I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits (and drawbacks) of attending photo events and, generally, I believe it is advantageous to attend. Photo events can be a great place to see what kind of work is trending, make new friends and contacts, and buy photography! But they should also be seen as investments or lack thereof. For example, there are often fees to attend the event, travel, eat, drink, play, etc. Unless you attend a local event, which isn’t always possible for many, attending a photo event comes with significant cost. So let’s look a little closer at AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers), which is taking place in New York City this week (April 3-6, 2019).
I’ve been to AIPAD before and, in case I’d forgotten, two minutes inside the venue and it was all fresh again. Nothing changes and that is, perhaps, the biggest negative with AIPAD. Sure, some of the work changes, but a lot of it doesn’t. Or, rather, the particular photograph by Cartier-Bresson or Dennis Hopper is different but it’s still a Cartier-Bresson or a Hopper. The same galleries showing the same names (mostly dead white guys) and this is even truer when we focus in on street photography, specifically. Even the living “greats” of street like Joel Meyerowitz or Mark Cohen were harder to spot. Although, I did see a few very old images from Bruce Gilden.
So what does all this tell us? Well, a few things. One, street photography is hard to sell and the commercial world (AIPAD is mostly galleries and publishers) isn’t really all that interested. They are not disinterested because the work isn’t in itself interesting or aesthetically good etc., they’re not interested because the money isn’t there. The old Cartier-Bresson prints or even the forty-year-old Gilden prints tell us a little more of the story. In photography, what sells with truly stupendous pricetags (when it comes to street photography) is really big names and really old work. So, two, street photographs need to be blessed with time and fame. Even then, the Gilden and Meyerowitz prints were not exactly the hotcakes on the AIPAD buffet, believe me!
There are other things that bug me about AIPAD too! Let me get them off my shoulders while I’m on a roll. Namely, I dislike being charged to enter a place merely for the purpose of looking at things that I can then buy. Sure, I could also get a $4 cup of warm drip coffee or a “sugarless” scone for $5. At some point, I just felt like I was stuck in an airport being forced to look at a lot of overpriced, bad art while, simultaneously, haemorrhaging money! The gallery representatives were, at best, disinterested and snobby and, at worst, outright rude. Yes, I get it. Everybody coming up to you is trying to push their portfolio and score a gallery (although it should be noted that I was not doing this, I had no portfolio, no cards, and no camera). But even if I were doing so, what, exactly, do they expect? They set up this event, attract the “general public” (read: eager amateur photographers), charge admission, and then snub us for showing up! Now, let me be clear about something. AIPAD is a trade show. “Trade” means those who, by profession, buy and sell photography. And, in this way, it has always confused me, slightly, as to why the public is invited to such an event in the first place. The answer, of course, is that we will happily go and we will happily (or not so happily, as in my case) pay – even for the $4 warm drip coffee!
`AIPAD is not alone here. For example, in the watch world, (I’m a watch collector) Baselworld (one of the world’s premier watch trade shows) is also experiencing the same issues. It’s primarily a trade show that also invites the public and changes them a fee for the privilege of being ignored. That part is nothing new. It has always been a convention for “trade insiders”, not dissimilar from AIPAD. What is new is the fact that some of the major watch brands have stopped attending. In the age of social media and internet sales, face-to-face relations with retailers are not as critical to watch manufacturers, especially given the cost of “wining the dining” them for a week at Baselword in Switzerland. Not to mention the fees they too have to pay to attend such an event themselves. This year, one of the richest watch conglomerates in the world – The Swatch Group – just didn’t attend. The CEO of Swatch Group, Nick Hayek, had a very revealing tale about why he didn’t register his brands too. Essentially, he wanted change. He wanted to the convention to be less arrogant and snobby and to open up to the modern realities of the Swiss watch industry – which is booming. Hayek stated, “We don’t need a trade fair.” Indeed, trade fairs, especially those which also attract (and subsequently ignore) the public are starting to smell of dinosaurs.
So, as the watch brands drop out, Baselworld is becoming a bit of a dud. If there is no “trade” business going on, and there is nothing, really, for the general public, what is one left with, exactly? Well, a big convention poorly designed for the people who are actually in attendance – the watch enthusiast public (or small players from minor media outlets, etc). The same phenomenon is happening at AIPAD. Less and less, the show is about the contacts between those in the trade (at least from what I saw and heard) and more and more it is about capitalizing on the attendance of amateur enthusiast photographers looking to interact with galleries and publishers as a way of advancing their career. But this is not what AIPAD is providing – not at all. So, we go, portfolios or calling cards in hand, dutifully pay our admission, and then get humored, at best, or totally ignored. We get overcharged for the coffee and, in case we’ve forgotten, we get to see that virtually no one achieving gallery representation is anything like us. There are no emerging street photographers on the walls to inspire us. No, what we see if more Cartier-Bresson, more Winogrand, and more Model.
Now, have I got this all wrong? Many will say, absolutely. Some will even claim that I am nothing but a bitter photographer who is upset at not gaining gallery attention. Well, allow me to stop you right there. For the record, I’ve never sought gallery representation. In fact, I have virtually no physical prints of my photography. I’m a book photographer and I have two books in print with a good publisher, which is probably more than my work deserves. I’m not bitter and I (personally) am seeking nothing. Rather, I am perplexed. I’m confused about why I should pay to attend an event that offers me precious little other than an opportunity to shop for art which, largely speaking, I cannot afford. Sure, I’m being a little harsh, AIPAD did organize a few photographer talks and some book signings. But, again, really just designed to drain more money out of the enthusiast public in attendance. In the end, AIPAD is poorly designed for the bulk of the people who actually attend. For this reason, I don’t predict a healthy future for AIPAD. Like Hayek, I think it is time for a change. I think it is time for AIPAD to become a lot less arrogant and snobby. But I’ve been wrong before.
So, what would I like to see at AIPAD? I’d like to see more attractions and events designed to engage and interact with the enthusiast photographer and amateur or “beginner” art buyer. You know, those people who are actually attending AIPAD. Why not have a portfolio review center set up? It would be a hit among the attendees and it alone would, for many, justify admission fees. Maybe someone from each gallery could (descend to earth, if only briefly) and volunteer some time at the portfolio center to look at work and offer a few humble morsels of feedback. Why not have a box at your gallery booth where an aspiring photographer can drop her calling card. Sure, the box could be a black hole that empties into the Hudson River (and would almost certainly be so) but that’s not the point, it’s the gesture that is missing. No one attends with the actual expectation of signing with a gallery, but they do attend with the expectation of feeling that they have a chance to do so. What else? Well, there could be more talks and presentations. In this day and age, how does someone attract gallery attention, precisely? Is it really all about who you know? Galleries are often quick to try and dispell this nepotistic notion, but rather slow at revealing how it actually does work. Be transparent. Talk to us. Even a door prize would be great! Surely someone like Stephen Shore could cough up a print of that cheese sandwich we’ve all been looking at for decades! They say, “Build it and they will come”. But what if we come and there is nothing there? A question AIPAD would do well to consider before it’s too late.