Photo London 2021 – A Visual Extravaganza

HSU CHING-YUAN, The Statue of Liberty #084, 2020. © the Artist Courtesy of the artist & Galerie Frédéric Moisan.
The Statue of Liberty © Hsu Ching-Yuan & Galerie Frédéric Moisan

What’s my favourite event in the visual arts calendar in London? It’s a tough question but there’s no doubt that Photo London is a strong contender. It’s a must-see event on my cultural hit list.

Photo London is a brilliant showcase for global photography but the pandemic has robbed us of this major event – until now. Finally, the long wait is over. Photo London snaps back into action at Somerset House in London from 9-12 September after multiple delays.

It’s a huge achievement to get this massive photographic show back up and running. Photo London is the first physical photography fair to take place anywhere in the world for at least 18 months. The organisers faced a “tsunami of difficulties” but have used all their creativity in presenting the strongest edition of the fair in its history.

The depth, range and quality of the 2021 event is impressive, from vintage works by Robert Capa and Lee Miller to modern icons and striking contemporary imagery by the world’s leading lights of photography. What’s hot on this year’s schedule? Here’s my sneak preview… and 10 reasons to make a beeline to this year’s event.

Photo Credits – “Saturday 1st June, 2019”- Nick Knight (left); “The Animals” by Melanie Manchot c/o Parafin, London (top right); “Gardin The Venice Lido” c/o Prahlad Bubbar, Gianni Berengo (bottom right).

The Big Hitters

I love the sheer scale of Photo London with room after room, gallery after gallery of exhibits and works. This year’s show is no exception and promises to push boundaries even further with 88 galleries from 15 countries showcasing their photographic wares. It’s a huge show with a dizzying amount of imagery which is surprisingly eclectic. It may be a cliche but this is truly a show with something for everyone.

I felt slightly punch drunk after my first ever Photo London show, but that was because I walked around its gallery spaces for a solid 2-3 hours without a break. This time I’m coming better prepared and will be taking a few interludes. I suggest that you do the same and grab a drink, cocktail or cake.

It’s also a challenge to know what to wear – how to look devastatingly cool whilst mingling with the arty set AND being capable of walking 6 miles around the galleries in a trendy pair of shoes! My last trip was fantastic but my feet were killing me for days… not helped by the weather being hot as hell. By the end I looked more ‘Sweaty Betty’ than “Cool Grace Kelly’. This year, I’ll be planning my stylish outfit and footwear more carefully.

There’s a strong contemporary vibe to Photo London 2021 with exhibitors including galleries from as far afield as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Holland, Germany and Cairo. London is also well represented with major photographic galleries presenting the best of their collections. It’s a joy to see such a range of work and talent. All the big hitters in the world of photography will be on display.

The End Sends Advance Warning by Todd Hido c/o Reflex Amsterdam.

Talent Spotting

Photo London is a great place to spot the best new talent in international photography. I’ll be heading to the Discovery section for a taster of work by what could be the big deal photographers of the next decade.

The prestigious Emerging Photographer Award shines a light on emerging talent exhibiting at the fair and this year is especially strong. Who will be the next Rankin, Salgado, Capa or Lee Miller? Who is making waves, whether it’s in the field of political commentary, war photography or visual innovation and experimentation?

This year there’s a chance to see work by the 2020 ‘new talent’ winner Marguerite Bornhauser at the Nikon stand which will be demonstrating the wealth of newcomers bursting onto the scene. I love Bornhauser’s work which is striking in its use of colours and effects, as seen in two beautiful images pictured below.

Photo Credits – Marguerite Bornhauser c/o Carlos Carvalho Arte Contemporânea.

Photo London 2021 – Highlights

  • 88 photographic galleries from 15 countries
  • Premiere of the exhibition “Close Enough: Robert Capa”
    The Emerging Photography Award – the best young photographers
  • Talks Programme – experts, photographers and cultural commentators
  • Professional Photography Workshops
  • Discover the Full schedule for Photo London 2021

Where will I start my Photo London 2021 journey? First I’ll be heading to the archive displays to see the iconic works of Robert Capa, Lee Miller and the Magnum photographers. They provide a benchmark for what’s great about photography as an art form – their innovative work provides a good starting point and a point of comparison. Like fine wines, you need to sample the best vintage work.

Then I’ll dive into the galleries showcasing today’s contemporary shakers and stirrers in the photographic world. I’m always keen to discover great innovative work especially diverse talents. The images below are examples of the type of work that gets me excited – fresh, vibrant and thought provoking.

Photo Credits – “Going Home” by Benji Reid c/o October Gallery; “From Air Flight” by Valery-Katsuba c/o Shtager Gallery; “Mile End Park” by Ben Gabriel ; “Without You” by Jung Lee; “Atlantic Ocean III (Copacabana Beach)” by Nadav Kandar c/o Flowers Gallery.

