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Baldessari, Burtynsky and a lot of David Bowie at Photo London

18 May 2016

‘It’s showtime!’ said one exhibitor to his neighbour, as he broke off mid-conversation to attend to his own stand. The preview of the second edition of Photo London suggests that the fair is still defining itself – and the sense of expectation (and a sense of not quite knowing what to expect) on the part of both exhibitors and visitors makes for an interesting atmosphere.

Somerset House is an unusual, and challenging, location for a fair. Although some exhibitors show in the small tent in the courtyard, the bulk of the fair takes place in the main building in rooms that give on to each other in unpredictable ways (strongly hinting at the building’s former life as the offices of the Inland Revenue). There’s a certain amount of doubling back along corridors, which may be frustrating when the event gets busier, but the most imaginative galleries have found subtle ways to lure visitors in from the hallways.

Cologne’s Johannes Faber has an enticing Sander, Girl with Flowers (1930) tucked next to the doorway of its space. Mounted and stamped with the photographer’s studio label, it’s small enough that you could miss it – and looks like a curious sort of carte de visite. Somehow it has more impact than the famous portraits of workers the gallery has also brought, in silver gelatin prints mounted under Sander’s supervision.

There’s an inevitable familiarity to some of the offerings at the fair. Large-format contemporary art photography can feel like a cliché – or interior decoration – when photographs made in series are displayed next to works which they have nothing in common with, except their size. And two galleries bringing Edward Burtynsky’s Rice Terraces #5, West Yunnan Province (2012) feels like a slip, even though the stands are far apart.

There’s also an abundance of 19th-century photography on offer, from Édouard Denis-Baldus’s photographs of statues in the Louvre and James Anderson’s Laocoön (1855) – both at Daniel Blau; to the Fox Talbots (and a salt print of Patroclus in particular) at Hans P. Kraus Jr.

Lace (early 1840s), William Henry Fox Talbot.

Lace (early 1840s), William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York

But perhaps the range of photography you can see in a relatively small space (small compared to Paris Photo, or an art fair like Frieze, that is) is what will come to distinguish Photo London. A contemporary highlight can be seen at Steven Kasher’s stand, where an edition of John Baldessari’s Ingres and other parables (1972) is laid out across a table. A series of photographs of other photographs alternates with 11 deadpan short stories, which spoof art-historical writing. It’s a useful reminder that the best conceptual art is funny in the way that the writing of Donald Barthelme (Baldessari’s exact contemporary) is funny…

There is also a lot of David Bowie at the fair and crowds will no doubt gather around Brian Duffy’s blown-up contact sheet for Aladdin Sane, at Berlin’s Camera Work, though I can’t help wishing it wasn’t so close to Ellen Von Unwerth’s Bowie–Moss recreation of Blow-Up

David Bowie and Kate Moss

David Bowie and Kate Moss (2005), Ellen von Unwerth. © Ellen von Unwerth

There’s much more here than you can look at in a morning. Exhibitions of work by Don McCullin, Craigie Horsfield, and Sergey Chilikov are features to go back for, as is the Discovery section, which includes eight young galleries, from London’s Tiwani Contemporary to Tehran’s Ag. And this year’s talks programme, organised by William A. Ewing, includes Katy Grannan, Craigie Horsfield, and Mishka Henner – a photographer who doesn’t take photographs – as well as Don McCullin, who is this year’s Master of Photography.

However, the opening day’s rain quelled any desire I had to investigate Real Food Van on the River Terrace: an installation serving food which looks like Martin Parr’s ‘iconic photographs’ (the subject of a new book by Phaidon), but which tastes, the organisers promise, ‘absolutely delicious’.

Photo London is at Somerset House, London, until 22 May.

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