Her personal background, her relationship to photography, Paris Photo New York and this 23rd edition held in the Grand Palais: Florence Bourgeois, director of the Parisian fair for the last five years, opens up freely. Interview.
By Sophie Bernard
What were you doing before heading to Paris photo?
My arrival at Paris Photo is a little like a mid-career reconversion since I first had a traditional career: business school, five years of audit, then cost and management accountant at Inès de la Fressange where I discovered the world of luxury. I was then responsible for international management control at Parfums Givenchy (LVMH). This first part of my career was therefore international and financially oriented, very operational because I was in direct contact with sales people. This meant many trips to affiliates company around the world. I loved that first seventeen years.
Why change course?
Perhaps the feeling of having arrived at the end of a path, to have sufficiently discovered the mysteries, the ins and outs, the desire to evolve in a cultural environment that fed me and by which I was attracted… Being Parisian, from very young I attended museums… And, at the birth of my fourth child, I decided to take a parental leave. I took the opportunity to resume my studies – a degree in Art History at the Sorbonne in contemporary art, and then I graduated from the Ecole du Louvre. That’s how I converted into the art world.
What are the differences between the world of art and the world of luxury?
There are no such big differences because in these two areas there is a great deal of creativity, know-how, craftsmanship and a search for excellence. Luxury is also an industry and a source of considerable profit… We know how important this area is for France. I learned a lot and loved working in this universe. It was fascinating…
Before Paris Photo, you directed PAD Paris and London…
After the Ecole du Louvre, I first completed my training with a one-year internship at Artcurial as a volunteer, I’m proud of it! I loved this time when, having wandered through museums and libraries, I finally had the opportunity to touch the objects – after this experience, it is often difficult to restrain from touching the sculptures in museums… Subsequently, Patrick Perrin, the founder of PAD, recruited me. It was with him that I learned how to manage a salon, a business unit in the art world, because a salon is also that.
Photography is now an integral part of your professional life, what is it on a personal level? What is your first emotion related to this medium?
When I was young, I used to make a herbarium, and, little by little, I discovered the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins (this botanist is considered a pioneer in the use of photographs to illustrate herbaria in books published as early as 1843 , note). From time to time Hans P. Kraus presents some of them at the fair…
So you discovered photography through books?
Yes, and with humanist photography – Edouard Boubat, Henri Cartier-Bresson… I was very sensitive because it’s Paris, Luxembourg: I’m 100% Parisian! Of course, these photos touched me… More recently, I was marked by a work on a Wagner opera by video artist Bill Viola… I also think of the lessons of Sylvie Aubenas that I followed in Paris IV. I have a great memory of it, in a way it is with her that I discovered the History of photography…
Were your parents collectors?
My mother is an art historian and collector, indeed… My father was rather “scientific” and at the same time very intellectual. He did not always understand what she was buying when, for example, she came back with a painting by Pat Andrea mixing collage, painting, even other elements like panties… She did not collect photography in particular…
And if I tell you “family album”?
The memories go back: my father was filming a lot and then he was showing the movies… The family photo, of course… I remember in particular the photos – on his deathbed – of the little brother of my mother who had been hit by a grenade after the war and was 14 years old when he died. Or still childhood photos of my mother with her twin sister, dressed and styled the same way. They were nicknamed parallel bars because they were tall and thin…
Do you photograph?
I am a poor photographer… But we have a family tradition during the holidays in my house in Brittany where we find ourselves every year, we take a picture in the same place with the sea in the background with my four children… a bit like Nicholas Nixon. And in this house, a wall is dedicated to those who visit me. The photo is a trace of their passage; it is at the same time a testimony of friendship to place them on this space and memories. With time, it’s touching to see those missing still present thanks to the photo…
Are you a collector?
I’m not a true collector … On the other hand, I’m having fun. I started with drawing. In general, I am attracted by the paper: I would also be unable to read a book on a tablet… I came to photography gradually since I run the fair. Every year, I make a purchase. I sometimes buy them outside… even in competing fairs, I should not say it … (laughs) They are favorites; I do not have a guideline. I am attracted by the work on the material, by the uniqueness. For example, recently, I bought a photograph of Ellen Carey, represented by the Miranda Gallery, a small Eiffel Tower repainted by Alain Bublex at Vallois. I also like vernacular photo: I am always attracted by the stand of la Lumière des Roses. I like hands and stairs… it’s not very original… I bought the beautiful staircase of a lighthouse two or three years ago… And there are the photos that I would love to have, a triptych of Meghann Riepenhoff she is represented by Yossi Milo. This artist plunges his paper into the sea, which gives magnificent unique works… I also like the daguerreotypes of Ansel Adams…
Do you live with the works you have acquired, hang them at home?