I’m a sucker for mysterious landscape photography and moody imagery. The two evocative images above are just the sort of thing I’d love to have framed on one of my walls. They both share a strange, elusive quality which lingers in the mind long after you’ve looked at them.

Lens Legends

Photo Credits – Robert Capa/Kogan Collection/Messums.

In terms of photographic archive, this year’s Photo London has surpassed itself with three cracking shows focusing on iconic photojournalism and documentary work.

“Close Enough” features 50 vintage photographs by Robert Capa. specially selected from the Kogan Collection. They include an early print of “The Falling Soldier” which is widely recognised as one of the most important war photographs of all time. It illustrates how Capa’s brand of photojournalism is even more relevant than ever today, especially in war zones and places of conflict such as Afghanistan.

The exhibition title refers to Capa’s mantra – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. It highlights the risks and challenges Capa encountered in photographing tragedy. Sadly, Robert Capa paid the ultimate price for his closeness to the action. His photojournalism during the war in Vietnam cost him his life at the age of 40.

The resonance of his work today is as powerful as ever, highlighting the challenges he encountered in photographing tragedy and death while remaining a detached observer.

The centre piece of this exhibition is Capa’s original Leica camera on which took his earliest photographs which is being exhibited for the first time. It offers a rare insight into Capa’s image-making process and photographic journey.

Lee Miller – From Fashion to Fascism

Photo Credits – “Lee Miller, Weimar, Germany, 1945” by David Sherman – Copyright Lee MillerArchives. “Model Wearing Digby Morton” – Lee Miller c/o Lee Miller Archives.

The Lee Miller Archives spoils us with another treat. Works by the famous female photographer will be exhibited alongside the private work ofLIFE magazine photographer and editor David E. Scherman, who captured Miller’s life as a war correspondent.

Lee Miller’s wartime images demonstrate her ability to shoot arresting images using available light in whatever situation she found herself in. Her Surrealist eye and sense of style are all pervasive in her photographs. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of her lesser known works.

It will also be interesting to discover the story of how Lee Miller became British Vogue’s war correspondent and how her war reportage managed to cover fashion. I hadn’t realised that she’d also photographed British wartime fashion in the earlier years of the war.

Rankin – The Power of the Image

Photo Credits – “Jude and Ronald” and “Banana Split II” c/o – Rankin and Arts in Progress Gallery.

If anyone looks set to light up a photographic show like a firework it’s Rankin, one of the world’s most influential fashion photographers. His iconic work leaps off the wall and hits you full-on. His sensory overload makes it hard to ignore his creativity and clever use of bold, colourful imagery. These two shots by Rankin pictured above hold an undeniable energy and are often unconventional . For me, they show strong influences of Pop Art especially Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. I love their playfulness and bold colours.

The Photo London show sees Rankin picking his favourite images including some of his best known subjects as well as his more conceptual work. This is a very different archive show which mainly takes in his outsider take on fashion photography and portraiture.

Magnum – Insights into Our World

“What do you hang on the walls of your mind?”

Eve Arnold – photographer

Magnum’s ‘gallery booth’ at Photo London reveals the powerful role that photography can play in offering insights into culture, politics, history and humanity. There’s no doubt that Magnum photographers have been at the forefront of documenting and chronicling major political and historic events.

The Magnum gallery will features one of the most potent images from the 1960s including Eve Arnold’s iconic portrait of Human Rights activist Malcolm X, taken in Chicago in 1962. Another favourite Magnum image of mine is Hiroji Kubota’s Black Panthers’ protest in the snow, also shot in Chicago in 1969.

Also on view will be Marc Riboud’s 1967 legendary photograph of an American girl confronting the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the anti-Vietnam march. It has as much resonance today as it did 50 years ago.

Abandoned Places and Colour Fields

Photo Credits – “Red Orange’ by Jo Bradford; “Crease” Christine Wilkinson c/o Gas Gallery.

One of the fields to savour at Photo London is abstract photography which can be seen in abundance at the fair. This year’s show has a great selection of work curated by the Gas Gallery including Jo Bradford and Christine Wilkinson‘s photographs which could almost be mistaken for the colour field work of Abstract Expressionist painters.

Elsewhere, there is much to admire about the show’s selection of”architectural photography”, characterised by unusual places, strong lines and an absence of human life. This work is perhaps a bit ‘Marmite’ for some folk but I’m a big fan.

Mark Ruwedel’s photographs of ‘demilitarised zones’ look intriguing with images of bunkers, Cold War landscapes and military ruins. Taken over a period of 20 years, these photos have never been exhibited before.

It’s also worth checking out the work of Robert Conrad, Edmund Sumner and Jonathan Moore, three contemporary photographers who share a strong interest in photographing abandoned and often derelict architectural structures. I’m fascinated by derelict buildings so this is right up my street!

Photo Credits – Guido Guidi-Vlissingen (top and left); Mark Ruwedel-Bunker, Halifax Harbor (bottom right).

