12 Must-See Works at PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco

  • Photo courtesy of PHOTOFAIRS.

    Photo courtesy of PHOTOFAIRS.

San Francisco is a known quantity in the world of photography. The city is home to major institutions that have long supported the medium—like Pier 24, SFMOMA, and de Young—and has played muse to leading photographers, from Ansel Adams to Stephen Shore. As such, it has a rich collector base for vintage photography. Capitalizing on this critical mass, PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco opened its inaugural edition on Thursday evening, with 34 galleries hailing from 14 countries. The fair launched with an ambitious vision to introduce a new generation of collectors to the medium, particularly through its contemporary practitioners.

“San Francisco is synonymous with the medium—there’s such a vibrancy inherent to the culture here for photography that we were able to work with,” PHOTOFAIRS artistic director Alexander Montague-Sparey told me during the fair’s opening. Eager to engage young generations of the tech, real estate, and finance industries, he’s developed the fair with an eye to make buying photography accessible—he estimates that the majority of work at the fair is priced between $5,000 and $50,000. “I really want to get people who have never been to an art fair before to come here and say ‘Oh, I can buy something for $3,000 that I love and it can go into my house,” he said. “It’s a very democratic fair in that respect.”

And while the fair does offer important work for serious vintage collectors, Montague-Sparey stressed its focus on “photography as a contemporary phenomenon,” having placed emphasis on work made in the 21st century. Contemporary works that speak to the Bay Area—including tech-focused light box works or visions of the Golden Gate—appear to be geared toward young collectors in particular. Below, we highlight 12 standout works from the fair.



Ryan McGinley, Lying Lamb, 2011

Ratio 3

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  • Ryan McGinley, Lying Lamb, 2011. Image courtesy of Ratio 3, San Francisco.

    Ryan McGinley, Lying Lamb, 2011. Image courtesy of Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Around 2010 McGinley began to bring live animals on set, and shot them as they crawled over the nude bodies of his waify subjects; culminating in a 2012 show at Team Gallery, the creatures featured range from lemurs to lambs. The series, including this work priced at $14,000, was among his first to include such bold use of color, and reflects the limited direction a photographer can give when the subject is a lamb or a lemur. “You can control a model, but you really often can’t control an animal,” said Ratio 3 owner Chris Perez. “So the results are these images where they’re sensual, they’re playful, and yet slightly menacing.”



Paul Fusco, Untitled from RFK Funeral Train, 1968

Danziger Gallery

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In 1968, Look Magazine sent Fusco on assignment to cover the train ride from New York to Washington D.C. that carried Robert F. Kennedy’s dead body to his funeral. Fusco trained his lens outside the train, at the crowds of Americans paying homage along the route. Most of the resulting images were never published and only surfaced years later—including 20, from some 2,000 photographs taken on the assignment, that form a portfolio at the fair (only 2 of the 10 editions, priced between $9,000–$15,000, are left). “They chronicle the geographic and socioeconomic shifts of that part of the U.S.,” says gallery director Nera Lerner. “We thought that it was important to present this work now because in 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States and Bobby Kennedy was the kind of favorite to be the democratic candidate, it’s sort of an interesting reminder that we’ve dealt with politically difficult times before.”



Ahmet Ertug, Teatro Farnese, Parma, Italy, 2016

Elipsis Projects

Platform, Booth C06

With work that’s often compared to Candida Höfer, Ertug is being shown in the Bay Area for the first time at the fair, and on the occasion is presenting new works taken in 2016 in Italy for the first time. His works depict sweeping, commanding interiors of architectural cultural heritage sites, devoid of the people who inhabit them daily. This work, on offer for $70,000, pictures the Baroque 17th-century Teatro Farnese in Parma. Ertug was trained as an architect at London’s Architectural Association before shifting his focus to photography, and his work is concerned with preserving these interiors and capturing their history. He does so with a large-format camera, working solely with natural light and without any retouching.



Matt Black, USA. Allensworth, California. Fence post. Allensworth has a population of 471 and 54% live below the poverty level., 2014

Magnum Photos

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Part of the “Geography of Poverty” series he’s been creating for over two years, this work was taken while Black was speaking with a man in California’s Central Valley, where Black also originates. “I’m traveling across the U.S. looking at communities that have poverty rates above 20%,” Black tells me, “so it’s like a nationwide survey essentially. I’ve covered a fair amount of ground already—44 states.” Black, who is in the midst of another such trip that will take him through more communities, emphasizes that the works are born from his background in photojournalism; he describes his approach as accumulating images in an experiential and spontaneous way. The work is priced at $4,500.



Sohei Nishino, Diorama Map, San Francisco, 2016

Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

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Nishino has been creating his “Diorama Maps” photographs for over a decade. For each, he spends a span of two to three months walking through a city armed with a 35mm camera—photographing from streets and rooftops, capturing sidewalks, landmarks, and people. After shooting hundreds of rolls of film, Nishino returns to his studio to print contact sheets, which he collages together to capture the essence of the city, rather than its literal geography. He then takes a photograph of the finished “map.” In time with his current solo exhibition at SFMOMA, the artist captured San Francisco for the first time in 2016 with this work, priced at $13,000.



