AIPAD President Stephen Bulger on NYC's Premier Photo Fair

The AIPAD Photography Show New York, the city's premier photo fair, returns to the Park Avenue Armory this week with 75 dealers from around the world showing the best contemporary and historic work, as well as multimedia art. Opening to the public on Thursday and running through April 1, the fair will include everything from new work by Philip-Lorca diCorcia (presented by first-time AIPAD exhibitor David Zwirner Gallery) to classic photographs of the American South by Walker Evans. In advance of tonight's VIP vernissage, Artspace chairman Christopher Vroom spoke to Toronto gallerist Stephen Bulger, the president of AIPAD's board of directors, about what this year's fair has to offer.

Interview with Stephen Bulger

Stephen Bulger

Perhaps you might start by talking a bit about AIPAD and its history.

For 40 years, AIPAD has been at the forefront of fine art photography and, in the past few years, has included contemporary art that is made with photographic processes. What we've been seeing is that as the photographic world has expanded, AIPAD has been able to expand with it and provide expertise in all aspects of photography. And I think that is what people have come to expect with AIPAD and it's members. It's a consortium of 140 experts in various aspects of photography located around the globe.

And the big show is coming up this week at the Park Avenue Armory. What should collectors expect?

Our annual show is a way for a lot of us to come together to show the work that we believe in most strongly. We're all trying to introduce people to new artists as well as to showcase excellent examples of well-known images. So it's an unparalleled opportunity for people to come to New York to see all of it on display. It's an area of interest for collectors, practitioners, and curators, and it's always has a little bit of a reunion feel, I find. The community is so closely knit, and this is a fun week for all of us to come together.

I would assume that being a member of AIPAD brings with it an imprimatur for dealers. It instills confidence in collectors. Is there a set of standards for accepting members?

AIPAD has a very high set of standards for admission. I think for every single member that is voted in there are at least four or five that are declined for various reasons. A lot of that relates to wanting to give dealers the time for their program to mature. We just want to be confident that our members are going to be there for the long haul. So by the time you get into the membership, it's widely recognized as a seal of approval.

What can we expect to see when AIPAD has its VIP opening tonight?

The work presented at the show will range from the best examples of contemporary photography to the earliest photographs, whether they be daguerreotypes or salt prints made at the invention of photography. Over the past few years, members have also shown new media to the AIPAD audience. It's a good place to see trends in both photographic innovation as well as collecting trends. The panel discussions that AIPAD has been doing for 40 years are outstanding. We've got six this year and have moved the venue to Hunter College, because the old Tiffany room at the Armory was always over capacity. It's right around the corner from the Armory.

What advice would you have for new collectors? There are so many galleries out there. How do you start?

What I tell people is not to over-think it. Take the time to see the show. Give yourself a day. Do a quick perusal into each and every booth and then take a break. Then see which ones you'd like to see again and have that return visit and constantly try to narrow it down. There's nothing wrong with admiring photography you can't afford, but don't get vexed over it. Decide what you feel comfortable spending and then find the favorite item that fits that budget. There's lots of things that I admire but can't afford.

Touring the fair always give you a good sense of what you're responding to.

Definitely. I think a lot of people may have an idea in their head of what they should collect, but what they should do, in my opinion, is look for works that are going to make them happy. A lot of people walk through the show and find it quite eclectic, and it's eclectic because the people who own the galleries have those eclectic tastes. We all believe passionately in what we're showing and in some cases you can look into a booth beside you and roll your eyes, but they may look into my booth and have the same opinion. So it's diverse and so personal what attracts us to pictures and you have to stay true that. Trust your own instincts. If you buy something you love, you'll never regret it, whereas it's hard to predict how the market for works is going to behave.

Let's say you have a budget of $10,000 that you'd be happy to spend and you're having a hard time making a decision, but you happen to spot a $1,000 picture that you love. Don't dismiss it because it doesn't match your budget—grab it. Everyone hears the success stories about the work bought for next to nothing that becomes worth a lot, everyone likes the idea of winning the lottery. If you find a work that you connect with, just buy it. It might not be much more expensive than eating in a nice restaurant, and I guarantee that you'll enjoy the photograph for longer than you'll remember that meal.

You opened your gallery nearly 20 years ago. How would you describe your program?

I'm passionate about the medium of photography and especially interested in the way some photographs can tell stories about events, peoples, times, and issues. So I rely on photography to inform me about the world. A lot of the photographs I gravitate towards and exhibit at the gallery tend to be quite narrative—they are pictures with something to say. In addition to storytelling, I'm interested in the medium itself. Some artists are using expired papers or unique processes, and I find that very interesting. With historical photographs, I tend to concentrate on Canadian pictures. The earliest photographic record of Canadian history interests me.

Since the beginning, photographers have been experimenting along a spectrum of documentation and narrative to more abstract elements, whether real or constructed. The emergence of digital processes that can alter one's perception of reality, in point of fact, exists in a lineage of creative representation using analog process.

Definitely. In many ways digital photography woke people up to the potential of photography that had always been there. A lot of people seem quite surprised that photographs can have a subjective point of view rather than an objective aspect. It's been like that from day one. A lot of people ascribe so many different attributes to photography. It's always been a mirror of a memory, but it's a subjective mirror.

I was intrigued by the idea that you have a screening room in the gallery.

We do a lot of things with the screening room. My landlord is [the filmmaker] Atom Egoyan and he had an idea of having a movie theater. We decided that we could share the space with the gallery. After a few years, I ended up taking over the space. The way that we use it most regularly is on Saturday afternoons when we screen films—free to the public—that we think relate to the exhibition we have on. Each time we ask the artist if they have anything they'd like to program. We've created an annual deal with Criterion whereby they give us access to their title list.

It sounds like a great way to build those bridges, because artists who are making art don't live in a silo and it may create another interesting point of access.

It's really great to see that happen. There's always between 10 to 40 people, and some people walk through the exhibition quickly, but others get engaged with the photographs and make their own connection to the film. Also, some of my artists work with the moving image, so it gives us an opportunity to work on both platforms.

At the AIPAD this year, what are you particularly excited about?

Everything. But the highlight I'm looking forward to seeing myself-because no one has ever seen this on any wall-is a layout series that Dave Heath did in the early 1960s called On the Making of an Ad for a Bowling Ball. What he did was to follow a photographer around who had been given a job to photograph a group of models at an airport holding AMF bowling balls. Sort of a ludicrous-looking ad — you've got all these nice looking women in this out-of-place setting in front of a supersonic jet. Dave photographed the making of that ad for sort of a behind-the-scenes look. But since Dave wasn't a fashion photographer at all, he infuses a Robert Frank-style of sculptural photography into this fashion world where you get these heroic-looking models being primped for quite a ridiculous-looking ad, and what he proposed was an eight-page spread for the New York Times magazine. So these are perfectly prepared layouts for the magazine, like a storyboard. But the Times rejected it. It was forgotten, but then someone asked about his work. We had bought the archive and I remembered looking at and it looked so much better than I remembered it. It's perfect on a 12-foot wall. I'm excited about how that's going to look.


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