Michael Benson: “Despite uncertainties, Photo London is stronger than at its outset”

 London  |  10 May 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

As the third edition of Photo London prepares to open, Art Media Agency has interviewed its cofounder and co-director to discuss what’s special about this young fair… and the Brexit’s impact on the event’s future. An encounter.

Launched in May 2015, the Photo London fair will be opening for the third consecutive year in the neoclassical salons of Somerset House, on the banks of the Thames, from 18 to 21 May. The event was launched by the company Candlestar, specialised in organising cultural events and projects and founded in 2003 by Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad. Candlestar is namely the organiser of the Prix Pictet for photography (seventh edition in 2017) and the Art Dubai fair. A film producer and writer, Michael formerly directed the gallery of the London Institute (today the University of the Arts London), for which he organised numerous exhibitions. Between 2011 and 2014, he also curated the exhibition of the Sony World Awards. Fariba Farshad, co-director of the fair, is a specialist in contemporary Iranian art and an exhibition curator.


Can you present us the main features of this 2017 edition of Photo London?

We have 89 participating galleries this year, from 17 countries. This represents a slight increase compared to last year when there were 83 of them. We’re also welcoming ten publishing houses, which makes a total of 99 exhibitors. There were around 200 galleries that applied by sending in online applications. The selection committee’s criteria are based on three aspects. The main criterion is to offer something new. We expect galleries to either present new artists, or else the latest work from recognised or well-established artists, or else historic images that are gems. This year, the selection committee, which includes half a dozen photo and contemporary-art experts, was overseen by Philippe Garner, a former director at Christie’s.


London is a recognised market for old photography. What proportion do galleries specialised in 19th century images make up at Photo London?

A significant proportion, even if it doesn’t dominate. We have around ten galleries that offer images representing the history of photography. Otherwise, the fair presents all periods, up to the most recent creations.


Who are the new participants for this 2017 edition?

We’re welcoming several participants established in London, such as the Alison Jacques Gallery, presenting Robert Mapplethorpe works, and the Victoria Miro Gallery, with works by Isaac Julien, or Sprüth Magers, based in Berlin but with branches in London and Los Angeles. Outside of Europe, East Win from Dubai, and Ekho from Santiago in Chile, are taking part in the event for the first time. The Discoveries section has also filled out. From six galleries selected for the first edition, we’ve gone up to sixteen this year. Apart from several London galleries, exhibitors also come from Tokyo, Reykjavik, San Francisco, Rome, Turin, New York and Paris.


The programme reflects the wide spectrum of photography. Could you present it to us?

We offer a very rich exhibition programme. Taryn Simon, who was named Master of Photography 2017, will be presenting Image Atlas, a work created in collaboration with programmer Aaron Swartz. This piece studies cultural differences and similarities by classifying the main images obtained for specific research terms entered in local search motors worldwide. Also on the programme, an exhibition marking 70 years at Magnum, curated by Martin Parr, devoted to the works of one of the agency’s photographers, David Hurn from Britain. We’ll be presenting photographs and animated images from Isaac Julien’s film, Looking for Langston. Mat Collishaw’s installation, in collaboration with Blain/Southern gallery, should be another highlight of the programme. This is a virtual-reality work in which the artist recreates the first exhibition by the photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in Birmingham in 1839. This immersive experience will allow visitors to go back in time and only six visitors can access it at the same time during the exhibition. Finally, Juergen Teller will be proposing a special show in Somerset House’s Great Arch Hall.


Can you tell us about the Crucible Project?

This is a public programme set up with the Luma Foundation which has supported us from the start. This new initiative aims to raise awareness about the public programme and the meeting programme. It will consist of a virtual space enabling exploration of photography in different parts of London. The idea is to carry out this animation and educational work throughout the year, and not just the five days of Photo London. Apart from photography and photo books, the programme will tackle a wide variety of art forms including video, painting, music, installations… For example, this year, we’re inviting sculptor Antony Gormley to talk with photographer Adam Fuss. We’re also organising an interview between film director Ken Loach and film photographer Joss Barratt. This project will encourage the development of a programme of meetings, talks, portfolio sessions, workshops, but also mentoring, publications and residency grants, and will be enriched every year. We’ve called on William Ewing, former director of the Élysée Museum in Lausanne, for the programme of this 2017 edition.


Do you think that the Brexit is a threat for Photo London?

This is a question, even if, to be honest, no one can say what exactly will be the consequences of the Brexit. We’re trying to strengthen the fair, and we have the support of galleries. We’re doing everything to make sure that they’re satisfied and that they come back from year to year. We note that 65 % of them return at the following edition. The others may have all sorts of reasons for not coming back the next year, namely because they’ve had a bad year. The Brexit is therefore one of the many elements that we take into account in our organisation. I think that there will probably be a Brexit-related effect, but I’m not particularly worried.


Even if the fair is still young, can you make a first assessment on the basis of the first two editions?

The public is very reactive. We welcomed 35,000 visitors last year, and we’re very satisfied. We think that the market is doing well in London and that it’s getting stronger every year. There’s a market for historic photography which, as I said, is part of the fair and reflects an interest that has always existed in Great Britain for this type of piece. But interest is widening towards contemporary photography. That said, we don’t communicate on the sums of sales, all the more because many transactions take place after the fair. Regarding the public, we’ve recorded a considerable proportion of Londoners, namely from the 18-48 age category. In all, the proportion of Britons comes to 70 %. Internationally, the public of collectors is also well represented.


To conclude, how do you see the future of Photo London?

Despite uncertainties about the political and economic situation, we’re stronger than we were at the outset. When we launched the fair in 2015, we thought that it’d take at least five years to obtain the support of institutions. But this year, for example, the Tate Modern has decided to push back the dates of its exhibition on Elton John’s photography collection, “The Radical Eye”, so that Photo London visitors can enjoy it. Originally, the exhibition was meant to finish before the fair. Still at the Tate Modern, during the fair, on the other side of the Thames, the Offprint fair will be taking place in the Turbine Hall. We’ve also noted several dozen events parallel to the fair: auction sales, openings, temporary exhibitions, lectures, visits… This mix of proposals is another positive sign.



Photo London. From 18 to 21 May (avant-première by invitation on 17 May), Somerset House, Strand, London. www.photolondon.org


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