This past fall I hopped over to cologne for the 21st time to cover my 21st photokina. Ah, 21! Those magic numbers that open up the gates to adulthood, permitting legal and unfettered access to such activities as drinking—although many of those perks [such as voting and serving in the military] are now legally available at a younger age level, “21” still grips the imagination.
As a result of this belated coming of age, I decided to make a major change in my coverage of this, one of the most important events in the photo industry. After a half century devoted to reporting on products I decided that at photokina ’06 I would concentrate on the end product of those products—the picture—with a little bit of history thrown in for good measure.
Aiding me in this momentous decision was the fact that I was not alone. photokina itself, after having made neither structural nor logistical changes for 56 years, celebrated its own coming of age by selling off the three original, cozy, brick-walled halls of the fairgrounds, simultaneously substituting four massive, modern, glass and steel edifices. To be fair we must note that photokina has been gradually and steadily keeping up with the times for a decade or so, setting aside more and more space for the aesthetic side of the industry.
Naturally, it took awhile to get used to the new layout but once oriented, I headed for the Visual Gallery, site of the most unique and largest of the “software” exhibits. Inaugurated in 2002, the Visual Gallery has evidently found a permanent home in the spacious new Hall 1. Occupying most of that space, “photokina, The Early Years 1950-56” put forth an engaging record of the beginning of what is now known as the self-styled “World’s Fair of Imaging.” The authentic stamp of photokina’s founding fathers—Charles E. Fraser and L. Fritz Gruber—is just as evident and influential in this exhibit as it was in 1950 when the two approached Cologne’s municipal authorities with their plans to show the “technical achievements as well as the cultural and societal effects of photography.” For this event Fraser—a London-based photographer—provided several original written documents as well as photographs from his archives, while Gruber—a world renowned expert in the aesthetic segment of photography in the 20th Century—served as curator of the early picture portions of the fair and was actively involved in subsequent shows well into the 1980s.
Their earliest efforts showing somber scenes, filled with crowds of unsmiling faces making their way through the crowded corridors of opening day (April 20, 1951) provide a vivid view of what was and what was to come. Other images revealed: the seminal primitive photo exhibits (small in size and number); names like Minox and Voightlander taking center stage; and long lines of people waiting to purchase admission tickets for the princely sum of 1 Deutsche Mark. Most of the photos were displayed on individual free-standing “walls” along with posters and catalogs. Friends and acquaintances of Fritz Gruber might be amused by a stunning portrait of the man way back then standing straight and tall—in sepia tone of course—and looking eerily and exactly like John Barrymore, profile and all. By 1956 photokina had achieved upwards of 66,000 square meters of exhibition floor space to accommodate 502 exhibitors (28.4% from outside Germany), and 170,000 attendees. We’ve obviously come a long way in 50 years.
Scattered throughout the Visual Gallery were other shows devoted to a half dozen major photographers (including a series on Hollywood’s Mickey Rourke); the Kodak Young Talent Awards, 2004-2006; and the 2006 Fujifilm Euro Press Professional Awards.
At the other end of the spectrum—physically and emotionally—visitors coming through the North Main entrance were greeted by an overwhelming display of 11 gigantic murals arranged along a bare white wall. Depicting the destruction in the 1940s, towards the end of World War II, of the section of Cologne’s old city along the Rhine, this exhibition aptly titled “60 Years of Peace” attempts to show war’s devastating and debilitating effects with the hope of extending the 60 peaceful years idea far into the future.
The photos were taken by Karl Hugo Schmolz, the son and namesake of a well-known architectural photographer, on 18x24cm (roughly 7x9.5) glass plates with a wooden camera.
Veteran photokina-goers may be able to pick out such landmarks as the St. Apostein church near the Schildergasse, the large pedestrian shopping street at the fringe of the Old City; the Gurzenich, Rathaus, and Stapelhauschen restaurant, all of which rose from the rubble to be rebuilt in the old style for the benefit of today’s visitors.
Scattered throughout the nine halls devoted to the fair were the usual photo displays in various exhibitor’s booths and connecting passageways. Among the standouts were the Unicef show, featuring the usual mix of the heavy (depressing views of survivors of the Kahmir earthquake and starving kids in Niger) plus a low dose of the light (Swedish school kids about to take to the dance floor at a school party, and a baby girl reveling in her first encounter with a swimming pool).
Then there were the usual in-booth displays on a slightly reduced scale with one notable exception. (oh how I longed for the days when I could stare at a 16x20 portrait of Faye Dunaway at the Ilford booth on my way to yet another appointment at yet another company’s stand).
Old Kodak was represented by an unusually large portion of their exhibit showcasing the work of 20 well-known pros such as Chris Usher and Jock McDonald, from various fields, among them the celebrity photographer who caught a bemused Andy Warhol and companion staring warily and quizzically into the camera. The new Kodak gave us a mini fashion show on a small stage inhabited by scantily-clad models cavorting in fashions fashioned from Kodak-made materials. Like a shimmering skirt, consisting of CDs arranged in rows—shiny side out. Or would Madam prefer a frilly number ideally suited for the Hula, concocted of rows of 35mm slides—cardboard mounts and perfectly processed images intact?
Finally, there was the mammoth mural (capable of dwarfing the entire “60 Years of Peace” display) spread along the length of one wall. Racy? Perhaps; Eye Catching? Oh yeah! Subject: Another scantily-clad (happily) non-anorexic model with the longest legs in captivity, lying prone on her back holding a compact camera—digital I think, but, who was looking at the camera?—to her eye. Further proof that the times they are a-changin.’ Maybe it really is a brave new world after all.