January 2017 observes the launch of PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco, the latest addition to the World Photography Organisation’s portfolio. Curious to discover what visitors may expect from America’s newest international art fair dedicated to photography, artBahrain’s Kirsty Gardner, spoke to PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco’s Fair Manager, Sarah Shepard.

The launch of the Golden City edition of this exciting project, has emerged in seemingly swift succession to its Eastern sister exhibition. The recently rebranded PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai (previously PHOTO Shanghai) has already built a strong reputation over the past three years as China’s biggest photographic art fair.

As Fair Manager in San Francisco, Sarah Shepard brings 10 years’ experience working in fine art photography for auction houses, including both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. An established fine art photographer herself, with a portfolio of composition pieces, her passion for photography is evident as she speaks about her personal interests in the medium, and reflects on her current role:

“Appealing to me is the chance to learn about an artist I wasn’t familiar with or meet a gallery in a part of the world I have never traveled to.”

“Photo documentary, social documentary and street photography have always appealed to me personally, speaking to the storytelling aspect of photography. I am attracted to people like Paul Graham, Robert Adams, Robert Frank and Ed Ruscha who each have a unique view, but highly personal relationship to the social landscape of America. I also never tire of Thomas Struth’s quiet black and white street scenes.”

This is not the first time that Shepard has worked with PHOTOFAIRS’ Director, Alexander Montague-Sparey, as the pair have previously worked together at the Fine Art Photography department of Christie’s. Regular readers of ArtBahrain will already be acquainted with Montague-Sparey. Now, through PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco, Montague-Sparey and Shepard have established another opportunity to collaborate.

When ArtBahrain last spoke with Montague-Sparey we were promised “more galleries from more countries; exciting cutting-edge museum quality exhibitions”. Does Shepard believe this is still the case?

“Absolutely. Our Shanghai edition has just announced participation from galleries in 15 countries with 25% never exhibiting in China before. We are looking to San Francisco to track in a similar way. Part of the excitement behind this fair is exposure to work, coming from all corners of the world allowing for a broad view of the medium.”

“If you talk to anyone responsible for planning a large scale event they would probably say there are plenty of challenges, and this is no different. Luckily we have a very successful Shanghai fair as a model and the team brings a great combination of strong photography expertise and experience of high level project management and execution.”

With the momentum of PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai already in full motion, and yet only recently celebrating its third edition, it will be natural for international visitors to speculate what a second fair based on a similar format, may have to offer. Will there be a blended amalgamation of East and West, or distinctly distant identities between the two destinations?

“Because the culture of the two cities is different there will inherently be differences, but the elegant, clean, modern presentation will be the same and there will be consistency in content.”

Shanghai is still relatively new, and yet with over 50,000 visitors in 2014 and 2015, the formula is evidently working. Could it be the creative curation of the fair that resonates so melodiously with visitors?

“The structure of the fairs will be the same, with each offering a highly-curated approach to photography with a focus on quality programming. Both will offer the same diverse approach offering established galleries, contemporary moving image galleries and emerging galleries a platform to showcase their artists.”

“Visitors will see a tight edit of the best contemporary photography on the market today. A selection which represents the current trends in photography – experimentation, large format and bold imagery will engage new and emerging collectors alike.”

This attention to curation has led to the development of three sectors at PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco, Main, Connected and Platform. The Main and Platform sectors display a wide range of international commercial galleries, and newly exhibiting galleries respectively.

“The fair will be very international which will play out in the galleries exhibiting and the audience who attends. We will have a clean, modern, tailored approach to our presentation and many of the galleries will be exhibiting contemporary artists which lend themselves to the space. Guests will find many well-known, iconic artists as well as emerging ones. The common theme throughout will be quality.”

Meanwhile, the multi-disciplinary sector, Connected, focuses on a different theme each year.

“Moving image will be the theme behind our section of the fair called, Connected. To compliment the gallery programs, we will have a panel discussion which discusses current trends in this area. Many visitors to the fair might not be as familiar with this media and we are looking forward to exposing people to something new and cutting edge.”

