Still photography: a new art market

Tokyo Photo 2009 makes its mark as the city's first international photography art fair

by Lucy Birmingham

Tokyo probably has more photo fans than any megalopolis on the planet, but strangely there’s never been an international photography art fair here — until now. Tokyo Photo 2009, running Sept. 4-6, offers still photography artworks for sale from 12 Japan-based galleries, four from the United States and one from Hong Kong. Over 100 artists are represented, including world-famous figures like Edward Weston, Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton, as well as celebrated Japanese photographers such as Hiroshi Sugimoto. A fine selection of works by up-and-coming Japanese photographers such as Noriko Yamaguchi, Taisuke Koyama and Nao Tsuda are also available. And unlike most art fairs, there is a photography exhibition. Titled “Photo America,” the show is organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) in San Diego and features about 50 American works, encompassing iconic and important historical images never before seen in Japan.

The phrase “never before” can be both enticing and vexing. Ultimately it motivated Tokyo Photo 2009 founder and producer Tomohiro Harada to put his photography art fair dream into action, but it’s also the phrase creating the most skepticism about the three-day event. “Most of the top contemporary art galleries in Japan do 70 percent of their business overseas,” explains Harada. “There’s not much of an art market here and if you limit it to photography, the number of buyers is so small. But I saw this as an opportunity.”

A chance meeting with MoPA Executive Director Deborah Klochko during a visit to Paris Photo 2008 (Europe’s top annual still photography art fair) helped convince Harada that the risk was worth taking. Klochko said she had always wanted to do something in Japan so they agreed to collaborate. Harada’s visit to the AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) Photography Show New York last March helped him visualize the possibilities. It’s the world’s longest running fine art photography fair, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the premier example of America’s strength in art photography worldwide.

American photography is a major focus of the fair, despite reservations voiced by some local photographers and gallerists. “Photography was a kind of unwanted stepchild of the arts until it was recognized as a true art form in America,” says Takeshi Thornton, a Yokohama National University professor teaching media and culture theory and Harada’s friend helping with the fair. “So we’re recognizing America’s contribution to photography as an art form, which I would say is as great as jazz.” He adds, “It’s significant that we could get American galleries and a major American museum to take part in the fair.”

Harada’s first major exposure to American art and photography was at the Art Institute of Chicago where he would escape from his accounting job during lunch breaks. “I was like a bean counter, stuck in some client’s tiny back room cut off from interacting with people, which I really like to do,” he says. “When I visited the Art Institute my stress would just disappear.”

Harada lived in Chicago’s Bucktown, once the city’s underground art enclave. “There were lots of clubs, live houses, art galleries. . . . It was one of the largest art communities in the U.S.,” he says. “It really opened my mind about the possibilities in art.”

With a flair for business, Harada began promoting artists and organizing art events after returning to Japan. But sales were slow, motivating him to look at the alternatives. “I was looking for a different opportunity and saw that photography was ignored as part of the art business,” Harada explains. “That’s when I met Etsuro Ishihara of Zeit-Foto Salon who showed me some amazingly beautiful historical photographs.” Japan’s first photo gallery founded by Ishihara in 1978, Zeit-Foto’s enduring success has been formulated on its wide selection, from rare and historical photographs to contemporary photo artworks.

For Harada, Zeit-Foto’s success proved that it could be done if organized and promoted in the right way. “Tomo wanted to fire up the art scene, using London and Berlin as a benchmark,” says Thornton. “In Japan though, it’s actually really difficult to start a new market in photography,” Harada admits after struggling to find sponsors for the fair. So far, support has been sourced from the American Embassy, Grand Hyatt, Bulgari and Museum of Photographic Arts but Harada has had to dig into his own pocket for much of the funding.

“Japanese love taking photos and enjoy it as a hobby, but they don’t actually think about buying photography as works of art,” says Harada. Digital photography, though, has shifted the paradigms — creating not only debate about “visual truth” but also new art forms and cultural possibilities. “Japan is slow to get the fact that art and photography are important cultural products,” says Thornton. “They can be a major part of the economy, a cultural export.”

Harada feels that broader public exposure to photography as an art form will open up the market. The key is getting local galleries to collaborate. “The Japanese galleries weren’t interested in the photo fair idea until the foreign galleries showed interest,” says Harada. “They didn’t think it would be commercially successful.” But Harada’s enthusiasm, however naive, is infectious and the Tokyo Photo art fair buzz is stirring growing interest. “If we don’t start something like Tokyo Photo, nothing will change. It’s a way to kick-start the market,” says Harada, “The timing is right for a new cultural movement in art photography.”

“Tokyo Photo 2009″ is running at Bellesalle Roppongi 1F, BF (7-18-18 Roppongi, Minato-ku) from Sept. 4-6; admission ¥1,500; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Sept. 5). For more information visit tokyophoto/en/ information.html