Debut Photo Fair Finds Strong Interest in Tokyo
By Lucy Birmingham
Published by Artinfo (now Blouin Artinfo): September 5, 2009
TOKYO—“It’s unbelievable,” said Etsuro Ishihara, owner and director of Tokyo’s pioneer photography gallery, Zeit-Foto Salon, on his first-day, five-million-yen ($54,000) sale at Tokyo Photo 2009, the city’s first photography art fair. Ishihara, who opened Zeit-Foto in 1978 had been skeptical about the debut fair, which he, along with many other Japan-based gallerists had considered high-risk. After repeated pleas from the fair’s tenacious founder and producer, Tomohiro Harada, he finally signed on. “I felt it was my duty to help out,” he said. And the effort has paid off: The 5 million yen sale was for the sensual 1924 gelatin silver print “Kiki” by Man Ray that had caught the fancy of a 30-something Japanese collector. When Ishihara spoke to ARTINFO, he had another Japanese client “very interested” in the gallery’s unique 1861 “Richard Wagner” by Pierre Petit, priced 10 million yen ($108,000).
Part of the attraction for lots of the Japanese dealers was an agreement with Deborah Klochko, director of San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) to exhibit about 50 of the museum’s iconic works in a show called “Photo America,” a sure attraction for Japanese audiences. Three U.S. photo galleries had also committed — Rose Gallery and Kopeikin Gallery from the Los Angeles area and New York’s Danziger Projects — prompting skeptical local photographers and galleries to curb their criticism of the fair and rethink it's possibilities. Ultimately 12 Japanese galleries as well as Magnum Photos Tokyo and a consortium of young galleries called New Tokyo Contemporaries signed on, as well as Hong Kong–based Art Statements. More than 100 artists were represented.
“The Japanese galleries weren’t interested in the fair until the foreign galleries showed interest,” said Harada, who said he intended the event as a way to kick-start the market. “Otherwise, nothing would change,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity.”
Going in, gallerists had low expectations of the debut fair, and many said sales were not the main goal — rather the effort and expense would be chalked up to promotion and educating potential clientele. “I’d rather have 2,000 come to my booth and not sell, than just two people and one sale,” said Art Statements founder Dominique Perregaux. As it turned out, Perregaux was not disappointed. The gallery did not sell its high-profile wares — Erwin Olaf portraits and the digital collages by Russian collective AES+F that included "Carousel" for 10 million yen ($107,000) — but the booth was hopping as over 5,400 visitors cruised the sleek two-floor venue during the three-day event. And the unexpected turnout reinforced Perregaux’s plans to open a Tokyo gallery later this year. “There’s no art scene in Hong Kong, so I’m targeting Japan and Korea, which have strong art cultures,” he explained.
“I have never attended a first time art fair as beautifully presented at this,” said James Danziger of Danziger Projects. In addition to iconic Edward Westons and a surfing series by Don James, Danziger brought fashion-focused work that he predicted would appeal to a young Japanese audience: six fashionista street snaps by the mega-popular fashion blogger and photographer Scott Schuman (a.k.a the Sartorialist), priced at $1,500 apiece, and six works by Annie Leibovitz set at $8,500 each.
Faced with a looming $24 million loan to repay, Leibovitz had sought out Danziger, her dependable gallerist from 1990 to 2000, and asked that he represent her again starting August. “Annie was given some bad advice,” said Danziger. “But that’s all going to be straightened out.” The gallery did its part to help out by selling the photographer’s “Viktor and Rolf,” part of an Alice in Wonderland–themed series that cast famous fashion designers as characters from Lewis Carroll’s book for Vogue in December 2004 (Viktor and Rolf are Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee). “We did not come here to make any significant sales, so this was a bonus,” said Danziger.
Kopeikin Gallery sold a sublime black-and white seascape titled “Four Poles” by David Fokos for 93,000 yen ($1,000), and there was a lot of interest in Jeffrey Milstein’s unique airplane works revealing the vehicles' underside, starting at $2,200. “If the fair can continue for the next few years it will develop a buyers base,” said director Paul Kopeikin. “It’s very likely that all of us [the three U.S. galleries] will return again to the fair next year.”
Rose Gallery showed popular works by William Eggleston and Martin Parr, but had the most luck with an image from Andrew Bush’s 1989 to 1997 car series that sold for $7,300, and “Shortie on the Bally Box,” from Susan Meiselas’s 1972 black-and-white strip-tease series, which went for $1,500. The gallery also sold 25 limited-edition art books. “Art fairs in the U.S. have become commercial enterprises rather than educational. Here they’re trying to strike a balance as a cultural event,” said director Rose Shoshana. “There have been so many young people here, much more than any art fair I’ve seen in the United States.”
G/P Gallery director Shigeo Goto, a respected Japan photography insider and crucial adviser for the fair, echoed Shoshana’s observations. “Now we know. The fair has shown us how huge the interest is in photography among young people in Tokyo.” Interest and sales of work by foreign photographers seemed to outweigh the Japanese works, underscoring Japan’s fascination with things foreign. “It’s easier for the foreign photographers to sell here,” said Goto, who sold two Peter Sutherland 2007 Digital C-Prints: “Hill People” for 150,000 yen ($1,600) and “Roll Cage” for 120,000 yen ($1,300). “The Japanese aren’t ready yet to buy Japanese work.”
But some galleries did well with Japanese work, including Paris and Tokyo-based Gallery 21, which saw brisk sales overall. Gallery owner Naoko Ohta cleverly offered a large and small print of many works, at different price points. “I’m offering two print sizes to encourage the market,” said Ohta. “Once someone buys that first piece it’s like opening a door.” Sales of Yukinori Tokoro’s black and white Tokyo cityscapes included “Armored Car and a Man" (2008) with a large 273,000 yen (US$3,000) print and smaller 102,440 yen (US$1,000) version. Buyers were friends and fans of the well-known former fashion photographer, now also a popular blogger.
At the Hiromi Yoshii gallery booth, works by up-and-coming Japanese landscape photographer Nao Tsuda sold quickly, including “Rera Faraway #10” (2009), which depicts a sandy path beckoning through craggy rocks that went for 450,000 yen ($4,800). “An excellent venue, an educational exhibition, U.S. gallery presence, and a mix of vintage and contemporary works,” said director Yoshii, summing up the fair. “That’s why so many people came and why it was a success.”