Paris Photo 2019: Politics and fashion by other means
Carl von Clausewitz, who knew a thing or two about struggle, was famed for his adage that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This week at Paris Photo, and in multiple photo exhibitions throughout the French capital, photography is rather frequently the continuation of politics by other means.
From computer generated vistas of Donald Trump or unrelenting Gulf War imagery; to LGBT activist shows; novel visions of China’s Generation Z and reconsiderations of what constitutes beauty in fashion today, this season’s photography highlights seemed more politically driven than in many years prior.
Inside the massive Grand Palais, scores of major league photography galleries jostled for attention: as collectors, dealers and photographers milled about the space at Tuesday’s opening night. Hundreds of photography fans stopping to shoot on their iPhones a truly remarkable video portrait of Donald Trump morphing back and forth into Vladimir Putin by Nancy Burson, a pioneer of computer-generated portraiture.
A decade before Photoshop was invented Burson had combined faces via computers at the dawn of the digital age. Back in 1976, she had already created a software that could age the human face. Her skills are used to help police track down missing children and her Human Race Machine is an educational tool used to show viewers what faces would look like transformed into those of another race.
Burson’s Trump-Putin video, where the American slowly becomes the Russian over 15 seconds, is of course a powerful reminder of the bizarre irony that the current US president, traditionally the leader of the free world, evidently feels more at home in the company of an authoritarian gangster ruler than with democratically elected heads of state.
The bitter fall-out from American power was also on display in a massive C-Print diptych by Eric Baudelaire, called The Dreadful Details 4/5, which captures a platoon of GIs in a tense interrogation of locals in what appears to be a bombed-out Iraqi housing complex. A Salt Lake City-based artist, Baudelaire spent his adolescence in France – later going from being a social scientist to photographer when he visited the breakaway state of Abkhazia in 2000. While his most recent film, Jihadi, retraces the path of a young Frenchman who flew to Egypt and ended up joining the extremist Al-Nusra Front in Syria. An amalgam of work, that employs photography to better comprehend contemporary politics.
The politics of sexuality was the theme in a brilliant exhibition of black and white photos by Joel-Peter Witkin called Icones. Where handsome muscular guys and female beauties morph into sleek centaurs; fantasy freaks; tortured artists; and bizarre death masks. Think sexy Arcimboldo meets naughty Helmut Newton.
Throughout the salon, which included over 200 galleries, it seemed every second space had large scale works by noted fashion photographers, recent and modern: such as Horst P. Horst; Albert Watson; Mario Testino; Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon, even if the latter’s finest work were his classically deft portraits of several astronauts.
Contemporary photographers were best represented by Juergen Teller, whose witty yet gritty series I Love Paris covered one large wall, including ad campaigns shot in the French capital and iconic figures such as Marion Cottillard, Carla Bruni Tedeschi, François Pinault, Bernard Arnault, Yves Saint Laurent, Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve and Olivier Zahm, dressed only in golden knickers.
Elsewhere, contemporary ethnographic photography was much in evidence, perhaps most memorably in a series called The Mossis Cavaliers shot in Ouagadougou by Philippe Bordas, of proud horsemen posed on their mounts in the capital of Burkina Faso – an ancient tradition boldly facing an uncertain future.
Outside of the Grand Palais, the theme was more youth-orientated. Notably at the new space Maison Dentsu, a concept apartment on rue de Rivoli, courtesy of the giant Japanese advertising and marketing company. The show this week featuring a bold series of intimate and loving portraits of Chinese youth entitled Girls, shot by Luo Yang.
“It’s my vision of Chinese youth today, captured gently. More like a documentary which shows how China and especially this generation is changing rapidly,” commented Luo Yang.
Further east, in a pop-up gallery at 84 rue Amelot in the 11th arrondissement controlled by the nearby boutique Merci, a gang of hipster Parisians gathered for the exhibition '+50,' a half-dozen artists mediating on the concepts of migration and frontiers, sexual and physical.
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, an extremely important moment of people standing and fighting for gay rights. So at a moment when people like Trump and Bolsonaro are doing exactly the opposite and threatening the LGBT community I felt this exhibition was needed,” explained curator Mehdi Dakli.
Featuring work by Soufiane Ababri, Andrej Dubravsky, Cleo Kinnaman, Carlos Motta, Vittorio Santoro and Raphaël Chatelain. Most telling was the work of Chatelain, who followed young immigrants across the river frontier of Guatemala and Mexico through to refuges close to the US border; capturing moments of peace when young men in extremely difficult circumstances were dreaming of a better life.
Partial proceeds from the exhibit and sale of T-shirts will go towards the Rainbow Railroad nonprofit, helping LGBT+ people escape violence and persecution to find a pathway to safety.
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