Few mediums have so radically impacted visual culture as photography, yet its prominence has often been downplayed at biennales and fairs. But things are thankfully shifting, and art world events are catching up. This year’s Art Basel saw a rise in the number of galleries showing photos, and the inaugural edition of PHOTOFAIRS New York is attracting a great deal of positive attention.
“We can’t understand the story of art making without the story of photography,” PHOTOFAIRS director Helen Toomer told Observer in a recent interview. With fifty-six exhibitors from several countries, the fair shows the growing space and appetite that exist for photo-based and digital art. It also reminds us of the versatility of photography—and its place as an authoritative, playful and connecting medium that informs global conversations.
Howard Greenberg Gallery (Booth 214) features towering artists such as Saul Leiter and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Foundation (Booth 324) presents the works of two fellows documenting Egypt and Sudan and Fotografiska (Booth 326) zooms in on Indigenous Futurism. There’s much more, but below are some highlights.
Booth 302: HESSE FLATOW
Chelsea gallery HESSE FLATOW presents a solo show of West African American visual artist and Columbia professor Adama Delphine Fawundu, which includes a series of intimate depictions of family, transmission and indigenization. The artist, who is of Mende, Krim, Bamileke and Bubi descent, engages with diasporic discontinuities and ancestral memory through her work, which she envisions as a continued conversation with her grandmother. We recognize this affective memory in Passageways #1, Secrets, Traditions, Spoken and Unspoken Truths or Not (2017), as well as Passageways #2, Secrets, Traditions, Spoken and Unspoken Truths or Not (2017), both intergenerational female portraits of intimacy. In the former, two women share a secret, a gossip or a sacred word more fundamental—we can only guess. The youngest gazes at the camera, as if to make us a witness to the scene. She wants us to know that it happened. In the latter, the two subjects are lying on a tired sofa; the composition reminds one of a possible social history on the meanings of home through its objects and their placement. The child fell asleep against the other woman’s legs in a serene surrender. They are united despite wars and exile. Both images are framed with patterns of fabric, which anchors storytelling with a strong sense of space. Note: More of Fawundu’s work is currently on view at the Newark Museum of Art.
Booth 347: Yiwei Gallery
Yiwei Gallery presents three emerging and mid-career Chinese photographers—Ye Wenlong, Yan Jinsong and Jin Ting—who demonstrate unique techniques while engaging with the codes of traditional Chinese visual art. Ye Wenlong shoots at high speed to create strobe-like effects in images, recreating dreamy, meditative, evocative landscapes such as Winter Snow #27 (2019). Yan Jinsong honors the use of historical scrolls and Song-dynasty scenes, creating a twenty-one-meter photograph made of thousands of composite images showing a fisherman’s coast littered with nets that resemble trash (the gallery shows an excerpt of that scroll in the fair, reduced to seven meters). It’s a mesmerizing work of minutiae that recalls the massive expanse of China as a country and civilization. By contrast, Jin Ting’s carefully desaturated landscapes are ones of abandonment and desolation. Cracked earth and the vestiges of human structure amid Buddha heads evoke the hushed memories of those who are no longer there.
Booth 110: 193 Gallery
Paris-based 193 Gallery presents a double show, featuring Kenyan photographer Thandiwe Muriu and Taiwan-born John Yuyi. The works of both artists exude incredible vibrancy and a youthful punch. Using traditional fabric, Muriu matches her outfit to her studio background to create an illusion of continuity in color and patterns. Her hair is also stylistically—architecturally—sculpted to mold a visual language forged in self-expression and emancipation. She fashions glasses from everyday materials, often plastic but sometimes materials as incongruous as green scrubbing sponges, as she does in CAMO 32, 2021. These loud portraits are a visual response to Muriu’s experience of having to conform to norms that felt alienating. Yuyi, who worked in fashion, also uses photography as a means of social critique in his pastiche, advertising-like images that satirically comment on commodification and visual consumerism. Models have shaved heads and wear red lipstick. Their bodies and faces become a canvas to collect sloganized affirmations, such as “You can’t never please everyone so just please yourself,” imprinted on the skin in the manner of temporary tattoos.
Booth 224: Spinello Projects
Cuban-American identical twins Elliot and Erick Jiménez take over Spinello Projects’ booth with mystical, sensual and inhabited interpretations of the sacred. They explore Elegguá, an Orisha spirit-deity connected to Yoruba beliefs. This divinity cannot be seen; it is immersed in a black shadow of a seemingly unmeasurable depth. Only its eyes pierce through that veil. They intertwine this image, or absence of image, with the iconography of famous art-historical scenes such as the Resurrection or the reclining odalisque, and this exposed chasm between the visible and invisible serves to underscore deep-rooted connection and an in-betweenness, concurring with subjective views on iconophilia.
Booth 245: Atlas Gallery
London-based Atlas Gallery features contemporary art as well as vintage prints of Terence Donovan and fashion photography pioneer George Hoyningen-Huene. The fate of Pacific Islanders is grimly shown in a stunning series from Nick Brandt entitled “SINK/RISE,” which is part of a global project highlighting ecological destruction. Three images, all shot underwater, depict the human impact of our environmental collapse on Fijian communities for whom rising water levels are a matter of sheer survival. Brandt created an underwater studio, placing his submersed subjects in the position of witness of their future disappearance. In Joel by Cliff (2023), a statuesque man sits alone on a torn-down sofa in what could be a park or a home at the bottom of the sea. The blue hues accentuate an aesthetical leaning to float; their inevitable nightmare envelopes us. It is haunting. The gallery also highlights ways to reinvent forms in Studio Glithero’s silver gelatin photograms that depict the outline of hands on porcelain vases, recalling the hands of those who shaped them.
Booth 250: The Hulett Collection
Another solo show, Pieter Henket’s series “Congo Tales” illuminates The Hulett Collection’s booth with a visual fresco set in the second-largest tropical forest in the world. Far from the times he shot Lady Gaga’s The Fame album cover, here we scratch beneath the surface of occasional media coverage and spotlights. In these elevated images, the people of the Mbomo District in the Republic of Congo tell their own stories, re-enacting myths and situations in compositions that evoke the domestic chronicles of Dutch Golden Age paintings with their heavy emphasis on scenography. While doing so, Henket documents livelihoods, bonds, and community traditions that bind humans to nature. A giant leaf covers a woman’s head. It protects her. Children sit in a river, faces raised toward the sky, as if praying for the blissful touch of the rain.
Booth 320: Fisheye Gallery
New York-based photographer Delphine Diallo is front and center in Fisheye’s booth. The French-Senegalese artist uses the camera and her body to engage with themes of self-discovery, genealogy and empowered representation. Her pictures include collages, which she sees as a technique expanding the realm of creative possibilities. Collage links portraiture with more fluid and dynamic ideas of history and mythology. Most of her work is instilled with blurry notions of past and present, and the site can be slippery. This boundless horizon can be seen, for instance, in the inclusion of drawings and collated images of devotional buildings, African but also Khmer. “The Transmutation” series subverts the genre of colonial-era photography with the front gaze of a model reclaiming her own agency. In several of the pictures, Diallo holds African objects. In Highness – Hybrid 1 (2011), sculpted blue braids follow the shape of a queenly crown and face cover. Black portraiture helped Diallo shatter determinism and self-imposed limits.
PHOTOFAIRS New York is at the Javits Center through September 10.