Writing on photography

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • I agree in principle, though collectors provide a useful income for some photographers, so don’t knock the gallery system too hard. Perhaps there should be a complimentary copy of “Seven Days in the Art World” with every ticket purchased‽

    • True of course Malcolm, but then why the need for the middlemen? In the book world collectors often go direct to the source. The (few) artists I know who are represented by galleries seem to make less from their print sales than I do selling them direct at far lower prices.

  • Hi,

    Thank you for writing this, this has been irritating me for longer than I’ve only recently realised and after a talk last night from George Monbiot on Neoliberalism, I’m more clear about why that is. “Host to 80 photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit”
    Galleries pay HUGE fees to exhibit, so much that they pay for most of the fair. The festival could charge next to nothing for tickets, so what you say about clientele is very pertinent. I’ve tried repeatedly to get an answer from Photo London about why their prices are so high but it’s very clear they’re not even interested in answering. The London Photo tickets are twice the price of Paris Photo and Paris is twice the size of London and much more established. The irony also being that they’ll be work in there from photographers about inequality.

    I graduated from a photography degree three years ago. I’ve been to various fairs including Paris and Unseen in Amsterdam and used to consider these kinds of things necessary as part of my career. After Paris the last time I wrote about the feeling of it http://tezla7.tumblr.com/post/103522570826/paris-photo

    The first time at Paris I was wowed and amazed. It’s hard not to be. The second was enough for me. But at least their ticket prices reflect that access that you talk about- discounts for students and reasonable prices all round (my ticket was €15 I think). This has been absolutely ignored with London Photo and I want to hear more talk about that because for me- it’s a clear and ostentatious example of what’s wrong with the world today. Those kinds of words are almost always an exaggeration, but I’m serious.

    I’m 32 and an emerging photographer, but, the feeling I get in the corporate photography fairs makes me feel sick, it’s the genuine vulgar cutting edge of excess and greed. It’s really made me question who I am and what I’m doing- to go to those places and know that this is not the kind of thing I want to be a part of. At Paris Photo I was sat next to Bruce Gilden and overheard him say to some other Magnum photographers in reference to the fair “I don’t like these kinds of places”.

    On the other hand, the book fairs feel completely different, I talk to book sellers, stand next to and with famous and unfamous photographers alike (or whoever, who cares), completely without any of the pretention and atmosphere you get in the corporate fairs. They’re my people, that’s my place.

    I do think you may be right that part of the rise of photo book popularity is to do with the democratic nature of the medium and its accessibility to the masses. Thank you for the list of shows and venues “in the off”. I’ll be visiting from Yorkshire for offprint at the Tate, but would only visit Photo London or Paris Photo again to do a Martin Parr style commentary on the nature of what they are really all about, and to be honest, I’d much rather work on something else.

    • Great points Will, thanks (and I’d love to see that commentary on photo London, perhaps I’ll have a punt at it another year).

  • The rise in photobooks, especially self published, has a lot to do with the sea change in photography as Art. The single picture as the unit of Art is almost dead, very few serious people work that way any more. When you’re already producing your work as a set of 6 or 20 or 100 related pictures, which must be viewed en masse to understand what’s happening, the book is a pretty natural end product.

    It’s surprisingly hard to notice that the Single Print is dead, since it’s what all the amateur nerds are chasing. If you look around the internet or whatever is left of the traditional press, you see a lot of stuff that really comes down to “how to take a (single, standalone) great picture” all of which is increasingly irrelevant.

    The Single Print these days is pretty much one of:

    – pleasing but ultimately dull stuff that’s sold cheaply as decor “but it goes with the couch, honey!” and all that really matters is whether the Asian beggar’s headscarf is the right color.

    – one of a larger collection collection which has been broken up. Sally Mann’s work doesn’t make much sense one-by-one, but it is largely sold that way, for example.

    – a very very few artists are still producing work that makes sense in a single print (Gursky?)

    And yet, almost no “popular photography” resource will tell you this, they all focus on turning you in to either Adams or Cartier-Bresson, which makes no more sense than teaching people how to paint like Vermeer, but here we are.

  • Really like this article.
    Until a few weeks ago I had a small gallery on the North east of England coast that specialised in just photography. Prints from the mid 1800’s to ones taken a yesterday and at prices staring from £10 (archival mounted) to original vintage prints over £1000.
    It was an open door policy and we ran exhibitions of local photographers as well as being part of the BBC Get Creative.
    We had all the usual business costs any small business gets, so we worked hard to get our pricing to attract a wide range of customers as well as a range of subject matters to spark conversation and interest.
    So despite a dodgy landlord and a smelly leaking building, what else could go wrong?
    From pin money market, cafe filling “I got my print on the wall”, photographers who so undervalue the worth of the art of photography, they give away their work and thus undermine any attempts to educate people as to the value of the printed photograph (especially those who wish to go beyond the mass produced Swedish supply and reproductions from online sellers from a auction site.), to the “online photography” who has 100’s of people following them on the various photographic sites and yet when faced with a living breathing print, just humph, sigh, snort and with a wonderfully calculated flounce of superiority, run out as fast as they can and then tell everyone how much better their work is in the forums, but you never actually see any of their work in print.
    So yes I agree, these galleries do have a lot to answer for, especially in the conceptual world of selling a lot of words for very little product (Mr Prince ripoffs for example) and the prices do sometimes reflect the cost of running galleries in prime locations, but look for the galleries that do show work where the prints take on a life of their own and do not require a twenty page explanation or a member of staff trained in the best French maitre d tradition of superior disdain to “guide your heart, soul and mind” to passing over your credit card.
    My best customers, people who fell in love with the image and it’s spark within the quality of the print, most of whom were not photographers. Many have since become collectors of photographs as stand alone works of art.
    And as for the ticket prices, try adding on the price of a train ticket to London every time as it seems these events always fall into the London is the centre of the world trap!
    Saturday afternoon mid editing rant over 😉

Writing on photography