Yes… I just bought a little photogram of Nadim Asfar who, for the moment, is sitting in the entrance… I absolutely have to find a place for it. Each work is associated with a personal memory. I especially have a drawing of Chiharu Shiota that was offered to me by a friend where she is represented pushing walls… I hung it in a very visible place because it corresponds to a particular moment of my life… to look at it gives me some strength…
Currently, there is a return of ancient processes and the experimental aspect and materiality are preponderant … What is your point of view on Approche, this fair with an original concept, between salon and exhibition, which is held at the time of Paris Photo ?
Unfortunately, I can not go there because it is at the same time… but it is part of our program “In Paris during Paris Photo”, so we have friendly links… Some of the galleries of Paris Photo, like Binome, are there also… This type of event, and many others, which take place at the same time as Paris Photo, helps to show and talk and know the work of the artists. This creates an excitement around the medium… It’s positive. That’s why I’d like – and we’re working on a lot of things now, especially with the Paris City Hall and the Ministry of Culture – for the Month of Photography to come back to Paris in the fall, there would be a true logic. That it is one more stone to the building to bring collectors, amateurs or professionals of the whole world. This event deserves to be relaunched…
Paris Photo is undoubtedly the spearhead of news related to photography in November in Paris. This year you are celebrating your five years of leadership. What are your good and bad memories?
The worst is obviously 2015, my first year at Paris Photo, with the Friday night attacks: we were at the Silencio with the whole team… Quickly we created a crisis cell with the RMN and the general direction of Reed and made the decision to close the fair on Saturday morning and then compensate the exhibitors… A deeply moving memory; I still have in mind the disarray of the exhibitors on Saturday morning, the ambient sadness, the anguish… the heart was no longer there…
My “good” memory is as director of the third edition of Paris Photo Los Angeles held in the studios of Paramount… extraordinary place! Even if a few months ago we made the decision not to do the 4th edition…
Do you consider this a failure?
No, I’d rather say it’s an experience. There was a risk on the content, we had not completely met the market… It was a reasoned decision, not to damage the Paris Photo brand.
After London and Los Angeles, does the installation of Paris Photo New York in partnership with Aipad next April look like a personal challenge?
It’s a project I’ve been working on for almost two years… There were two possibilities: either we started a fair alone, competing with the Aipad that is held each spring in New York, or we found a form of collaboration to unite our skills. This is the path I defended… After many discussions, we reached an agreement.
What are the terms?
The fair is now owned by Reed Expositions, which takes the financial risks and it is the Paris Photo team who is in charge of its management, the Aipad having an advisory role… The idea is to join our expertise. For Aipad, it is about protecting their members and for us to have a fair whose content corresponds to our criteria, that is to say to cover a wide and qualitative field of the photographic creation, from the old to contemporary through the modern.
What are the stakes for Paris Photo?
Our ambition is not to duplicate Paris Photo in New York, but to reach galleries in North America, particularly those on the West Coast, Central America and South America, and especially those that do not come in Paris for financial reasons and geographical distance. Our intention is to create an artistic direction so that the clashes are of the qualitative level of what we see in Paris Photo. Thus, the postulants must propose a programming but also a scenography… Our wish is also to bring galleries dedicated to contemporary art to give dynamism because these have been a little forgotten in recent years at Aipad.
Have you formed a selection committee?
Yes, Aipad did not have one but it is for us an essential point that is part of our DNA. It includes Caroline Wall (Robert Mann Gallery, New York, board member of AIPAD), Michael Hoppen (Michael Hoppen Gallery, London), Yancey Richardson (Yancey Richardson New York), Stephen Bulger (Stephen Bulger Gallery) , Toronto), Richard Moore (Richard Moore Photographs, Oakland), president of Aipad since August 2017 who played a key role in the collaboration with Reed Expositions France for the creation of Paris Photo New York, and finally Alexis Fabry (Toluca Publishing House, Paris).
In your opinion, why are the chances of success higher than in Los Angeles?
The New York market is extremely energetic. The galleries are numerous and photography is very present in the museums. Note also that the ICP will soon inaugurate its new address, an exhibition venue coupled with the school… We target 100 to 120 galleries against 180 in Paris, plus thirty publishers with many book dedications because it brings a considerable energy and a complementary public (in Paris, there are more than 200)… Add a program of talks, which is also a stimulating factor.
Let’s go back to the 2019 edition of Paris Photo. Why reorient the Curiosa sector created last year on the emerging against a theme before?
This idea of highlighting the emergence is not new to Paris Photo: three years ago we launched Carte blanche Etudiants (in partnership with Picto and Gares & Connexions) which allows four laureates to present their works gare du Nord and have a location in the fair to meet professionals. Three years ago, we also set up a partnership with the Gobelins school, allowing a dozen students to film and photograph the fair from the first day of assembly until it was dismantled, thus putting them in a professional situation. Their works on the fair are posted even day on our site and social networks… Finally, since last year, we also have a partnership with the Jeu de Paume for high school students and students in the form of a cross course Paris Photo / Jeu de Paume for privileged visits…
Is it also because emergence is a guarantee of renewal of the fair?
