The opening night of Paris Photo 2013 (November 14-17 at the Grand Palais) was in part about apologizing to children for what we adults have done and are doing to them. Yet the very fact that these stories are being told at a distance, the distance created by the camera itself, both heightened the lack of emotional resonance, and intensified emotions and regrets.
Children seemed to be everywhere. I don't think I have ever seen so many babies being carried by so many young photographers and lovers of photography than at the Grand Palais last night. This in itself is telling, as in Paris babies are usually left at home in the evening. But it hard to be a photographer and making a living from it, and I overheard these kinds of conversations, "Do you make enough to live on?" "I take wedding photos on the side." Artists everywhere know this life.
But there is a side to Paris Photo which is about documenting history, both the past and present (or that which will become history). This is why the fact that so many photos of children were included in this year's show, is important. They are the future, they were the future, and we owe them an apology for what they lived through, what they will live through and what we have done.
The most poignant photographs for me were those children of Nazi Germany, the Hitler youth, the babes held and kissed by Hitler himself in a series entitled, "Misled: German Youth 1933-1945." Some are adolescents, both aware and unaware. These photographs at the Daniel Blau gallery stand, include one depicting very young German soldiers, which was entitled, "German Prisoners Arrive in London 11940 May 23" and hand-written on the print, in ink, are the words, "They have been talked into this. He's not old enough to change his mind let alone want war."
Several large format photographs at various European and American galleries portrayed children staring back at us staring at them. This is both beautiful and disturbing in its beauty. At one Finnish gallery stand, a more healthy and perhaps innocent pair of photos revealed children walking from inside a beautiful forest into the light. Children in nature, and our destruction of that same nature were contrasted in the show.
My favorite photograph, also a large format, was included at the Galerie Paris Beijing stand, and is entitled, "Sleepless wonderland" by photographer Yang Yongliang. In it are the stunning mountains one sees between Guilin and Lijang, as one travels down the River Li. These haunting scenes, which have called out to artists for centuries. Yet in this photograph, we see skyscrapers and lights, as it is nighttime, lights everywhere. Nature has been overbuilt. This perfect remote landscape has been invaded. The lights are always on and it is indeed a sleepless wonderland.
There were also photographs from my own childhood, those from NASA, which depicted astronauts and landscapes far away but so familiar. We are brought back to that time, the wonder, and the magic of what was indeed possible. But they are also sad somehow, placed just next to the photos of German youth from the war. These are not celebratory of human accomplishment, but rather printed in such a way as to make them appear more faded, more distant, more belonging to a past which no longer exists.
Then the harsh childhood memories appear again in the Gallery Rolf Art from Buenos Aires, with a large format photograph of a class of children, just on the edge of becoming teenagers, with handwritten marks and words on their faces which read different things for different fates, some dead, some living "Vive," some who have gone away or no one knows where they are or they do not care. This is a class from which some of them will disappear. "De la serie Bonne Memoire" by Marcelo Brodsky, born in 1954, looking at classmates and letting us, the viewer know, who still lives, who does not, who doesn't care...reminds us that we can all imagine our own classmates, but with a feeling of guilt of a different kind. Perhaps they did not die but simply disappeared from memory. Yet there is no nostalgia here, just facts.
There were people everywhere taking photographs of the photographs with their iPhones. In one photograph by Janice Guy, a naked young woman with a camera takes a photograph of the photographer taking a photograph of her. Yet we are also that photographer and we are also the target of her gaze through her camera. We are removed and subject and viewer all at the same time. The gaze is disrupted and yet constant.
Perhaps one of the most honest series of photographs were 4 prints by Adrian Sauer at the Klemm's Berlin gallery stand, of a photograph of a Leica Hermes series camera. These are simply beautiful prints of a beautiful object, which happens to be a camera. This visual praise for the object, which takes the photograph, felt unencumbered and satisfying. Leica itself stands behind photographers with this vision of beauty and artistic expression, as well as supporting those who are committed to documenting history, events, war, and humanity...
Everyone who has fallen in love with cameras and photography knows, there is something inherently sensual and satisfying about the camera itself, removed even from the gaze. Cameras are stunning instruments in and of themselves. Now, what those with talent and dedication are able to do with these cameras, invites us back year after year, at times carrying our newborn babe, to gaze and gaze and gaze again.
I say, visit the Grand Palais while you can. It's worth it. And bring your baby.