The Aperture Foundation’s description of their newly opened exhibition, “Delpire & Co”, is that it “showcases [Robert] Delpire’s rise to prominence in the world of photography through his pioneering and seminal work in magazine and book publishing, films, curatorship, and advertising for the past fifty years.”
This it certainly does — in a herculean installation that will span four venues and two supporting gallery shows. But, beyond the stated goal, it may ultimately showcase photography’s rise to prominence in the world. When the elevator takes you back down from the show to the sidewalk below, it is worth reflecting that what you have just seen represents a world of images that not only predates the Internet and the hellish proliferation of images that marks our time but an epoch in which it was possible to ask with a straight face whether photography matters.
Robert Delpire must have understood early on that the better course of action at times is to not answer the question you were asked, but rather the question you wish you had been asked. As part of his academic responsibilities as a twenty-three year old medical student in 1950s Paris he took over publication of a student-run cultural periodical aimed at medical professionals and quickly transformed it into Neuf, “an art magazine that brought together a range of artists, writers, and thinkers, among them André Breton, Jacques Prévert, Henry Miller, Henri Michaux, and Jean-Paul Sartre,” and soon published “the work of photographers who were later to be recognized as major figures in the genre—Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Doisneau, Lartigue, and Bischof.”
The quote is from the bio provided by Aperture, and the phrase that nonchalantly evokes that era and its casual relation to photography is “photographers who were later to be recognized as major figures in the genre.” Cartier-Bresson. Brassai. Doisneau. Lartigue. Bischof. Today these revered names are practically shorthand for photography but at the time, well, even Magnum Photos had only been in existence for a few years.
Delpire soon abandoned his medical studies to publish magazines and books, to create (now legendary) advertising campaigns and to begin his lifelong, and equally humanitarian, project of elevating photography’s cultural status while simultaneously democratizing it.
In a move now part of photo book lore, Delpire published Robert Frank’s The Americans. It was 1958. He was thirty four.
On display at Aperture (as of this review the other venues had yet to open their respective parts of “Delpire & Co”) are: original copies of Neuf; adverts for Citroën; Cacharel work by Sarah Moon; works supporting Doctors Without Borders (perhaps inspired as much by Delpire’s faith in photography to support a cause as by the spark that led to medical school in the first place); framed prints by Moon, Koudelka, Klein, Frank and others; the books those prints wound up in (which you are welcome to flip through); calendars; gallery ephemera (Delpire ran photo galleries); films; documentation of work done while serving the French Ministry of Culture; and copies of Photo Poche (the best-selling photo book series with 200 titles under its belt).
French children too owe a debt of gratitude to Delpire: he is responsible for the original French publication of the late Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The exhibit, at least its Aperture portion, is an immersive experience. This is not a show that lends itself to a checklist. Nor does it tell the story of Delpire & Co in neat and linear fashion from the beginning to the present. That may have been as much a deliberate curatorial choice as one necessitated by space and architectural constraints. What the show does lend itself to is taking the time to stroll, to look repeatedly and to double-back, all in order to soak it in and get a sense of time and of the evolution of a publishing vision.
The span and breadth of the Aperture installation is refreshing in its scope. It is not, nor should it be, easy to mount a lifetime’s worth of work, especially a giant’s. Actually, what we are fortunate enough to have here in New York City is, even when spread over four venues, a condensed version of the even larger retrospective first mounted at the 2009 the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France.
Delpire is now 86 and still championing photography through publications. In no small part to him, no one today can ask with a straight face whether photography matters.
“Delpire & Co” is divided among four different venues, creating altogether a comprehensive exhibition. Howard Greenberg Gallery and Pace/MacGill Gallery will also mount supporting exhibitions in celebration of Delpire’s work.
Aperture Gallery now through July 19, 2012.
Presenting Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and Sarah Moon. Delpire’s work with magazines and special advertising projects for Cacharel, Citroën, L’Oréal, and the French Ministry of Culture will also be featured.
The Gallery at Hermès May 11–July 19, 2012
Presenting prints from more contemporary photographers such as Harry Gruyaert, Jehsong Baak, Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, Michael Ackerman, Francesco Zizola, Raymond Depardon, Robert Doisneau, Paolo Pellegrin, and Marc Riboud.
Cultural Services of the French Embassy May 11–June 8, 2012
Presenting Delpire’s children books, including the original French edition of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Crocodile Tears by André François.
La Maison Française of New York University May 21–July 19, 2012
Presenting the Poche Illustrateur series, including Roman Cieślewicz, Honoré Daumier, Etienne Delessert, Guy Peellaert, Saul Steinberg, André François and J.J. Grandville.
In addition, two supporting exhibitions will be on view:
Howard Greenberg Gallery, Sarah Moon: Now and Then May 11–June 23, 2012
Pace/MacGill Gallery, A Tribute to Robert Delpire: Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Josef Koudelka, Duane Michals, and Paolo Roversi. May 10–June 16, 2012