The definition of Scopophilia is to derive pleasure from looking. The root of the word is Greek, skopeo “look to, examine” and philia, “a tendency toward”. As an expression of sexuality it refers to an erotic indulgence derived from viewing the subject(s) as a source of sexual stimulation, namely erotic photographs and naked bodies. This word was the most apt description of Photo LA and Classic Photographs Los Angeles, which were running concurrently this past weekend (Jan 17 & 18, 2015). Both photo fairs contained thousands of photographs to examine and provide pleasurable looking experiences with a large percentage of the photographs on display containing naked bodies, celebrities or a combination of the two.
Photo LA took place at The REEF, which is on the second floor of the historic LA Mart building. A seemingly unending parade of exhibitors filled the 60,000 square foot event space with a minimum of one bare breast for every third booth. The eager attempt for sex appeal was blatant at Photo LA; one image, stretching approximately 10 to 15 feet across, consisted of a half dozen nude women running hand in hand across a beach wearing nothing but a plastic horse mask. With their identities effectively nullified, their full-frontal bare bodies became an offering for the notorious male gaze. Many men, and a few women, stared longing at the erotic beach nymphs frolicking in the waves. The priced listed? $30,000. Unsurprisingly it was sold.
Thankfully, Photo LA wasn’t all sexual fantasy laid bare, as there were some excellent gems to be found from established and emerging photographers. Catherine Opie had a prominent installation on display of large out-of-focus waterfalls. Liz Steketee had three small but powerful sewn photographs in which vintage family portraits were physically altered by a sewing machine. Her stitched interventions illustrate the connectivity between photographs, memory and identity. Another highlight was Anita Bunn’s tree prints on display at the El Nopal Press booth. While they were not technically photographs, the process incorporated by Bunn and El Nopal Press was quite photographic and visually seductive.
Yet it was the exhibition titled Selma: 50 Years at the Monroe Gallery booth that held the most weight at the fair. The collection of images from the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches by Steve Schapiro sharply drew into focused how tenuous our civil rights still are. With the recent upheavals in Ferguson, an Alabama school superintendent baring students from going to see the Selma movie and the anti-ethnic studies law passed in Arizona, this topic is more prevalent than ever. In the photograph Entering Montgomery, Selma March 1965, there is a clear divide. Above the fray, standing on a balcony are seven white men in white collared shirts and black ties. They appear nonchalant and unaffected while a group of seven African-American on-lookers, men and women, engage and react to the march. The woman in the bottom left corner of the picture frame stares directly into Schapiro’s lens. Her stare punctures time and place and confronts the viewer as a call to action. “Don’t just stand there watching. Do something!” is the implication of her gaze. The man next to her points a camera back to Schapiro adding to the meta-layering of the image, “We’re watching you too”. The exhibit Selma: 50 Years at the Monroe Gallery provided the necessary gravitas for Photo LA that prevented the fair from becoming a show of celebrity T&A.
To contrast Photo LA’s fleshtival, Classic Photographs Los Angeles, or Classic Photo for short provided a refined and intimate environment. Classic Photo was held at Bonhams auction house located on Sunset Boulevard and consisted of a concise group of established gallerists that specialize in vintage photographs with a mix of modern and contemporary. Classic Photo is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of photography. A conversation with any of the participating exhibitors would yield a wealth of doctorial level information as each gallerist persists as a long-standing expert in their field. The environment of Classic Photo is one of a small clubhouse where the exhibitors regularly visit with one another and catch up on the latest gossip while collectors and photo enthusiasts eagerly flip through bins of historical images looking for rare gems. Some stand out finds included Gerard Petrus Fieret, a Dutch photographer who lived from 1949 to 2009, whose images were found at the Deborah Bell Photographs booth and then Andre De Dienes, a Hungarian-American photographer (1913-1985) whose series of young nude Marilyn Monroe pictures were on display at the Alan Klotz Gallery booth.
In the end, the motivation for both fairs is to make sales and connect with new collectors. The general consensus from my conversations with exhibitors at each fair was that this year was slower than last, although neither were a total bust. By the end of a full day of looking, walking, standing and staring, I was completely fatigued but pleased by the looking experience.
– Andrew K. Thompson