It’s Only Rock ‘n ‘Roll But I Like It

Photo London has always had a reputation for showcasing some of the best archive rock’n’ roll photography of all time, and this year is no exception with great images of 1960s and 1970s musical icons.

I’m especially excited about the Paul Stolper Gallery’s exhibition which brings together five previously unseen works by Kevin Cummins taken at the Sex Pistol’s last ever UK concert. They capture the raw energy of the band’s music at a moment when the band were about to implode. And it all happened in Huddersfield!

There’s much to admire from the 1960s archives with striking iconic images of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones heading my highlights list.

Photo Credits – “Bob Dylan Outside His Byrdcliffe Home” – Elliot Land c/o TMPG; “Mick Jagger – Fur Hood” – David Bailey; “Sex Pistols” – Kevin Cummins.

Many of the musical archive photos on display have been seen before and are unashamedly retro, but the best images bear the test of time and it’s great to see them in their full vibrant glory. The Rolling Stones’ photographs will have an added poignancy given the recent death of drummer Charlie Watts. David Bailey’s classic shots capture the essence of the 1960s if you love that vibe.

I’ll also be looking out for hidden gems which have rarely surfaced before. On a personal note, I’ll also be reflecting on whether to splash out on a giant sized Siouxsie Sioux print, one of my all-time female punk icons!

Photo Credits – “Billy Idol – Boston” and “Siouxsie and the Banshees” by Michael Grecco; “The Rolling Stones – Imitate Modern” c/o David Bailey/Platinum Palladium.
David Bailey.

Land of Dreams – An American Journey

For something completely different, I’m really looking forward to seeing Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s “Land of Dreams” which comprises photographs and a two-channel film installation about the people and landscape of the American West. It’s a powerful journey through America today.

“Land of Dreams” presents a multifaceted, surreal look at contemporary American culture during the Trump era. The photographic installation comprises 111 photographs of New Mexico residents who Neshat captured throughout filming. Neshat asked her subjects about their dreams, which she recorded in Farsi on many of the portraits, along with the sitters’ names and dates and places of birth.

One of her video installation films follows a young Iranian art student named Simin who travels around suburban and rural New Mexico photographing local residents in their homes. The viewer is transported into these imagined narratives alongside Simin, who wanders inside each participant’s subconscious mind. It sounds like a fantastic mix of art, video and photography with a potent political message.

Landscape of dreams – c/o Shirin Neshat, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels and Goodman Gallery, London

Random Pleasures

What I enjoy most about the Photo London Fair is its unexpected random pleasures. I love discovering surreal and sometimes puzzling images which are complexly unexpected… and there’s always something to surprise, shock or entertain around every corner of the show.

These are just a few of the images that piqued my interest when I was leafing through the exhibition catalogue ranging from narrative photography to the surreal, puzzling and abstract.

The image of a mother and son holding a grenade and weapon whilst wearing what look to be virtual reality headsets might be a comment on gaming, warfare and military culture? I’ll be fascinated to find out more about the work of its creator, Gregori Maiofis.

“We Have Access to Dummies Only” – Gregori Maiofis c/o Shtager Gallery

I’m a huge fan of narrative photography with strange story lines. “The Nightmare” by Yushi Li is a great example of photography with multi-layered story telling. Visually it almost looks like a Rembrandt painting or a Derek Jarman arthouse film with its use of rich colour, shadow and chiaroscuro.

There are also strong hints of “The Death of Chatterton”, a famous Victorian Romantic painting by Henry Wallis, which adds to its slightly disturbing effect. Perhaps it’s a treatise on death, mortality and modern technology? I’m intrigued to find out the back story.

The Nightmare – by Yushi Li c/o HI-NOON Editions

One of my favourite gallery shows is likely to be Michael Hoppen’s photographic exhibition which always features a few surprises. This year it’s a retrospective of 1960s Mexican photography with plenty of unusual imagery which captures the essence of that nation’s landscapes, people and places.

Once I’ve completed the giant circuit of the galleries, it’ll be time for me to head home and reflect on what I most enjoyed about this year’s show. But I’ll also be sampling the Digital Photo London event on my social media platforms because this goes on well beyond the four day show. It runs from 9-28 September across digital platforms.

I’ll need to soak my feet in a large bowl of spa water after the 6 mile hike around the gallery spaces! Most importantly though, I’m looking forward to having a fun and fabulous time . Photo London has pulled off a real coup in exhibiting such provoking, creative and inspiring work. Don’t miss the show of the year!

Photo Credits “Mexico State” by Enrique Metinides (left); “Mujer y mascara, Ciudad de Mexico” by Kati Horna – (right) c/o Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Where To Find Photo London…

You can snap up the action at Photo London @ Somerset House in London between 9-12 September. Ticket prices are pre-bookable with standard tickets costing £29. Guided tours are also available.

The nearest Tube stations to Somerset House are Charing Cross and Temple.

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