(ZM wrote about his trip to Paris earlier this month, in Chinese. He covered some very interesting topics and people, i thought more people will be interested in reading this so I translated it from Chinese into English, with great editorial help from Alice and Gui! Thank you both! 🙂)
Impressions from Paris — My Photography Exhibition
by Mi Zhou
After doing photography for over a decade, I had my first gallery exhibition. I flew to Paris for a week to attend the opening and met my agent for the first time. I want to share some of my experiences with other amateur photographers who are in similar situations.
1. The Agent
In June 2009, I received an email from someone named “Aurélie”, inquiring whether i have an agent in France. In the case that I did not, she offered Florence Moll’s services as my French representative. After a brief exchange of emails, Florence and I confirmed our agent-photographer relationship.
This was my first interaction with any agency. I was completely ignorant of how it should work. I remember asking multiple times for some kind of contract that would legalize our partnership. At the end Florence told me she has never signed any contract to date with any of the artists that her agency represented. All of her professional partnerships operated on the basis of mutual trust. I took her words for it, but I wasn’t sure whether it would work out.
Florence Moll represents a dozen or so top commercial and fashion photographers and designers in Europe. Most of her clients are luxury fashion merchandising brand names such as LV and Hermès.
I’ve always been curious how she found me and what motivated her to represent an amateur like me. To be honest, even if my photos really sold well in the future, the amount of money it would generate still couldn’t compare to her other commercial projects.
A year later, when i finally made my way to Paris and met Florence for the first time, I raised this burning question to her. She told me that her assistant Aurélie saw Ma Ke’s “Wu Yong” fashion photo series in a magazine last year and thought it was “simply splendid”. Aurélie then showed the magazine to Florence, who “fell in love at first sight.” She asked Aurélie to find this photographer at once. A few seconds later, Aurélie exclaimed in delight as she found my website on-line. After reviewing my site, Florence “fell in love all over again.” The reason she wanted to represent me was completely based on her love of my photos; potential profit was not in the equation.
The rest was history. Florence selected 80+ photos from my site, and I produced two sets of portfolio based on her selection and mailed both to Paris.
The potential audience of my photos was new marketing territory for Florence. In order to promote my work, Florence spent a lot of energy in networking with galleries, media, and museums. She even took some university classes on art and photography. During our meetings this time, i noticed how worn were the cloth covers of my two portfolio boxes, a mark of the numerous trips Florence made to various potential clients.
June 2010, Florence emailed me with good news: six months after submitting my portfolio, Polka publications group decided to print and exhibit a few of my photos, together with those from five other photographers: Peter Lindbergh、Stanley Greene、Brenda Ann Kenneally、Williams Daniels, and Alain Loison. All these names were new to me, so i did some research on line…
Polka is actually the name of the dog of the founder, Alain Genestar. Alain said told the story of how when everyone was trying to come up with a name for their new organization, nothing stood out. At the end he pointed at his little dog and said, that’s it.
Polka is made up of three entities: Polka Gallery, Polka Magazine, and Polka website. Personally I think these three entities are the most ideal media channels for promoting photography. Polka is run by Alain and his son and daughter. Every year, it publishes four magazine issues: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The magazine’s publication is in sync with four exhibits in its gallery. It also organizes exhibitions and promotional events at other locations, including all the major photo festivals throughout Europe. From the Polka editorial committee, one could see the focus of this organization: “Photojournalism”.
Some of Polka magazine editorial committee members: Christian Caujolle, Jean-Jacques Naudet, Reza, Marc Riboud, Sebastião Salgado, Robert Delpire.
Polka Gallery currently represents 32 photographers (see images below). I feel honored to appear in the same list as Elliott Erwitt, William Klein, Mary Ellen Mark, James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado. Many of them have been my idols for years. Meanwhile, I’m trying to not let any of this get to my head — I understand perfectly where my work stands against these masters.
Polka magazine has published a total of 10 issues since 2008.
This is the best photography magazine I’ve seen. It attempts to revive the golden age of magazine as a media channel. The most impressive part of the magazine is its 100% high quality content. All the articles and information are about the photographers and their work. Some of them are classics and some are new documentary photos (too bad it only appears in French). Every issue contains over 150 pages and 20+ topics. Every topic ranges from 6 to 20+ pages, so each topic can be thoroughly presented. Many photos get spread page treatment. I think this is probably as close to heaven as it comes for photojournalists.
