by Thomas Lélu & David Bellion

 

Browsing through Paris-Photo 2016 is like taking a stroll through history. It is a life-size slideshow for both visitors and participant alike, a cartography of landmark images. Still lifes, nudes, fashion photographs, portraits of anonymous people or celebrities, there's something for all tastes, all sensibilities.

David Bellion and I are on a mission to explore contemporary sport photography at the twentieth edition of the photographic art fair. The first print to catch our attention is an empty tennis court, entitled "Racquet Club", photographed from the front, in black and white. The photograph is framed in blue and gray and is dated 1980.

David notices two photographic forest murals stuck on the walls of the covered court and one has the impression that one could enter or exit the space through these portals. We are drawn to this strangely empty, static but almost surreal, image. It is by Lynn Cohen, an American artist who emigrated to Canada and whose work explores the ambivalence of social space: schools, sports halls or offices. She is one of the pioneers of conceptual photography.

All her life she has photographed public places devoid of people, focusing on their artificial aspect and evoking the social control that is exerted throughout these premises. Inspired by the urban and landscape work of the turn of the century French photographer Eugène Atget and the American social documentalist Walker Evans, her work also connects with that of  Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German duo famous for their frontal photographs of industrial installations.

In the middle of the noisy confusion and the permanent flow of Paris-Photo visitors, the image attracts us with its subtle charm and acts as an invitation to escape the crowd. We delve a little deeper into the heart of the matter. We scrutinize the stands in search of sportsmen in action but strangely sport seems under-represented. From time to time we can see a sculptural figure or an abandoned field, there aredancers, naked beauties, but no physical effort or grimacing face. Might sport suffer from a certain snobbery from the Fine Arts?

As we begin to ask ourselves this, we come across a series of photographs forming a set of homogeneous black and white prints. This time it is sportsmen.  Diving, running, high jump, the highly contrasted images in black and white give the sportsmen an almost mythical dimension. Men in silhouette rise against a heavy, tormented sky giving the images a dramatic, tragic aspect. Even though they date from the 2008 Olympics, these shots could have been photographed at any time.

The photographer is Paolo Pellegrin and these images are from a series commissioned from Magnum, the famous New York co-operative which brings together some of the world's greatest photographers and photojournalists like Robert Capa or Henri Cartier Bresson.

Born in 1964, Pellegrin joined Magnum in 2005 and travelled the world, notably for the magazine Newsweek, immortalizing many conflicts or even more recently the immigrant crisis.

His style, a "hard" black and white aesthetic is a quest for the "perfect" image, symbolic and memorial. These images remind us that photography is a comparatively  "young" art compared to painting, and owes a part of its heritage to a generation of reportage photographers. These pioneers have marked their times and are themselves heroes, and some have even sacrificed their lives for their art.  Photography is not always a safe practice, a salon practice.

It is however a practice that has found manifold expression and wide audience through the tabloid press and  magazines, and within experimental and creative laboratories. In 1954, another photographer and former assistant of Fernand Léger began a long collaboration with the magazine Vogue. His name, William Klein and we have discovered his famous retouched prints here at the Polka gallery.

 

Klein is an American photographer born in 1928. Inspired by his beloved cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic cities, those wide angled, dynamic, decadent frames are unmistakeable, sometimes disturbing, sometimes violent.  Klein has for many years translated his perceptive and instinctive gaze into fashion photography and cinema. For Paris-Photo the gallery chose to show prints of “behind the scenes” images of his film  ‘Mr Freedom’ in 1969, enhanced by the hand of the photographer with the touches of bright colour that have became one of his trademarks.

He used this technique in many of his most famous photographic monographs. Through this gesture he realizes a sort of synthesis between painting and photography. Accents of paint underscore the attitudes and give the photos more life and reality. For Klein the practice is linked more to the process of selection rather than to the painting itself as it is in the work of Arnulf Reiner or Nobuyoshi Araki, but he is surely one of its innovators. In the images of Klein, life overflows.

This is also the case with Aaron Siskind whose work is displayed at the Glitterman Gallery: high divers are suspended against the sky like a painting, recalling the scale and dynamic sweep of the work of the abstract expressionists De Kooning or Jackson Pollock with whom he was friends in 1950s post war America.

From here we move to the Swiss Alps at the beginning of the last century. This time the prints are small, discreet and the frames neat. We are in Zurich in 1920 and photographer Othmar Rutz captures the ski jumping world championship. Almost academic, these  images seem to be drawn from another world. The small figures are caught at the perfect moment in almost unreal idyllic settings. Each image seems more perfect than the next and one studies them like stamps or precious stones appreciating the minuteness of the details and the technical control. They are jewel-like rare objects for a connaisseur .

A little further on we notice three more black and white images. Will these colours dominate the exhibition? At Keith De Lellis, a gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue, the walls that face the main aisle are adorned with three snapshots of, once again,  divers. The first print is the work of a master, not an American this time but a Russian: the great Alexander Rodtchenko, one of the founders of Russian constructivism. Painter, sculptor, photographer and designer, his photographic work is marked by extraordinary pictorial expertise. The photo displayed in Paris-photo well illustrates his approach. According to Rodtchenko the spectator must “revolutionize’  his or her “visual thinking" and we are impressed by the formal audacity of the artist with his signature vertiginous framing. "Photography has every right and deserves to be treated with respect as an art of today," he wrote. History has proved him right. What is fascinating is that the prints exhibited here remain small in size, which does not detract from their genius, but amid the enormous prints that abound in Paris-photo, one is forced to say, decidedly, that size does not matter.

After Rodchenko and Rutz it seemed strange to us not to find a contemporary artist, a young blade among all these veterans. There is Vivian Sassen at the Pace Gallery with her now famous series Flamboya composed of photographs in the bright and almost surreal colors of Africa. This is a series of images where one flirts with sport through entangled bodies, sculptural compositions and, yes finally, colors. But it is a little later in our journey that we discover in Alain Gutharc an artist or rather a duo named None Footbol Club. A Funny name for a funny photo: "The tonsure" (after Marcel Duchamp) experiments with the infiltration of the world of football by Art.

The artists found that the haircuts of footballers constituted one of the rare spaces for free expression that the latter possess, and they asked a former professional player to reproduce the famous tonsure of Duchamp, immortalized by Man Ray. The films and photographs of Cissé sporting this new cut then circulated on the active social networks of the football sphere. The artists try to identify the impact of an archetypal image of modernity, that of Man Ray, on fans. The project also declines this visual sign in objects in order to question the notion of aesthetic advertising. A full program!

Aside from these works, we did not find many recent sports images in Paris-photo, today's sports photography will have to mature a little more before showing its face. “The results are encouraging” interrupts David. It seems that the portrayal of sport today remains an authentic subject for artists and that there is everything to reinvent.

Photographer friends, on your marks, ready, go!