Regarding the inclusion of moving image, Shepard continues,

“To experience and learn from art is to be exposed to new ideas and I believe moving image occupies a special place in this conversation. I am looking forward to the fair so I can be challenged by some of the work coming from this sector.”

Further to the main divisions of the art-fair, visitors will also be able to explore the Insights exhibition which travels between the PHOTOFAIRS destinations, with the aim to reflect local tastes, as Shepard explains:

“Insights, our museum quality exhibition within the fair will be exhibited at both fairs; each location with different works which speak to the location but explore the same theme. [The exhibition is] co-curated by Alexander and a guest curator which will explore new approaches to photography since 2000. Because the West Coast has a concentration of artists pushing the medium, we will be able to harness local talent which allow us to honor the strong traditions within photography in our region.”

Last summer, through the opening of the new Pritzker Center for Photography, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art unveiled the largest photographic art museum display in America. Since the museum was founded in the 1930s, the SFMOMA has always represented its community’s keen pursuit and interest in photo-media through a weighty depiction of film and photographic-art content. The city has contributed important imagery and talent to the photographic world. Photographers such as Ansel Adams, as well as influential documentary-art by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Minor White, have each had their role in shaping the aesthetic identity of this iconic location. So how important was the city’s relevance to photo-media when selecting the second PHOTOFAIRS destination and how might this be acknowledged?

“San Francisco was carefully chosen as the US destination for PHOTOFAIRS because of its historical and current importance to the medium. The quality of the collectors and institutions here dedicated to photography is what sets San Francisco apart from other places. During the time of the fair there will be important museum exhibitions dedicated to photography running throughout the city. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to bring the fair here and look forward to it becoming a part of the arts landscape, complimenting the other arts events already rooted here. We have relationships with all of the institutions here and look forward to working together toward a common goal of enhancing the arts scene in San Francisco. Each entity plays a part in the larger conversation around art in San Francisco and all work together to drive culture in this city.”

“The venue in San Francisco is a pier on the Bay with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. The connection to the landscape of San Francisco is immediate.”

What is surprising perhaps, considering the vibrant artistic scene of San Francisco, is the quiet response previous art projects may have received in the past from Silicon Valley, in the southern portion of the city’s Bay Area. The distinct and affluent community has been accused of having a “standoffishness to art”*, with some believing there’s a “truism that the Silicon Valley elite don’t buy art”*. Shepard is confident such attitudes highlight opportunities to develop the local education, and understanding of art.

“With the arrival of the Anderson Collection at Stanford to compliment the already important Cantor Arts Center and galleries like Pace providing innovative, impressive programming, the area has bolstered its arts destinations which in turn provide educational opportunities. By providing these opportunities it becomes easier for people living or working in Silicon Valley to engage with the arts, thereby benefiting everyone.”

As Shepard elaborates further, it is evident that PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco will be hoping to inspire and educate visitors, as Montague-Sparey has previously indicated, “[through] engaging talks by some of the most celebrated artists working today”: “Through our strong public talks program and compelling content, we will provide educational opportunities and exposure to a diverse group of international galleries with very strong programs… Our talks program Conversations will feature leading artists and curators from across the industry addressing relevant topics in photography today.

While PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco is set to attract a variety of visitors, from experienced collectors and gallerists, to general art-lovers, it could be assumed that there will be a diverse atmosphere to absorb and appreciate. Shepard agrees,

“Mostly I am looking forward to bringing together a collection of people who all share a love for art and photography as a collecting area. Because photography appeals to such a large group, the fair will welcome experienced and new collectors alike.”

As the medium of photography gradually becomes increasingly prominent amongst collectors, what advice might Shepard finally offer for new collectors?

“When starting a collection look for a few key pieces to build upon, ones you love that are timeless. Try not to overthink your choices and trust your instincts. As a collection grows, the choices of what to buy next will become more obvious. Visit as many gallery and museum shows as possible to learn about the history of photography and current market trends “.

“The choices at the fair will be international in scope with a mix of artists from Asia, Europe and America making an impact through large format presentation. PHOTOFAIRS will offer a unique platform on the West Coast to buy and engage with new photography. What I know for certain is it will be hard to choose just one piece“