From every magazine issue, Polka Gallery picks 5-6 photographers holds simultaneous gallery exhibits. They usually include 1-2 famous photographers, plus 3-4 new faces. Each exhibit lasts for 2 months.
While in Paris, I went to the gallery four times, every member of Polka was easy going and friendly. Alain introduced me to his little dog Polka. They constantly expressed their appreciation of my photos, explained that they were the perfect fit for their magazine and gallery. They thanked me for attending the opening. The chief editor of the magazine, Dimitri Beck, gave me the entire set of their magazines as a present…
3. The Printer
It is a little embarrassing for me to admit that after all these years, I had no gallery quality final prints of any of my photos. Usually, established photographer will have their best work in print form, ready for exhibition and sale. But I’ve never done so. The production cost is high, and more importantly there hasn’t been the need. I’m really grateful that Polka took care of all the cost of print and framing for the exhibit. But I was a little worried of the quality of the final print since the I only had photo scans done on an Epson V700.
Picto is a prominent professional imagery production company in Paris. The printer Christophe Batifoulier works in their Fine Art department. Bati sports sideburns and looks like a skinny version of the actor Jean Reno. He holds a prestige position inside Picto. His has a gigantic workshop as his private office and workspace. It contains four computers, one scanner, two large scale printers, one giant viewing table and a wall sized board where final prints could be hung up using magnets and viewed in ideal light.
At Picto, Bati enjoys unprecedented independence. he is not limited by the cost of material or any fixed working hours. Bati only agrees to print photos that he likes. His imagination and sensitivity enables him to reveal what each photographer is trying to express, merely based on a sample print.
Upon my arrival, the first thing Florence did was to take me to see my exhibition photos at Bati’s workshop. When I saw the final print, I was blown away. They far exceeded my highest expectations. Bati showed me samples he made on various papers and with various inks. He said that he could tell which scanner I used based on my scanned files. He commented that my scanner focus was not accurate, the negative was not completely flat, and some of the details in highlight areas were lost. It was good enough for any print that is under the dimension of one meter. But it could have been better.
Before he set out to print my photo, Bati spent a lot of time adjust my image files, including the tone, contrast, sharpness, and grain. He thought the best scanning technique for film negatives was not drumscan but Imacon. He explained the reasoning but unfortunately it was too technical for me to grasp his finer points. He also suggested to not use color ink to print black and white photos, because even with the most careful adjustments, it is hard to keep the tone consistent if you print the photos at different times, which is not good for gallery edition because they only print photos when there is a sale. Carbon ink wouldn’t have such a problem.
Three days later I went to visit Bati on my own. He showed me some of the photos he was working on for other photographers. We chatted for a long time. I asked him how it was like to work for Koudelka. Bati told me that for him photo production was not about money. It was a game for him. He didn’t want to work for only one or two photographers, because no matter how great those photos are, limiting oneself into such a narrow style would impede one’s imagination and reduce the enjoyment of the work itself. He loved working with various photographic styles and topics; they brought him inspiration and challenge. He didn’t want to open his own print shop because he didn’t want to be trapped into the marketing and finance matters that he didn’t care for. For the photos he loved, he was willing to spend the time, resources, and his passion in production. For photos he didn’t respond to, he usually pushed them to other co-workers instead.
He was generous at sharing his knowledge and expertise. He was contemptuous of people who mystify technique or guard their techniques like a trade secret. He even suggested that in the future, I could mail him my film negative so he could scan it for me, then send me print samples to get whatever adjustments I prefer, then he would modify his file accordingly. He pointed out some of my photos that he thought were ideal for galleries, and asked me in addition to Polka whether I have other gallery representations.
Hopefully I will work with Bati again in the future.
4. The Exhibit
The Polka Gallery itself was nothing fancy. Compared to some of the galleries in China, it seem almost shabby. The gallery space is divided into two physical partitions. The partition facing the street is currently displaying twenty photographies by Stanley Greene. Inside the courtyard, the exhibition space has two stories. Five of my Burning Man photos were displayed on the facing wall. The other three walls were given to the other three photographers in this exhibit, five to seven photos each. The basement was devoted to Peter Lindbergh’s 20 photos.