Anja Niemi, The Flower Room, 2016

Little Black Gallery

Main Section, Booth B07

Norwegian photographer Niemi is the protagonist in her photographs; she works in solitude, assuming characters in carefully staged environments. This work, priced between $1,600 and $2,700, is part of “The Woman Who Never Existed,” a new series that debuted at the fair, inspired by the 20th-century Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who once told a journalist “away from the stage I do not exist.” Niemi assumed the role of a fictional actress who faces the camera while on stage, though shields her face from it while in the stunning, romantic interiors of her highly decorative home.



Laura Plageman, Response to Print of Kudzu, Texas, 2010

De Soto Gallery

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The Oakland-based Plageman trains her cameras on landscapes that are accessible to the average person, be it off the Bay Area coast or by the side of a road in Texas. After photographing from life in nature, Plageman makes prints in her studio which she then cuts, layers, and crumples to create new compositions—and then photographs to make the final work. This image, taken in Texas and priced here at $3,500, depicts the kudzu vine, an invasive species found in the southern United States. “I was thinking more about the politics of the environment, and policy,” Plageman told me. “The kudzu vine was introduced to the U.S. by the government—they thought it would help with erosion and things like that—and it turned out to be this weed that blankets trees, covers everything that’s native. I wanted to make it feel like it’s this kind of wave taking over.”



Sally Mann, Virginia #42, 2004

Edwynn Houk

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Mann made a name for herself through the photographs of her children, taken between 1984 and 1992, which she stopped around the time her eldest daughter turned 12. “This is somewhat of an extension of that series, which was done when the children were coming of age, in their twenties, not living at home anymore,” said gallery director Julie Castellano. “They’re done so close up they’re almost an homage to death portraits.” One of an edition of five, the $55,000 large work was created in the wet collodion process, one of the earliest processes of photography. “Sally loves the way that it abstracts; she loves the imperfections. She can make a perfect print but she loves to play with the emulsion and add abstraction.”



Shahriar Tavakoli, from “High Above & Down Below” series

Mohsen Gallery

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  • Shahriar Tavakoli, from the “High Above & Down Below” series. Image courtesy of Mohsen Gallery.

    Shahriar Tavakoli, from the “High Above & Down Below” series. Image courtesy of Mohsen Gallery.

Tavakoli became well-known for commercial landscape photography before pursuing his own work. “He became interested in how landscape is something that’s easily recognizable by anyone, as an indicator of memory or nostalgia, whether it’s personal or collective,” said a gallery representative. Upon first glance, this work (on offer for $3,000+) appears to figure a UFO hovering above an empty landscape, but in reality the orbs of light emanate from an unseen streetlamp, obscured in fog. “The works are very pared down; he does abstract, sort of minimal works of landscape with that fascination of it in mind.”



Todd Hido, Untitled #2027-b, 1997

Casemore Kirkeby

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This photograph of a nondescript house veiled in dreamy mist (priced at $4,000–$7,500) is typical of the San Francisco-based Hido, and part of his breakout series “House Hunting.” Born in Ohio, the California College of the Arts grad created the series between his home state and the Bay Area, from the mid-’90s through the early 2000s, searching out homes that felt familiar. “He looks for a type of place that’s similar to where he grew up and had his formative experiences, so even though Ohio is home, he looks for that place in other places,” said gallery director Jennifer O’Keeffe. Working at night, Hido took the long exposure shots with a camera strapped to the side of his car. “Even though he’s photographing the exterior of these structures it feels like he’s thinking about the emotional life that’s happening on the inside,” O’Keeffe added.



Alejandro Guijarro, CERN III, 2012

Tristan Hoare

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For this series Guijarro used a large-format camera to photograph blackboards from the great quantum physics departments around the world; this one was found at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. Printed and framed at the exact size of the original blackboards, with the crisp line and texture of chalk perfectly intact, one could not be blamed for mistaking this work (priced between $9,000–20,000) for an actual blackboard. “Effectively, he searches out the best institutions, gets access to them which is fairly complicated in itself, and whenever there’s a blackboard he takes a photograph and then reproduces it in exactly the same size,” said gallery owner Tristan Hoare. “On one level they become rather beautiful photographs of drawings, but also there’s the idea of photographing an idea; you can see the thought process, there’s layers of chalk built up over time.” The works also speak to the tradition inherent to these programs, that they still use blackboards, which have largely been obscured by obsolescence.



Herb Ritts, Batman (Back), 1988, 

CAMERA WORK

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Immediately recognizable, this shot of the back of Batman’s head was part of a series Ritts created in the late ’80s of the characters from the film franchise (he also shot a portrait of Jack Nicholson as the Joker). A highly sought-after image (Kourtney Kardashian owns one) by Ritts, who is best known for his fashion photography, this $22,000 work is one of an edition of only 12 at this size, and signed by the late photographer. His work ceased to be printed after his death in 2002.


—Casey Lesser