First of all, it seems important to me to be able to attract galleries that want to present young artists. For this, we offer them more affordable entry prices. Some of them are also in the main sector… This brings freshness because the practices and understanding of the medium of the younger generation are different. This also corresponds to an expectation of the visitors. It is in this spirit that we created the film sector two years ago: we realized that there were many bridges between the disciplines. Once again, we are committed to showing photography in its entirety and diversity…
What is a good fair according to you?
The quality of its content, of course … It is to bring the largest galleries, pay particular attention to the scenography because in a fair there is so much to see… Hence also the interest to increase the number of solo-shows and duo-shows – there are 30 and 13 respectively, a little more than last year. This gives a very clear readability of the approach of the artists and allows to better understand their work… A good fair, it is also to have a marketing and digital strategy so as to make known the galleries and the works, to attract the visitors, associate with partners who also bring their expertise… The goal is to set up an event that is both a platform for discoveries and exchanges. And to make it fresh enough year after year to remain as desirable, and attractive as ever. We also note that visiting times at Paris Photo are longer than at contemporary art fairs. This is undoubtedly linked to the medium itself: the formats are smaller and require more attention than the larger work… We are also aware that visitors do not only come for gallery presentations but also to attend conferences from where Plateforme and Artist Talks are conceived and animated by the team of the magazine The Eyes around the photo book.
Is increasing the number of visitors from year after year part of your goals?
We are not trying to break attendance records, but rather to work on the diversity and quality of visitors because we are here to serve our exhibitors, galleries and publishers. A positive outcome for an exhibitor is to make quality contacts, meet new collectors, discuss with museum officials in order to sell them pieces, to make its artists or publications known… Sell on site, of course, but also initiate meetings that will lead to transactions in the following months. For us, what matters is to bring visitors who meet these criteria but also the amateurs. On a personal level, I introduced the fair to friends who buy a photograph every year. We know that photography is a point of entry into a collection because it is a discipline more culturally and financially accessible than painting or sculpture.
Paris Photo is also the Grand Palais and its majestic nave. An exceptional setting that you will have to leave for three years because of remodelling work after the edition of 2021. Is The fair not likely to suffer from it?
I’ll tell you an anecdote: I remember a conversation with Tim Jefferies (Hamiltons Gallery, London) in 2011, the first year Paris Photo was at the Grand Palais. I asked him his feeling about this new place, he replied with great humor: “The problem is that people do not look at the pictures but the nave is sublime!”… More seriously, with all the concerned actors – the RMN, the events taking place at the Grand Palais, the Olympic Committee… – we have been working together for two years. We will be relocated in an ephemeral building signed Wilmotte & Associés between the Ecole Militaire and the Eiffel tower: it was necessary to find a central and prestigious place not to lose in size and magnificence. In addition to the ephemeral building, an adjoining structure will be added for the Fiac and Paris Photo because we need a larger space.
How is the balance between the selection committee responsible for choosing exhibitors and the proximity work you do (with Christoph Wiesner) in galleries?
First of all, I would like to say that with Christoph we work in a very close and complementary way; we exchange constantly and we are on the same wavelength. We travel a lot throughout the year to discover the projects of the galleries in situ, discuss with them… We present between 250 and 300 projects to the selection committee; we listen to their suggestions and it is on this basis that the dialogue is established to have a panorama as eclectic as possible… We shut up for two days and each project is watched, then watched again…
What answer would you give to the gallery that has been dying to be in Paris Photo for years?
It is also to respond to more requests that we have created two additional sectors – Prisms and Curiosa – which allows us to have twice fourteen exhibitors in addition… There are indeed always a dozen who stay on the side although we would like to integrate them… I tell them not to despair. You have to get to know each other and to convince around a project… Note that this year there are 180 galleries in the main sector including 33 new participations: this proves that everyone has a chance. Die Mauer & Under the Stars have been trying for a long time. This year, we saw them in Miami, then in New York, and their project convinced us; we talked a lot about it with the selection committee. I also think of three Turkish galleries that will be present for the first time… I proclaim loudly there is no cronyism: the selection is done primarily on projects…
Conversely, are there galleries that you dream of having?
Obviously we are always frustrated not to show some projects but with Christoph, we take our pilgrim’s staff as soon as the fair is over to try to convince … This year we are happy to welcome for the first time Hauser & Wirth who will present a solo show by August Sander. Another pride: Gagosian who makes a co-stand with 1900-2000 (returning after a few years of absence). Together, they present a solo show of Man Ray… Every year we have gold nuggets!
Paris Photo 2019
November 7–10, 2019
Grand Palais Paris