Twenty-seven years alive and still kicking, Photo L.A. remains the preeminent show for the photographic arts in Los Angeles. Having moved from its 2018 home, the L.A. Mart downtown, to Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar this year, the vaulted industrial trusses of the old barn loomed large, playing an ever-present role in the festivities below. This year’s event featured international galleries and dealers, individual artists, collectives, leading nonprofits, museums, art schools and global booksellers. (If you were in the market for a rare coffee-table book to brag about, this was the place to find it.)
As is de rigueur with this kind of event, the art voyeurs were in great company among such luminaries as Weston Naef, longtime curator of the photography department at the Getty; art critic Edward Goldman, whose unmistakable accent and audacious tastes have graced the KCRW airwaves since 1988; and Ryan Linkoff, curator of film at Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Also present was the fiery 96-year-old Tony Vaccaro, who as a 21-year-old PFC documented the bitter end of World War II before becoming a lauded celebrity and fashion photographer for LIFE magazine.
This year’s Photo L.A. honoree was the influential Jo Ann Callis, long an icon of the camera arts. The native Ohioan moved to Los Angeles in 1961, enrolled in UCLA and by the mid-’70s had established herself in the vanguard, exploring the perilous edges of domesticity and femininity. Her bold installation was highlighted by her clever use of textures and juxtaposition, and via her gift for composition that bends beyond the obvious, sparking the desire to follow her pictures beyond their frames.
A lioness in winter, Callis shows no sign of slowing down. As part of a panel with Claudia Bohn Spector, Rebecca Morse and Brandy Trigueros, Callis discussed her motivations, vision and how she forged ahead despite being active in a time that wasn’t very friendly to women who didn’t stay in their lane. Continuing in the feminist theme, an installation presented by the Michael and Jane Wilson Trust featured a wide spectrum of the contemporary and arresting images from women photographers.
The days were marked with many compelling panels, running the gamut from Thomas Demand’s 3-D photo sculptures, to Mark Edward Harris’ “how-to” on travel photography, to Stefan Simchowitz’s views on anarcho-capitalism and how to “burn it all down.”
As for the presence of galleries, Los Angeles and New York were well represented as always, with the likes of Kopeikin, Fetterman, Danziger and Aperture, all well-known among the more discriminating collectors. But there was an exciting new presence peppered across the venue as well: Nine Chinese entities were present, which is exactly nine more than last year. And they were out to destroy misconceptions. Yes, there was the expected vintage Maoist romanticism that Westerners most associate with China, but the predominance of the Chinese art was far from stodgy or traditional.
Entries by Pan View, Cube Art Guan and CAC International presented a stunning array of unrestrained Chinese artists, exploring the surreal, the colorful and the impassioned. One of those artists was Zhao Oufei, a young Chinese artist who was very excited to be at the show. “We really appreciate the opportunity to interact with the buyer, so they don’t just see us in a gallery but they get to meet us and get the story behind the art,” Oufei said. “It is incredible for so many Chinese artists. This is our first time in the States and you can see that Chinese art is not just one thing but many voices and many stories.”
Tucked away in the corner was the FOCUS Photo L.A. exhibit. Drawn from thousands of entries, 20 up-and-comers had their moment in the sun. To many of them, this was their first brush with renown. Inspired by what he saw on Instagram, local finalist Charles Volkens picked up a camera a couple of years ago and dove in lens first.
“At first I was a little embarrassed by being included in the show. How could I possibly belong in this company of photographers?” he said. “And then I remembered an incident a few years ago. I was with my family at an art gallery, and there was one art piece hanging on the wall that I thought, how could they put this in a gallery. I was shocked. Then my son walked up behind me and marveled at it. He thought it was the best piece in the show. I realized that everything has a voice and just because it doesn’t speak to you, it may speak to someone else.”
While the focus is of course on collecting, Photo L.A. isn’t just about the high-brow art galleries and the moneyed collectors. It is about informing the public, and creating a gateway for people like Volkens and Oufei, two developing artists thousands of miles apart yet hanging on the very same walls with the likes of Leibovitz, Frank, Avedon, Adams and Sherman.
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