Los Angeles, thriving though its schools, galleries and museums may be, isn’t a city known for art fairs. They’ve come and gone over the years, but between the institutional disorganization of the art world, the virtual absence of political support and the still relatively sluggish collector base, few have managed to take root for more than a couple of years at a time.

No one is working harder to beat these odds than Stephen Cohen, whose Photo L.A., now in its 15th year, has become the second-largest photo fair in the country. In those 15 years, Cohen has built up something of an art-fair empire, launching Photo Santa Fe in 1993 (it lasted seven years), Photo San Francisco in 1999 and Photo New York in 2004. Last year he moved beyond photography to produce Art L.A., filling the void left by the Gramercy Fair, which spent several seasons at Chateau Marmont in the 1990s, and Scope, which decamped in 2004 after only two years. What with Cohen’s two L.A. fairs, which take place over the next two weekends at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the Los Angeles Art Show at the Santa Monica Airport and the Los Angeles Fine Print Fair at LACMA West, each of which falls on that second weekend, it’s like our own little taste of Miami.

If smaller in scale than its equivalents in New York and Paris, Photo L.A. reflects a decidedly left-coast sensibility that makes it considerably more accessible to collector and amateur alike.

“I wanted to make it less precious than a lot of fairs were at the time,” Cohen says of the fair’s genesis. “The only other photo fair” — the Association of International Photography Art Dealers’ (AIPAD) photography show in New York, which started in 1980 — “was organized by a membership organization, and so it was limited to people who were in this group. I wasn’t in the organization, and there were a lot of other people who weren’t but who wanted to exhibit, who wanted to show their work, very good galleries and private dealers. So I wanted to incorporate a mixture of people who were in the dealer clique and people who weren’t.”

The mix remains diverse, and notably non–New York–centric. About a third of this year’s exhibitors come from California, 13 of those — including Ace, Michael Dawson, Peter Fetterman, Jan Kesner, Paul Kopeikin and Rose Gallery — from in and around L.A. Thirteen galleries are from New York, and most of the rest are spread evenly across the U.S., with a handful of international galleries (from London, Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa) thrown in as well. The offerings will include both vintage and contemporary works, fine art and vernacular.

This diversity comes across, also, in the fair’s international roster of speakers, which includes two revered masters, Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe and French photographer Lucien Clergue, Martin Parr from Great Britain, and American photographers Jeff Brouws and David Hilliard. Philippe Garner, international head of Christie’s Photographs, will speak on collecting, and Boston-based conservator Paul Messier on photo conservation.

There’s no doubt that the success of the fair, which began with 18 exhibitors and topped out last year at 80 (it’s down to 70 this year due to a redesign in the floor plan and an expansion in the size of the available booths), has much to do with the explosion of the photo market generally over the last decade or so. And occurring as it does several weeks prior to the AIPAD show in New York, it’s uniquely situated to offer surprises and set standards.

“The more serious collectors are coming out here because they realize that here is a chance maybe to get the jump on something,” Cohen says. “I remember last year, Art and Auction had this highlight of what was going to be in AIPAD in February — it was Howard Greenberg Gallery — and [the magazine] talked about these two Edward Weston prints that he had. The only thing is, he brought them to Photo L.A. first and sold them here, so that was a nice little coup.”

For those of us not in the market for $200,000 Weston prints, there is still much to be said for the thrill of getting close to them, and countless others like them, in a way that’s rarely possible outside the backrooms of museums and galleries. But with 70 galleries’ worth of work under one roof, best take Cohen’s advice: “Wear comfortable shoes.”

PHOTO L.A. 2006 | Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica | Fri.-Sun., Jan. 20-22, noon-7 p.m. (6 p.m. Sunday) | One-day pass $20, lectures/seminars extra | Opening benefit reception Thurs., Jan. 19, 6-9 p.m., at LACMA, $50 | Information: (323) 937-4659 or www.artfairsinc.com

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly