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British actor David Hemmings in a publicity shot for Blow Up, London,
Getty Images, London

Liane Lang
Untitled 1 (Tableau)

Anahita Ghabaian-Ettehadieh and Minou Saberi, co-directors of Tehrans Silk Road Gallery

Julia Margaret Cameron
Sir John Herschel
Robert Hershkowitz Ltd, London

Alex McQuilkin
Untitled (Will Fuck for Validation)
Galerie Adler, Frankfurt

Sam Chatterton Dickson and Di Poole of Flowers East, in front of Edward Burtynsky's Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie # 3, Yangtze River, China 2002
Flowers East, London

Mark Wayland
The Game
Scout Gallery, London

Works by Mark Seliger at Hamburg Kennedy Photographs, New York

London's Getty Images gallery booth

London in Pictures
by Ana Finel Honigman

For the second annual Photo-London art fair, May 19-22, 2005, approximately 50 galleries from around the world set up shop in the new Royal Academy of Arts annex building in Burlington Gardens, just around the corner from the Cork Street gallery district. Launched last year by Danny Newberg, publisher of the London-based Pluk magazine (and a former New York gallery owner), and supported by an illustrious advisory committee that includes Christie's photo chief Philippe Garner, collector Kay Hartenstein Saatchi and artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Photo-London seems an inevitable reflection of the city's importance as a global art center.

The fair's attractions included two special exhibitions of contemporary photography, one organized by Winchester School of Art 2004 sculpture PhD Kristin Posehn. She selected eight artists, many of them students, including RA MF candidate Liane Lang, whose photographs of prosthetic limbs in bourgeois settings are reminiscent of works by Hans Bellmer and Helmut Newton.

Also among Posehn's choices were a work by Oslo-based artist Eivind Lentz, who appropriated examples from an archive of 20,000 mobile phone photos sent to a Norwegian TV program for on-air display, and a series of urban landscape photographs by RA student Steffi Klenz, which manage to make suburban London look like the mythical locations in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

The fair's second special exhibition was selected by the much-admired fashion photographer Mario Testino, whose subjects typically include glamour girls like Elizabeth Hurley and Kate Moss. Here, however, the Peruvian photographer, who studied in London, gathered together a group of intellectually rigorous and esthetically understated works, including two stills from Annika Larsson's 2001 video Dog and a surprisingly awe-inspiring photo collage by Idris Khan with the self-explanatory title of Every William Turner Postcard from Tate Britain, 2004.

Both exhibitions showcased photography at its best and presented a challenging yet optimistic image of the medium's future. Upstairs, in a labyrinth of white spaces, was photography's present, which included top dealers such as Bonni Benrubi (New York), Galerie Daniel Blau (Munich ) and Howard Greenberg Gallery (New York) as well as exhibitors like Aperture, Taschen and Getty Images. Sadly absent were White Cube, Lisson and other high-profile London dealers.

Photo-London also drew some participants from far-off precincts, including Gana Art Gallery from Seoul and Silk Road Gallery from Tehran. "This is the first time an Iranian gallery is showing in a London air fair," said Anahita Ghabaian-Ettehadieh of Silk Roads. "There has been widespread recent interest in Iranian culture throughout London, and I'm surprised that we didn't get a bit more press attention."

Wandering through the fair, a visitor couldn't be blamed for wishing he or she were outside, enjoying occasional patches of sunlight and an almost pleasant English weekend. The majority of booths were stuffed with familiar editorial-size prints, hung salon-style, and the overall experience was lackluster. But even the most jaded visitor, in search of the rare, exotic and wonderful, could leave with a few scribbled names or a cherished memory or two.

For your correspondent, the most fruitful results were found at either end of the fair's timeline. At Robert Hershkowitz Ltd, the prestigious London private photo dealer, was Julia Margaret Cameron's chilling 1867 portrait of Sir John Herschel -- the early photo pioneer who coined the terms "photography" and "positive" and "negative" -- an image that is ghostly enough to be a spectre out of Edgar Allan Poe.

Likewise compelling was the installation of works by Alex McQuilkin at the booth of Frankfurt's Galerie Adler. Said to have once harbored aspirations to be an abstract painter, McQuilkin kicked off her career in 2000 with the video Fucked, which premiered at New York's Armory Show. In the controversial tape, the then-19-year-old artist faces the camera in close-up and calmly applies makeup, while at the same time she is apparently being penetrated from behind.

Since then, McQuilkin's brilliantly bratty work has grown without growing up. The installation at Photo-London included Test Run, a 2004 video homage to suicidal revenge fantasies in which the artist sinks below the surface of her bath in a brief and futile attempt to drown herself, and a series of stills showing McQuilkin thrashing about in a pink, punk bedroom, her wrists wrapped with blood-clotted cloth.

McQuilkin's most vicious image, and therefore her funniest, is her comparably calmer Untitled (Will Fuck for Validation) self-portrait, which features the artist, with a blond bob and tear-streaked cheeks, mimicking Cindy Sherman mimicking an generic movie starlet, as in her 1981 Artforum spread. McGuilkin's look of tragic glamour is given a self-conscious twist by the green glitter lettering on her white wife-beater, which reads, "Will fuck for validation."

One lesson of the fair was that size matters. London's Flowers East gallery showed several arresting large prints, such as Edward Burtynsky's diptych, Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie # 3, Yangtze River, China. The photos sold on the fair's opening night. "There were a small number of buyers," joked Flowers' Sam Chatterton Dickson, "and we flushed them out to have a good fair."

Similarly, lusciously theatrical photographs that resulted from a collaboration between the British photographer and artist Nick Waplington and the Mexican artist Miguel Calderon, on offer at the booth of London's Museum 52, did not suffer from the general sales slump. Priced at £4,000 each, these giddy, bright, incoherent prints looked like what might happen if Gregory Crewdson overdosed on Prozac. Waplington and Calderon are clearly an example of what it takes to make a bigger, brighter, unexpected future.

Fashion, celebrity and nudes are evergreen subjects for photography. Shimmering among the glossy prints at London's Scout Gallery was Mark Wayland's The Game, an enormous fashion shot of a young woman contemplating her handbag, which had been transformed in a cascade of sequins-like disks. The edition was moving briskly at £5,000 per print.

At Hamburg Kennedy Photographs, a much-reproduced portrait of Kurt Cobain, taken by Mark Seliger in 1993 for Rolling Stone magazine, was installed along with one of artist's recent, Stieglitz-style nudes. Several other galleries also had examples of the same Cobain portrait, available in three different sizes.

To the naked eye, however, the popularity prize went to Getty Images, which presented an extensive group of elegant, arresting and iconic pictures, tightly stacked together on the walls, with more in the overflowing print racks and binders. Unabashedly commercial in its appeal, the booth was consistently packed with viewers, who vied for vintage shots of charming little French children as well as for devastatingly cool portraits of slinky Jean Shrimpton and slick David Hemmings, which ranged in price from £600 to £1,800.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.