Mickalene Thomas’ huge poster, which stretches across the façade of the Grand Palais for the twenty-second edition of Paris Photo, sets the tone: the organisers aim to present plurality in terms of genders and cultures.
Paris Photo 2018 official poster. Image: Mickalene Thomas, Calder Series #2, 2013, colour photograph. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy Mickalene Thomas & galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris, Bruxelles.
In this image from the Calder series (2013), a black woman is staged in a decor saturated with colourful themes referring to the work of the eponymous sculptor, famous for his mobiles. In it, the African American artist (born in 1971) proposes an eminently political commentary on the invisibility of racialised bodies within a traditionally exclusive history of art, in terms of representations and artists or other stakeholders from the art world. It would be a fine communications exercise, if not for the fact that, ironically, the fair’s large white logo masks part of the model’s silhouette, with only the face and members emerging.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Circe (Kate Keown), 1865, print on albumen paper, Courtesy Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc., New York
Beyond the visual identity thus established, Florence Bourgeois and Christophe Wiesner, the organisers of the event, uphold their engagements regarding content. In association with the Ministry of Culture within the framework of the working group on parity, this year they have dedicated the programme to women photographers. Entitled Elles x Paris Photo, it was devised by curator Fannie Escoulen, a graduate of the École nationale supérieure de la photographie d’Arles and former co-director of Le Bal. The circuit brings 100 artworks into the spotlight whose shared trait is that they were all made by women. Presented as discoveries or rediscoveries, they have been chosen from among works exhibited by 168 galleries and 31 publishers. They are identified by a coloured label attributed to the booths in question.
Foto Ada (Elemérné Marsovsky/Ada Ackermann), Sans titre, late 1930s-early 1940s, one-off collage, collage unique, Courtesy Robert Koch Gallery
Once again, we must applaud the desire for diversity that arises from this selection. As F. Escoulen suggests, there are key periods that enjoy strong representation: the avant-gardes of the 1930s, with Lucia Moholy or Anna Barna, and the feminism of the 1970s, with Ulrike Rosenbach or Renate Bertlmann. Overall however, the works vary owing to their aesthetic, historical, and geographical roots. For the nineteenth century, we find the well-known figure of Julia Margaret Cameron, whose delicate portraits remain a pleasure for the eyes. The field of historical photo-collage is wonderfully embodied by Foto Ada (Elemérné Marsovsky/Ada Ackermann) whose very beautiful dive sold immediately at the opening. For performance photography, we can cite Annegret Soltau and Jolanta Marcolla whose works – still little known – deserve to feature in the circuit. Abstraction is notably illustrated in Ellen Carey’s recent works: monumental Polaroids with a minimalist aesthetic.
Hilla Kurki, Woven, 2017, tirage pigmentaire, pigmented print, edition of five and artist’s proofs, © Hilla Kurki, Courtesy Gallery Taik Persons, Berlin
This initiative was complemented with a day of conferences, or conversations, to use the term referring to the programme traditionally organised during the fair on the upper floor of the Grand Palais. On Thursday, 8 November, F. Escoulen brought together various people from the world of photography, academics, museum and publishing sector professionals, artists and theorists, to debate the question: “Women, the exception: under-representation of the gender in photography?” Unfortunately, while the variety of perspectives contributed to enriching the conversation, it also gave rise to presentations of very mixed quality, which occasionally flirted with self-promotion. Finally, it might have been a good idea to give the artists more time, for their talks were among the most stimulating.
Léa Belooussovitch, Facepalm, Edna Roma, 2017, print on duchess satin, steel, acier © Léa Belooussovitch, Courtesy Léa Belooussovitch & galerie Paris-Beijing, Paris
On this point, it is important to note the attention paid to a young generation of international artists, both in talks and within the programme. There is not enough space here to list all of the promising works spotted by F. Escoulen. Besides those of Iranian Tahmineh Monzavi and French photographer Fatima Mazmouz of Moroccan origins, who were given pride of place throughout the day, we could also cite the Finnish Hilla Kurki and the Brussels-based French artist Léa Belooussovitch. In Woven (2017), presented by the Berlin gallery Taik Persons, H. Kurki deals with the subject of grief through the experience of the loss of her sister, dressing in her clothing and reviving her memory. In Facepalm, Edna Roma (2017), presented by Paris-Beijing, L. Belooussovitch explores the sensitive history of a simple gesture, that of a woman’s hand shamefully hiding a guilty face – unless this gesture expresses embarrassment or strain?
While there is no doubt that we must congratulate ourselves on the work accomplished for Elles x Paris Photo, the struggle for full recognition for all talented photographers without discrimination based on gender is far from over. Note that, including this programme, only 190 women feature among the 887 photographs exhibited, which brings their proportion to around only 20%. Some of the booths, like those of Sage Paris, Daniel Blau, or the otherwise well thought-out Art+Text Budapest, present no photographs by women. Meanwhile, a Guerrilla Girls’ tract designed for collectors adorns the back cover of the little Elles x Paris Photo booklet, posing the question of collective responsibility. At a time when photography has become a speculative consumer product, it is essential to combat its standardisation. Yet, beyond individual initiatives, only a profound consideration of value systems – with the art market at the top of the list – will allow a new kind of diversity to take hold.