On a New York set in Los Angeles' Paramount Studios, the best photography galleries in the world assemble to show the most exciting photographers working today.
Set inside the cavernous sound stages and around the outdoors backlot of Paramount Studios, this weekend's Paris Photo Los Angeles is a very unusual art fair indeed. A Hollywood factory of movies has been hired out for the world's leading fair of photography, with visitors strolling round a historic film set from gallery to gallery under the wide blue sky. Hawks float idly overhead on hot thermals; that's just not something that happens at other art fairs. Likewise I watched two hummingbirds having a fight which was won, like all hummingbird fights, by the one with the longer beak.
As it happens Paramount Studios' backlot is actually a pretend New York - where The Artist was filmed, among much else - with short avenues and high facades that make a mirage of its sights out here in the desert, and if Los Angeles is trying to usurp New York's position at the top of the art world, well perhaps it's fitting that it should do so in a hollow, make-believe Manhattan. On the opening day of the fair it's striking how tall, how thin everybody is, all the model-looking sorts strolling about the place in gothic-boho gowns as if it was Coachella. On the fake streets there are food trucks selling Kobe beef sliders and Maine lobster ice cream, and there are older ladies whose lips look like hot dogs about to burst, tottering around in heels and bodycon mini-skirts. It looks like the sort of art fair you might attend in an episode of Gossip Girl rather than in the real world.
So Paris Photo Los Angeles is a little silly. Long, drawn-out golf carts ferry important folk around the fair, or bring them buckets filled with ice and champagne. The VIP area is approached along a red carpet. Some of the gallery furniture is absolutely bonkers; for instance Ammani Gallery from Cologne has a many-layered, modernist wedding cake of a table, and blocks of resin as stools that nobody ever sits on. However the fair is also fun - so much fun - and the best work really is brilliant:
Cristina De Middel at Dillon Gallery, New York
Spanish artist Cristina De Middel shows an installation of her series This is What Hatred Did, which was inspired by Amos Tutola's nightmarish novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1964) about a young boy hiding out from soldiers in the haunted Nigerian wilderness, in a spooky place of Yoruba spirits where no people are allowed. One photograph captures a child disguised as a ghost in pink sheet; another, harlequin party masks placed onto giant African snails as if they were slimy, gloopy faces; another, a wet sea snake worn as a very dangerous belt. Dressing up, it appears, is very important to De Middel's magical realist take on storytelling.
As a nerdy side note, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts also inspired a great album by Brian Eno and David Byrne.
Mona Kuhn at Diane Rosenstein Fine Art, Los Angeles
Inside one of Paramount's massive sound stages a hazy, light-drenched nude by Mona Kuhn, a Brazilian artist living in Los Angeles, contains the Californian daydream in a single cinematic image; all slowly curving body, strict architecture, and undulating nature dissolving together under the glaring heat.
Motoyuki Daifu at Little Big Gallery, Los Angeles
In this presentation the works of two Japanese photographers - the notorious Nobuyoshi Araki and the little-known Motoyuki Daifu - are interspersed with one another in a playful salon hang across the wall. A girl on a leash here, a trio of teenagers monging out eating candy on a bed there; the old pervert and the young romantic, pressed up against themselves.
Some of Daifu's snapshots come from his series that has one of the very best titles in the history of art: The family is a pubis. So I cover it with pretty panties. This documents everyday living in the little apartment that he shares with his parents and siblings and despite the title it's really sweet, a sincerely intimate portrait of a country where lots of young people live with their parents well into their 30s, and almost nobody is marrying anymore.
David Magnusson at Pictura Gallery, Bloomington
Swedish photographer David Magnusson's Purity Ball is a rather different series of family portraits, this time showing fathers and daughters embracing in American landscapes, wide open spaces close to their homes in the South. The Purity Ball is a Christian ceremony in which young girls promise that they will "live pure lives before god", and their fathers pledge to protect their chastity, and sometimes rings are exchanged too. It's sort of horribly creepy but also sort of life-affirming, and David came to respect this strange ritual, explaining: "As I learnt more, I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love - in the best way they knew how. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the ceremonies. They had made their decisions out of their own conviction and faith, in many cases with fathers who didn't know what a Purity Ball was before first being invited by their daughters."
Perhaps it's partly because of folk like Araki that things like Purity Balls exist because, after all, nobody wishes to see their daughters tied up naked in an old Japanese man's house.
Roger Steffen, Silverlake, August 1977, 2015, Image Courtesy of The Family Acid, S_U_N_, and Printed Matter
Roger Steffens at Printed Matter, Inc., New York
Art books organisation Printed Matter, Inc. has set up shop in an illusory dry cleaners in the backlot, and in the door it has hung a dream-catcher holding a scorpion entombed in syrupy resin, trembling in the wind. Outside stands Roger Steffens in a flowery shirt with a Bob Marley badge, leafing through his book The Family Acid and telling stories of smoking weed with reggae singers; of meeting a "tall, blind Viking musician"; of sharing an apartment with the most-injured photojournalist from Vietnam, a man "who was blown up four times" and upon whom Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now was based.
As a whole the fair has a lot of focus on America's past, and how a now-lost America has been preserved in photographs. Here Steffen's images offer a psychedelic journey from the Vietnam War to today, in bright shades and double exposures, however they only surfaced because his children discovered his old Kodachrome slide archive and started posting it onto an Instagram account @thefamilyacid. Again, it's a family project that produces extraordinary imagery.
Ken Gonzales-Day at Luis de Jesus, Los Angeles
Lastly, American artist and professor Ken Gonzales-Day's film project Run Up is a re-enactment of the lynching of a Latino man in Santa Rosa, California in 1920; a dredging up of hidden history, but also an indictment of capital punishment, and consequently of police brutality today. It's unusually politically charged for a work in this context, and thrillingly so.
This year Gonzales-Day has also photographed a protest march in Los Angeles over the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the trail of destruction left by the actual riots in Ferguson. His images reflect what is actually happening on the streets. Now as Baltimore burns this is certainly an important and timely subject, but sadly it's also the sort of thing that the world has grown unaccustomed to seeing in exhibitions of contemporary art. Photography though is a great leveller, an image can be created out of anything, and very quickly too, so more than anything it's fascinating how much territory this fair covers, jumping from year to year, from continent to continent, around our world with all its enticing highs and abject, violent lows.
Text Dean Kissick