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Photo Miami: Interview with Stephen Cohen and Tim Fleming

AfN: I am Sabine Rieck from Artfacts.Net. Vernissage TV and Artfacts.Net are making an interview with Stephen Cohen (Stephen Cohen Gallery), who has a gallery here on the fair, and Tim Flemming, the director of Photo Miami. Stephen, how did you come to the art - you have a gallery - how did it all happen?

Stephen Cohen I was an art student in college and a film student in graduate school. And I started to sell collectable books, out-of-print-books and small photographs, and that just grew and grew… and I wanted to organise a fair in LA because I was travelling so much around the country selling photographs. So I started the fair, and then opened a gallery right afterwards; and the gallery took off, and the fair took off amazingly. This January, it is the 16th year of the photo LA, it is the longest running art fair in Los Angeles. We are very proud of that. It is sold out, and we have a long waiting list. We started to add some other fairs: Photo Santa Fe ran for seven years, then Photo San Francisco, and then Photo New York for three years. I wanted to do Photo Miami a few years ago but then 9/11 happened, and then it just didn't seem timely. When I organized that with Tim for this year, I had no idea that there were going to be six other hotel fairs happening; so there is a lot of competition but we wanted to make something that is unique, that - even though we use the photo with the city as a name - it is going to have a very different identity, and the fair does. It is very contemporary, very fresh, it is a mixture of new media, video, and I am so pleased and happy with the work that Tim and the committee has done in attracting an excellent group of galleries from 13 countries to participate in the fair. People are going to see things here that they haven't seen anywhere else.

AfN: Tim, what were the criteria for your selection of the 40 participating galleries?

Tim Fleming The criteria was essentially quality. We didn't want to come down and appear like we were leaching off this avant-garde weekend. The committee essentially did much more of a job than just saying yes or no to galleries. They really got on the phone; we talked for a long time, and we had a sort of understanding of what the fair might be; and through their recommendations and their recruitment efforts it took on a kind of life of its own.

AfN: Do you think there will be other fairs from Artfairs Incorporated?

Stephen Cohen There are so many fairs happening in the world, and they are so close together now. The Armory Fair in NY has moved up its state to be with the ADAA, and there are three other satellite fairs who are all three weeks after Art LA. which is a fair we organize the end of January, a week after photo LA. All these fairs around the world, and then there is Arco right in between, that it is hard for dealers to do all these fairs, it´s hard for them to have work for the fairs. So we are going to rethink San Francisco and NY to put them in different times of the year, and even Art LA we are going to probably move to later in the year. So we are pulling back a little to concentrate on making the first stronger and better.
Photo Miami now is a huge success, so we have no doubts about it for next December. Photo LA is a huge success, it´s the largest fair, maybe one of the largest. The fair in NY, A-Pad - sometimes they are bigger, sometimes we are, in terms of attendance. Art LA which is in its third year, and it is building and getting stronger and stronger every year, so we are going to concentrate on the those three fairs for now and maybe in 2008 bring back another fair. And we have been asked about doing some things in Europe as well - so we will just keep that in mind. We really want to maintain the quality of this fair and Photo LA.

Tim Fleming I think the main difference with this fair is, when the clients are going around, then the questions being asked to the dealers are quite different. The fair is first and foremost a contemporary art fair, it is not strictly a photo fair. I think the questions that are being asked are not "what type of paper is it printed on?", "what edition is this?" ...

Stephen Cohen What camera did they use…

Tim Fleming It is really much more about the ideas and the conceptual process. The galleries aren't strictly photo galleries, they are galleries from the international spectrum. They have strong media based programs. Again there is video, some sound work, interactive work… There is a lot of photography here, more than I expected. I think next year, we will see a lot more media based…

AfN: I'd like to address my next question to both of you: why is contemporary photography so important today?

Stephen Cohen Well, photography and video is just another tool for artists, just like in other periods there is paint and stone and ink and printing; whenever a new technology comes along, there is a period where people are playing with it, just testing out the medium.
But now video, sound and music is so much a part of our culture - I mean, I don't even know how you can separate it from politics, from society, from economics. What is great about artists who are calling attention to it, is: because it is so pervasive, a lot of it just passes over people when they see it on TV; so when you have artists who then take something and turn it around on people or they make them look at something a little bit differently, I think it's great.

AfN: Yes I think it is quite a challenge in our time, in which we are so flooded with pictures.

Stephen Cohen …. If it is good it is good! It doesn't matter if it is an inkjet print or a Xerox print or something else. David Hockney did a whole series of pictures:he faxed them across the world to his gallery in London, and they pieced together the mosaic of faxes that came out of the fax machine. He did things in LA, printing on the cover of "LA weekly"; he considered, every copy of the 150 000 copies was an original work of art. Artists - Matisse - did that years ago, so it was nothing new, but it is just the matter if it's good work, and here it is good work, very innovative, very challenging.

Tim Fleming I think photography spent so long trying to establish itself as a real medium, and it has done that, we have moved on. We have been asked a few times why then separate it out as "photo". We don't see it that way, we see it simply as a concentration of media based works, and there is such variety here in the ideas and the process that there is plenty to see.

Stephen Cohen We represent an artist, an anonymous artist, late 20th Century; it is contemporary work. The artist is working now but the work is made to look like 19th Century work, and the artist has chosen to remain anonymous. Photomechanical images are used with oil paints and collage to make these images that are just surreal but unique - and you might call them oil paintings but they are not. There is some photo imagery in it.
That's what we like, that there are people taking it as far as you can and still have something in there that is photo, but you might not think of it as photography. We want to stretch the boundaries of what people think of as "photography".

Tim Fleming My short phrase what I call the fair is, is that it is a fair about light and time and Stephen agrees with that.

AfN: How do you recognise "good art"? What are your criteria - regardless whether it is photography or another kind of art work...?

Stephen Cohen At some point it is subjective, but when enough people offer their subjective feelings, and five out of six say "thumbs up!", you sense it's good. I respond to work emotionally and visually. So if something hits me - it hits me. I don't necessarily have to know the idea behind it. I don't know who said this - someone very well-known and famous - that if something in art disturbs you, you really have to look further. If you really don't like something you have to look why you don't like it, and you have to challenge yourself. And sometimes I still don't like it but at least I try to look beyond the first impression. And then there are things that have grown on me, things that I did not care for at first, and over time you see more of the body of work and you come to appreciate it. What is great about a fair like this is that somebody can come and see galleries from 13 countries in one spot and hopefully purchase work. So the dealers who have taken a lot of time and money to come out here, from all over the world, we want to make them happy, make their artists happy.

AfN: Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview: Sabine Rieck

You can also watch thi s interview as a video on

Stephen Cohen Gallery
Photo Miami

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