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Photo Shanghai 2014

Photography is, as Henri Cartier-Bresson famously postulated, all about the decisive moment, to be captured photographically.

Chinese photography has had its own series of decisive moments as it has evolved into a distinctive genre and art, including one particular brawl at the Pingyao Photography Festival back in 2002 or 2003. As recalled by photography curator Jean Loh, owner of Beaugeste Gallery, it started with a well-intentioned survey of photographers, whether they viewed themselves as documentarians, or artists. Splintering, and shouting across the room, the latter called the “photographers for papers the ‘running dogs of the official state press’, and the photojournalists called the artists the ‘running dogs of the foreign diplomats and companies’,” back when the market for Chinese contemporary art was almost entirely foreigners.

 Martin Parr, Santa Monica,California, 1999, Chromogenic print, Taken from the Flower series Courtesy of Magnum Photo

“It was the first time they became conscious of the gap, and it remains a problem in China, of what is good photography. One group sells in Christie’s and Sotheby’s and galleries, with a lot of Photoshop and imitation and promoted by Western galleries who don’t know China,” Loh says. The other continue to capture the messy realities of contemporary China, such as Yellow River chronicler Zhang Kechun, or environmental photographer Lu Guang.

Expect both schools of Chinese photography to converge this September at the inaugural Photo Shanghai, the first international art fair in China dedicated solely to photography. The fair itself marks another decisive moment for photography in China, and particularly in Shanghai. Though photography has in the three decades since Reform and Opening taken off as both a fine and popular art, with respected photography galleries, centers, festivals and media, and a solid coterie of professionals as well as a legion of amateur practitioners, the format nevertheless occupies a dusty corner darkroom of the thriving market for Chinese contemporary art.

Though new and multimedia art, including photography, enjoys a strong critical presence in Shanghai, apart from a few standout artists that has not translated into public awareness or collector demand. Photo Shanghai aims to provide a platform to change that.

Ningde Wang - Duckweed

“The new fair, if they do it right, will be eye opening for Shanghai, and set a path for more interest in and appreciation of photography,” says Steven Harris, owner of M97 Gallery. “I hope this fair will raise China’s appreciation of photography as art."

Photo Shanghai, running September 5 to 7 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, is organized by the World Photography Organization. Of the 40 participating galleries and institutions, ten are from Shanghai and another seven from Beijing, with the rest a range from as close as Chengdu or Hong Kong to as far as Los Angeles, London, Istanbul and Paris.

“I think this is a good start,” says fair director Alexander Montague-Sparey. “Some of the most important galleries dedicated to the field signed up very early on -- for example Camera Work (Berlin), Fahey/Klein (Los Angeles), A. Galerie (Paris) and Flowers Gallery (London). This helped convince other international galleries to sign up. We then garnered the trust of local galleries in Shanghai and Beijing, such as leading galleries M97, ShanghArt and Pekin Fine Arts. We are a very well oiled machine and the word has spread that we know what we are doing.”

Ellen Kooi - Halfweg Bosrand

Like most art fairs, the commercial galleries’ sales at Photo Shanghai will be complemented by specially curated sections. Details Montague-Sparey, “We have collaborated with Wang Huangsheng on an exhibition from his photo biennale in Beijing, which explores Chinese Contemporary Photography 2009-2014. Peter Fetterman Gallery (Santa Monica) is also curating a dedicated solo show of Henri Cartier-Bresson, which is groundbreaking in China.”

Of top Chinese photographers to be featured, he continues, “The list is long but expect to see Yang Fudong, Peikwen Cheng, Zhang Xiao, Huang Xiaoliang, among many more.” Others topping the local roster include Hong Lei, Li Lang, Luo Dan, Shan Feiming, Shen Wei and Liu Tao, while international heavyweights, along with Cartier-Bresson, include Ansel Adams, Thierry Cohen and Daido Moriyama.

Excepting a few boutique galleries like Beaugeste, China’s dedicated photography institutions feature prominently in the Photo Shanghai lineup, such as Beijing photography center Three Shadows. Local heavy-hitters ShanghArt -- Shanghai’s first and now China’s premiere contemporary art gallery -- has an artist roster heavily dominated by China’s top photo and video artists, and will showcase the exquisitely evocative black and whites of Shanghai-based star Yang Fudong.

Li Lang - The Yi People No. 40 Riha Zhaojue Sichuan

Dedicated art photography galleries Ofoto and M97 will bring their top artists, joined by several Shanghai galleries that promote emerging artists, including photography: Vanguard, MABS Society/BANK, Aike Dellarco and Magda Danyz.

Vanguard Gallery represents four photographic artists, two Chinese and two Japanese, “all collected by Asian collectors,” says proprietor Lise Li. These include Shen Xuezhe, “who is ethnic Korean, from the border. His shots along the shores can also seem like romantic paintings, like landscapes. There is a lot of feeling in between and within: how one sees one's own family, it is very complex. He doesn’t talk about politics or history or culture, just that feeling that all people can grasp, it’s very powerful,” she describes. “He does not think of what he does as contemporary art, it feels like he takes traditional photographs, but it is a contemporary art approach.”

