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Perpignan .... Art market or Meat market?

25 September 2000 - EPUK

EPUK’s Brian Harris reports from Visa pour l’Image – The 12th International festival of Photojournalism, Perpignan, France.

Perpignan for the past 11 years, under the guiding hand of Jean-Francois Leroy, has held one of the worlds most important festivals celebrating top quality editorial photography. This year the work was, on the whole, as stunning as ever, but the festival was spiced up by the introduction of corporate takeovers and the sort of rumour mongering that wouldn’t have disgraced the drinking holes of Westminster or the wine bars of Canary Wharf in London’s Isle of Dogs.

Would Corbis, the giant international stock photo agency owned by computer wiz kid Bill Gates come out and renegotiate it’s contract with Sygma photographers before they all left to join other agencies, or would they wait and hope the storm would blow over?

Would Hachette, the Paris based publishing giant, announce it’s takeovers as informed comment had already reported exclusively on this web site?

Steve Davis at Perpignan. Photo © Brian Harris

In the event everything happened at once. On Thursday, Hachette announced it’s shopping list of agencies purchased including FSP (Frank Spooner Pictures), Katz and IPG in London and Gamma, Stills, Top, Rapho, Explorer, Hoa-qui, Jacana and Match pictures from France and beyond. Much “discussion“ took place at the press conference principally concerning a possible proposal regarding the keeping of individual photographers images for a minimum of 5 years. Many photographers were not so much unhappy, more circumspect about what big business might do to their creative output, although one leading UK photographer (with one of the newly taken over agencies) with a smile on his face after striking a nice £10k magazine deal said , “ I don’t see a problem – I see investment for the future – time will tell”. Indeed.

The next day Steve Davis, CEO of Corbis along with Marcel Saba (the SABA agency was taken over by Corbis recently), star photographer David Turnley (of the brothers Peter and David fame) and Jim Roehrig of Corbis-Outline in New York, held a press conference, cancelled (for fear of being ridiculed or being ripped limb from limb?) just a few days previous. The auditorium at the Palais de Congress was packed, the monkeys were literally hanging from the ceiling, to hear CEO Davis “personally apologise for all and any misunderstandings in relation to the Sygma takeover and the issuing of the rejected contracts…..we wish to expand the art of visual journalism around the world…”. Marcel Saba said, “I’m very proud of what I have done”, and David Turnley talked about two films (surely he should have been at Cannes?) that Corbis were planning to make. After less than 30 minutes the PR speak had done it’s job, very corporate and VERY American. Discussion was given to the floor and not one, not one question was asked. Maybe the photographers were scared of raising their heads or maybe the ones that really cared about the art and craft of photojournalism – as against the business – had like Sygma co-founder Jean Pierre-Laffont already left to start again, this time setting up and re defining Gamma’s New York – North American operation.

Steve Davis explains… Photo © Brian Harris

So, what of the actual images, i.e. the ‘product’ that these behemoths will have to ultimately sell to make a return on the millions invested.

I looked at the work of Gary Calton, from the UK. His story titled “Tuberculosis in the former Soviet Union: the Captain of the Armies of Death”. As hard a hitting set of images that you would wish to see on TB patients suffering an appalling end being cared for in the gulags of Siberia and Uzbekistan. According to the World Health Organisation TB will take 70,000,000 lives in the next 20 years, more than the total number of deaths from Malaria and AIDS put together. I didn’t know this, I didn’t know anything about TB, but now I do. The power and intelligence of Gary Calton’s photographs have educated and informed me and left me a little overwhelmed. Thank you Gary.

On a slightly lighter note, but no less powerful are Mike Abrahams pictures on ‘Faith’ ... “With the faithful – a journey with those who believe”. An epic set photographed around the world over the past 5 years documenting the power of faith in mystery miracles. Beautifully photographed by one of the most sensitive photographers in the business.

Amongst other work seen and must be noted, a retro set by American David Hume Kennerly one of the giants of the past 30 years. His pictures, many I remember seeing when I first came into this profession in the late ‘60’s, spread from Vietnam through Watergate (for those too young to remember… “a little local difficulty in the White House”), the Ford and Carter years as well as “peace” in the Middle-East. At a press conference Kennerly, in exasperation about the way magazines and newspaper are now treating images, said, “....there are picture editors out there who wouldn’t know a picture if it came and hit them between the eyes”, I think he was being polite, I would have used another part of the anatomy to make the very same point.

The evening shows projected onto vast screens under the stars are the highlight of any visit to Perpignan. 10,000 images are shown during the evening programs, accompanied by a superb music soundtrack that resonates around the walls of this ancient Medite

For those photographers and picture editors with ox like staminas the days begin early at the Hotel Pams. The terrace is jam packed with the young and not so young selling their wares. Some queue politely, others push their portfolios under the noses of anyone who will give them a minute. It’s a bit like a city trading floor without the shouting – not my scene at all. I preferred a quietish glass of wine sitting outside any of the dozens of nearby bars and chatting informally with anyone who happened to be passing by – the soft sell?

I didn’t go to Perpignan to pick up assignments or even to sell story ideas, I went to be inspired, to recharge those slightly jaded cynical flagging batteries to remind myself of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was daunted and impressed by the energy of the younger photographers walking the streets. Meeting up with Sophie Evans, just returned from central America and her partner Tony at a bar (actually the Gamma booze up) and listening to their energised talk about stories done or proposed was an eye opener for me. It was also good to bump into some older faces, Tom Reynolds I hadn’t seen in 15 years since he was art editor of the Sunday Express Mag, he’s now at the Sunday Times – so at least he knows I’m still alive (?).Next year I think I may put up a stand, it would be nice to see the picture editors and art editors queuing up to see my work rather than begging there leave…and if the stand idea takes off I could rent space to other photographers…...when I was a kid my Uncle had a market stall down Brick Lane in London. I used to help out so pitching my wares from a barra’ in Perpignan should be second nature, Guv.

The British were well represented with Susan Glen from the Independent on Sunday Magazine, Colin Jacobson with his very fine titfer, Tim Graham keeping an eye on the Sygma situation, Erin from Axiom, a stylish stock agency in London and three youngish freelance photographers from the Independent, Tom Craig, Tim Allen and Neville (“I’ve got a pair of clean underpants and an M6, I’m on my way”) Elder.

One thing that I noticed was the conspicuous absence of any representation by any staff photographers from the pride of, what was, Fleet Street – maybe the “I’m all right jack” attitude still exists but with the way I have seen the market change in the past year or so, believe me if you end up on the outside looking in, you will need all the contacts and friend possible and Perpignan will be number one on your ‘must do‘ list. I know, I was there.

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