The opening went from 6pm to 9pm on a Thursday afternoon. What put me at ease was the informality of the opening. There were no ceremonies, nor were there any speeches given or demanded. No time was spent on exchanging pleasantries. Even the Culture Minister of France drew no crowd. Everyone there seemed to be returning friends and all knew their way around. According to gallery personnel, there were over fifteen hundred attendees at the opening.
During the opening I discovered another benefit of having an agent: I didn’t need to spend energy socializing. I was chatting with my old friend Kang, Yves, and their friends. Claude told me that she saw lots of bigshots, but none of their names rang a bell for me. One photographer came up and congratulated me for having an exhibit at “one of the best two photography galleries in Paris.” I didn’t snap too many photos at the opening.
The gallery set two sizes for my photos: 21x60cm, limited 15 prints each; 40x100cm, limited 10 prints each. The photographs were framed on an aluminum board, on the back of which was a 8-ply paper board with a rectangular window opening for the photographer’s signature. I was pleasantly surprised that my photos made three sales. Two buyers wrote their checks in person. Both Florence and Polka were happy, too.
The next day, Florence and I went to the Gallery again to sign a bunch of documents that gave Polka the right to represent me in photo sale. Florence explained to me the document explained the method of representation, its limitations, the sale price and rules, etc. Both Florence and I were first timers seeing documents like this, so the sales manager of Polka, Adélie (Alain’s daughter), patiently explained every bullet point on the document. She also explained certain rights that I as the photographer should retain for myself. Florence told me that for the initial sales, she would wave her commission so that I can earn a little money to compensate for the travel expenses. I was very moved, given how much time and energy she had spent on this project herself.
Florence explained that I wouldn’t be able to meet a few people because Visa pour l’Image, the premier International Festival of Photojournalism held in Perpignan, happened to fall on the same week. But she managed to get me appointments with photo editors from “Vogue”, “W”, and “Le Monde”.
I’ve never participated in this kind of meeting before. I thought photo editors from such publications would probably be desensitized by the large volume of photos they go through on a daily basis. Also, considering the general stereotype of French arrogance, I was hesitant to attend these meetings. But I was proven wrong. My portfolio was submitted prior to each appointment. If the other side had no interest in the work, there would have been no appointment in the first place.
All of the meetings turned out to be very pleasant. At Vogue, the editor called in everyone from her department, and asked me lots of questions regarding my photos’ backstory. We discussed many topics covering travel, culture and society. She said unfortunately they already sent two photographers to this year’s Burning Man, and they just got back…
It was pretty difficult to get in “Le Monde”’s door, literally. We had to pass an X-ray machine, then through a double door that was controlled by security from inside, Florence presented our appointment sheet to the front desk who summoned our host, then we had to take a security controlled elevator to reach the editor’s office.
The photo editor of Le Monde is an elderly lady in her sixties, Frederique Babin. She spoke to Florence in French while browsing my portfolio. Later I asked Florence what they were discussing. Florence asked me in return, “Didn’t you notice her eyes were wet when she looked at your work?” Before we left, Frederique asked me to prepare a complete work portfolio and send it to her.
None of the people I met talked about art or trends. Instead, they were more interested in whether the imagery moved them spiritually or emotionally. Meanwhile, everyone showed more respect for traditional film photography and classic black and white imagery. They were also interested to learn whether a photographer could master diverse topics and styles. Florence believes that “As long as your work is truly great, it would shine.” I couldn’t agree more. She also told me to be patient and spend as long as needed to photograph what I was interested in. But she also said, it would be difficult to promote someone who doesn’t put out new work every two years. Ha, so there is still some pressure.
While promoting my work in the past year, Florence also met her share of arrogant clients. Some organization’s first sentence was “Who referred you?” On the other hand, she understands the other side’s frustration, too. Her agency would receive approximately ten portfolios and resumes submitted by new artists every week. I guess that birds of the same feather eventually flock together.
The one-week Paris trip passed in a blink of an eye. It felt like all the events had something to do with me, and had nothing to do with me at the same time; all had something to do with photography, or not.
Now I’m home and life goes on as before.