Paris Photo

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2017

We spent a few fun hours at the Paris Photo exhibition at the Grand Palais on Saturday. The first time I’d been. Lots to see and lots to like, but also quite a lot to dislike. My attention was caught by a copy of Kertesz’s Chez Mondrian, which is one of my favourite photos of all time (#2 after Cartier-Bresson’s Madrid) on the stall of Bruce Silverstein, the New York dealers. I sauntered up to the assistant and asked how much it was going for, knowing already that it would be beyond my budget: “1.2 million” she said. I’m not clear whether that was dollars or euros, but it doesn’t matter much. It was a print made for an exhibition in 1927, and as such, unique, though it looks like most other renderings of Chez Mondrian.

There is something, to my mind rather off about the enormous sums being paid for photographs. After all, with the exception of daguerreotypes and similar they are actually produced for reproduction and largely only exist in the form of copies of themselves (the negative being rarely for sale). Some of what was on sale for large amounts were shots of really poor and suffering people taken by photographers acting from moral or political motives: all grist to the mill of the gallerists.

Having looked around several stalls containing vintage photography, I asked one assistant why I had not seen a single autochrome. Apparently they have very little commercial value because of doubts about the long-term stability of the originals. I still think it anomalous there aren’t any, I said, pointing out that we were in Paris, where the Albert Kahn Museum (perpetually fermé pour travaux) has perhaps the world’s largest collection. Alas, she had never heard of Albert Kahn.

(For myself, I bought and was bought, some books by Harry Gruyaert, a Belgian colourist at Magnum whom I really rate very highly.)



BruceJ 11.13.17 at 4:26 pm

ALL art is grist for the mill for gallerists…

Seriously, if you want a copy for your wall, all of them are readily available in print form for the uncouth masses, heck, a moment’s searching found a vintage numbered silver print of Chez Mondrian for only $12k,,-chez-mondrian,-paris,-1926-29f464b917 which is likely produced the same way as the 1.2 million one. The $1.2 million includes a hefty Nouveau Riche tax, I’m sure.

If you want to really be a bolshevik about it, just download any of a number of scans readily available on the internet, print it on a halfway decent inkjet and you have a nice one to put on your wall to look at any time.

MoMA has a nicely scanned 200x 1325 300 DPI jpeg of Madrid on their web site. Spend a little time in a photo manipulation app of your choice you could easily get that nice silver print tonality out of it. Put it in a decent matted frame from Michaels and voila! your own copy.

Find a photo art book and cut it up for a better print quality…(though that phrase ‘buy a book and cut it up’ makes my teeth itch and the hackles on my neck rise, but this is widely practiced, heck the Ansel Adams bookstore at Yosemite sells nicely produced books of his works explicitly for this purpose. )

The original numbered prints are for collectors, not viewers, people’s whose satisfaction comes from owning the piece, not looking at it…


Yan 11.13.17 at 4:28 pm

Kertesz is so wonderful, my favorite photographer. It comes as no surprise that you mention him–your photographs are wonderfully composed, simultaneously minimal in content and complex and surprising in what they include and cut out, so characteristic of Kertesz’s work, too.

“There is something, to my mind rather off about the enormous sums being paid for photographs. After all, with the exception of daguerreotypes and similar they are actually produced for reproduction and largely only exist in the form of copies of themselves (the negative being rarely for sale).”

This is something some philosophers of aesthetics make a lot of hay about, but I’m not sure it’s so strange. (And of course similar issues arise with Warhol soup cans, screen prints, the fine art lithograph industry, Duchamp readymades, etc.)

What’s off is the enormous sums paid for authenticity or the “original” of anything, rather than photos in particular. Imagine if one day a 3-D printer could produce an absolutely exact, indiscernible copy of an old master painting. Why would the original be “truly” more valuable than the copy?

The value of originals isn’t strictly artistic or aesthetic but psychological and historical. If I value, say, a first edition novel beyond its rarity or investment value, it’s because it feels like it has a closer more direct connection to the author and the work, in the same way the signed copy gives me a feeling of a direct human connection to the artist. This seems to be reflected in the economic side–an original work is not as valuable if it doesn’t have an extensive or interesting provenance, even if it’s authenticity is not in doubt.

I think Benjamin had it pretty right in describing this as the aura of the work, and acknowledging that it is somewhat accidental and ultimately inessential to the work.


Ben 11.13.17 at 5:42 pm

What makes Madrid your favorite?


Benjamin 11.13.17 at 9:12 pm

Aenter a lot of these paintings with huge sums attached, being paid for tax write off purposes, or to simply clean money?


JRLRC 11.13.17 at 10:54 pm

Your observations are correct, I think.


Chris Bertram 11.13.17 at 10:55 pm

@Yan, well that was sort of the point, a print of a photograph isn’t really an “original” anyway, it is already a copy.

@Ben Not sure, there is just so much going on and it is wonderfully composed.


bob mcmanus 11.13.17 at 11:02 pm

Harry Gruyaert

Thanks for making me aware of him. I like his work.


Richard Utt 11.14.17 at 4:20 am

If you think that a print of an Ansel Adams photo in a book is *anything* like an original, you haven’t seen an original. Half (at least!) of the art in photography is in the creation of the print. When I was in Yosemite, I asked to see prints of a specific image. I saw original Adams prints, which were absolutely magical. But expensive. They had originals, by Adams, and prints by an in-house technician – much cheaper. But also, *not* magical. In fact, there had been one on the wall, which I actually had not recognized as the same image. I ended up not buying anything: I couldn’t afford the Adams original, and I had absolutely no interest in the technician’s “reproduction: it simply was *not* the same picture, though it was made from the same negative.


bob mcmanus 11.14.17 at 9:20 am

8: Agreed, but I think the “aura” of Benjamin is not reducible to such material qualities. One can of course, at least imagine the reproduction of Adams’ craft, just as early music ensembles attempt to reproduce original performances.

Like the discussions of the “Ship of Theseus”, these questions revolve around the meaning of “the same,” and the difference between particularity (of types and classes, with shared qualities) and singularity (what remains beyond reduction or deconstruction).


Chris Bertram 11.14.17 at 9:27 am

@Richard Utt point taken re Adams. But it may be an exceptional case given that attention he paid to the craft of printing. I think it would be difficult to make the same claim for prints of Cartier-Bresson pictures being unique and original in the same way, though some are obviously going to be better or worse.

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