Baker, the Manchester housewife who must surely be remembered one of the best photographers the UK has ever created, is rightly given pride of place. But the works of other great street photographers like Edith Tudor-Hart, Grace Robertson, Dorothy Bohm are also skilfully situated in dialogue with each other. Works by each photographer are for sale if you seek them out around the fair. Each would make a worthy investment; they will not be overlooked again.
But the show is less sure-footed when it moves towards the present day. Of course, a platforming of contemporary female photography is welcome, but why are some chosen and not others?
Maisie Cousins, Heather Agyepong and Juno Calypso are given plenty of space here, and each is deserving of inclusion. But how about Adama Jalloh, Ronan McKenzie, Nadine Ijewere or Gabby Laurent? Each has created consistently over the best part of a decade; Ijewere, for example, was the first Black British photographer to shoot a British Vogue cover. Each has a body of work that fits perfectly into the purview of this exhibition. And yet they are not here.
As ever, art seems defined by its gatekeepers. So often in a fair such as this, those excluded are as commercially significant as those included.