The 49th Bièvres International Photo Fair took place this year on Saturday June 2nd and Sunday June 3rd in Place de la Mairie, Bièvres, France. Created in 1964 by Jean and André Fage, the fair quickly became a major attraction. Each year, thousands of visitors from all over the world travel 12km south of Paris to what has been nicknamed a mecca for camera collectors and fans of vintage photography.
On a sunny morning in the beginning of June, we arrived by train to the town of Bièvres near Versailles and climbed the hill to the mairie, a large green space divided into avenues and surrounded by trees, where the Fair had been organized by the Photo Club de Paris Val-de-Bièvre. Stall-holders were still constructing the frames for makeshift blue and white awnings which would shelter their merchandise from the sun. This included an assortment of rare lenses, vintage cameras, light meters, plate holders, plate racks, printing frames, old books and photographs, vintage cameras, lens and accessories, old books and pictures. Other vendors laid onto rugs thrown down on the grass and a few people walked around with cardboard signs taped to their rucksacks, advertising individual cameras they wanted to sell.
As midday approached, the fair filled with collectors and photographers hunting for new acquisitions, haggling for the right price and trading rare equipment. The varied treasures of the stalls ranged from large format wooden cameras and Petzval lenses dating from the 19th century to the latest digital cameras and everything in between; magic lanterns and boxes of hand-painted slides, a range of images printed on paper, tin and glass, Daguerreotypes, orotypes, family albums (some in tiny leather-bound books with their miniature portraits cut into ovals and pasted between leaves of card), postcards, Victorian erotica and beautiful gum bichromate prints, cyanotypes and Van Dyke Browns. Stereo photography has always been popular in France (from antique wooden stereo cameras to digital stereo camera rigs) and so there was a striking range of stereo viewers, cards and cameras for sale as well.
The fair is an inclusive event and you don’t have to be a photographer to enjoy it – graphic designers, illustrators, writers, collectors, second-hand dealers, antique-hunters and photo-fans come here, swelling the numbers to 15000 visitors from Britain, Germany, the USA, Russia, Japan. Although by all accounts, this year both numbers and sales were down. Stall-holder Jean-Claude de Guyenro from the Parisian suburb of Antony has been coming to Bièvres for forty years “since the beginning”. When asked about his sales at this year’s fair, he replied that they were très moyen compared to other years, for a number of reasons: too much for sale; too old a clientèle; too many amateurs and not enough connoisseurs buying. Wetplate artist and tutor John Brewer commented that there were “a lot fewer quality brass lenses than in previous years, because the number of people who are now interested in wetplate and using early lenses because of the beautiful signature they give.”
On the second day of the fair, artists’ stalls provided added interest, ranging from the work of photographers working with digital cameras and ink-jet prints to those using historical methods. Each year the club runs a competition for the best photograph. This year’s winner was announced at the close of the fair – Corinne Kortchinsky with her photographs of school children in Myanmar. Historical photographic methods exhibited in other stalls included Daguerreotypes, Polaroid lifts and tea-toned cyanotypes (by photographer Doris Thuillier) and wetplate collodion. The wetplate collodion stall run by Vincent Tuloup and Basile Dubroeucq had a constant stream of customers whom they were photographing on both metal and black glass. Vincent told us that they had substituted hypo for cyanide for health and safety reasons and using a modern acrylic varnish for field work instead of a traditional varnish because it dries faster. The plates turned out beautifully.