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Art for Mankind’s Sake

Though they seem like distant past lives, I used to write often about photography and I used to live in Paris, the latter for about ten years. One of my favorite annual events there was called Paris Photo, a gathering of and displays by 100-plus of the best photo galleries from around the world, in the Carousel de Louvre. I met and made many friends there over the years, occasionally bought some beautiful photography that I would never have discovered otherwise, all in a very Parisian setting.

As luck would have it, the event was on last weekend while I was in Paris, so I lucked out. I went on a warm November Saturday, so the place was packed … I would have preferred to wander the gallery displays privately, or at least unaccompanied by a thousand elbowing, rubber-necking Frenchmen, but it was still great. The biggest difference since the last event I’d seen, easily a half-dozen years ago, was the content. Then, it seemed, the most beautiful work by some of the best art photographers in the world was focused on art for art’s sake. Still-lives from Japan, big colorful recreations by Gregory Crewdsen, and lots and lots of work by my old pal Peter Beard.

It’s a different world now and was reflected in the artwork, and the theme of the show: Work by and about the Arab and Iranian worlds. Fourteen galleries from the Mideast were spotlighted, as were about fifty Muslim and Mideastern photographers. Most of the work would not be considered photojournalism but rather an artist’s take on real life, but the line between the two in many instances was thin. One goal of the curators, I am sure, was to get away from the stereotypical image of life in the Arab world – veiled women and local craftsmen – and on the destruction that has wreaked havoc in the Empty Quarter so intensely this past decade. Talks and videos by Iranian photographers were highlighted during the weekend, as was the Arab Image Foundation, dedicated to preserving photography of the region going back one hundred and fifty years.

Given my affection for blue water, I especially liked these photos by Tehran-born Jalal Sepehr, seen at the Esther Woerdehoff Galerie. The experience reminded me of the mountain film festivals I’d seen in recent days, and my discouragement of the need for any more movies focused on privileged white people throwing themselves on boards off the tops of increasingly steeper mountains; art for art’s sake will always have a place, but art focused on the human condition – particularly when it is at its worst – is invaluable.