Some Chinese photographers do transcend the documentary and art dichotomies, which is where Chinese photography is its richest, she muses. Such a shift is possible, “because photography is completely new to China, and not so rigid. Japan has very professional photojournalists [who would never do art].”

Nick Brandt - Elephant with Exploding Dust

Photography particularly flourishes in Shanghai, says Li, because it is “next to the Hangzhou Academy [China Academy of Art], which is very into new media.” Its groundbreaking new media department was established by Chinese video art godfather Zhang Peili, who now also directs the nonprofit space OCAT, which focuses on photography and video exhibitions.

“Photography was once new media, and is still in between. You also see a bit of a return to old style photography.” The scene already has places like OCAT and has had dedicated photography galleries like Ofoto, M97 and previously Deke Erh’s Art Center in Tianzifang, says Li, plus major photography festivals in Chaocangdi, Pingyao and Dali.

Photography fans and aspirational practitioners abound, adds Jean Loh, including a cultish tribe of dedicated hobbyists self-identified as “photo ants.” The general Chinese public, Loh says, loves photography as a backlash to the mass destruction of family images in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jason Larkin - Pressurised Water

Amidst such curatorial and creative infrastructure in China, Photo Shanghai is the first event dedicated to fleshing out the lagging commercial market. “We all know the photography market is bad," Li says. "In China it is very bad, it is hard to survive just as a photography gallery.” Li surmises that Photo Shanghai will complete the scene by expanding the market. “For photography, it was already very professional, we had galleries, artists and media, but no fair. It was a big gap, and now it is complete. Plus it brings new experience, for collectors and galleries, it provides education and a complement. Visitors can see good works, and understand them."

"We in China mostly depend on domestic media to introduce artists, and that is limiting.” She adds that Chinese collectors are more versatile and open. “There are a lot of new or young collectors who pursue not just oils or sculpture; they try it all. That is the best part, it is very important. In other Asian markets, with longer collecting experience, people will only buy this or that.”

Robert Polidori, Green Car, Havana, 1997, Courtesy Camera Work, Berlin

Of China, says Montague-Sparey, “like with all markets, you need to start somewhere and offer the best at the beginning. If you do this, alongside a sound educational and client program you can nurture the passion of collectors and gain their trust. There is no doubt the product is exciting and worthwhile -- it has been very exciting to a huge audience in Europe and America for 40 years. It is time for China to be given this opportunity.”

Awareness is already high, because “there are enough good galleries working with good photographers, to set an excellent standard. For example M97 and ShanghArt have created a very good benchmark for quality and freshness. Photo Shanghai will expand on this and make photography the talk of the city…As years go by, the Fair will develop and people will take for granted the notion that photography is the most exciting art form of the 21st century.”

That has already been happening, and Photo Shanghai should only hasten it, says M97’s Steven Harris. “In 2006, us and Ofoto were the first photography galleries, now there are four to six,” such as the new Rui Art Center, an online entity for six years that just opened a physical space in Hongkou. “And regularly photography will have shows around the city, not in a focused way, but most shows will exhibit some photos and video."

Dostal Cyklus - Letni Lide

"Things are regularly popping up. And museums are getting more interesting, like the PSA starting to do more of it, like in its 30 years [retrospective], and a fall group survey” of photography. Even more is on the horizon, and Shanghai is decisively poised to become a photography hotspot.


Photo Shanghai 2014 Event Details

Photo Shanghai is the first international and largest art fair dedicated to photography in China, held from September 5-7, 2014 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center. It’s organized by the World Photography Organization.

Sandy Angus, co-founder of ART HK (now Art Basel Hong Kong) and Chairman of Montgomery and the World Photography Organisation said, “The vast Asian art market has seen considerable growth over the past decade and in that time photography has been an ever-increasing part within the contemporary art space. China has the advantage of a treasure trove of ancient photographs as well as an appreciation of the medium of photography and its place in the art world. Photo Shanghai has the opportunity to draw on this interest amongst both Chinese and Asia-Pacific collectors.”

Murat Germen Muta-morphosis Istanbul Zincirlikuyu No.01

Photo Shanghai brings together more than 70 galleries from around the world, many of them from right here in Shanghai.

Shanghai's participating galleries include: Aike Dellarco, C14, M97 Gallery, MABS Society, Magda Danyz, Moproo, OFOTO, Vanguard Gallery.

Tickets for Photo Shanghai start at RMB50, and can be purchased by calling 5265-7537, emailing photoshanghai@worldphoto.org or by visiting www.photoshanghai.org

Photo Shanghai is open 11AM-6PM on Friday, Sept 5 and Saturday, Sept 6, and 11AM-5PM on Sunday, Sept. 7. Event organizers will also host VIP and collectors private events on Thursday, Sept. 4 if you are lucky enough to know someone who can secure tickets.


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