Fotograf Magazine

Rencontres d’Arles 2008

The most important event of the 39th photographic festival Recontres d’Arles took place right at the start of the festival at the beginning of July: the world famous architect Frank Gehry presented his first projects for the extensive revitalisation of the former railway workshop in whose roughly refurbished halls many exhibitions have already been taking place. Maja Hoffman, the co-owner of the Swiss pharmaceutical concern Roche Holding, an art collector and patron of the arts, pledged hundred million Euros for the reconstruction. The dominating feature of the project will be the large LUMA Foundation Centre for Film and Photography with exhibition spaces, depository, specialised library, art studio, spaces for visiting artists, the festival office, the Actes sud Publishing House and a restaurant with a view. So, in the next four years, this small town in Provence should have a photographic institution, which is still missing in most of world’s metropolis, including Prague. 

Of course, the main reason for the institution is the festival itself, and Maja Hoffmann has been co-operating with it for the last seven years. Recontre d’Arles, under its director Francoise Hebel, is going through happy times at the moment, despite losing a few of its traditional sponsors. Thanks to the city authorities, it gained a few new exhibition spaces this year, including the Big Hall, and has recovered its place as one the most important festivals of photography in the world. The important aspect of its popularity is undoubtedly the fact that it concentrates on attractive photographic topics and flirts with famous personalities. This year was no exception. The main exhibitions curator was Christian Lacroix, the designer of expensive luxury clothes who often looks to history for inspiration. Thanks to his Arles origins, he is very popular there and he undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the first week of the festival had more visitors than usual. He is not well versed in photography but Francois Hebel and the president of the festival Francois Barre betted on his name and his fresh eye and gave him unlimited freedom. 

Lacroix wanted to surprise with his choice of exhibitions for the official programme and to show work by little known photographers or little known work by famous photographers. The main space was, with reason, given to fashion photography, but his choice also included a number of exhibitions of portraits, documentary pictures or anonymous street photography. However, the quality of exhibitions varied greatly. One of the best was a vast exhibition of exceptionally creative fashion photographs, portraits and staged scenes by the British fashion photographer Tim Walker. His enchanting photographs were full of novel ideas inspired by fairy stories and surrealism. The famous German photographer Peter Lindbergh’s exhibition of black and white photographs, shot in Arles and Camargue, was interesting while the retrospective of his Italian colleague Paolo Roversi was badly selected and badly put together. That was made obvious by a much better set of pictures, which Roversi projected in the Antique Theatre and presented it as a playful dialogue between himself and Lindbergh. The presentation of the best of fashion photography from the National Collection of Contemporary Arts, FNAC, put together by Agnes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr from the notoriously known and also not much published pictures by Cecil Beaton, William Klein, Guy Burdin, Sarah Moon, Nan Goldin and other photographers was excellent. Some of the photographers were also shown at the Still Life exhibition in Vogue. 

The fashion theme continued in some weaker exhibitions too. Among them were exhibitions of some of Christian Lacroix’s collaborators, for example the banal Polaroid self-portraits with models by Jerome Puche. The biggest controversy was caused by photographs of a model and a skeleton, taken by one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, Richard Avedon. Many visitors found them too convulsive and kitschy; the worst Avedon has ever produced. Others were enthusiastic about their lack of convention. Lacroix himself added to the attractiveness of the festival with a grand fashion show in the Antique Theatre and an original retrospective in the Reatte Museum where he boldly fused his haute couture clothes with old masters paintings, drawings by Picasso, unique carpets and photographs by Kertezs, Lartigue, Man Ray, Giacomelli and other photographers from the museum collection. 

Outside the fashion world, the strongest photographs were the depressing pictures by Fancoise Huguier about the lives of the inhabitants of collective flats in St. Petersburg, supported by an expensive installation: the pictures were hanged in realistic imitations of old and dirty bathrooms, kitchens and rooms in the never-renovated houses offering no privacy. Portrait photography was well represented in Arles, as for example the technically perfect large-format portraits by Peter Gonnord showing faces of beggars, Gypsies, Balkan emigrants and other people from the edge of Spanish society in the style of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Murillo and other classical Baroque and Renaissance painters. Another kind of high-quality static portrait was represented by simply composed, but still very suggestive, black and white portraits of school-age girls from eastern Anatolia by Vanessa Winship. They were not only a sociological document about the merging of various cultures, religions and nationalities of contemporary Turkey, but also a psychological study of emotional changes and insecurities of pubescent girls. Lacroix himself even suggested nominators for the Recontres d’Arles prize. Some of them showed certain incompetence by their choice of not very interesting fashion pictures and celebrity portraits. By the prize was rightly awarded to the South African photographer Pieter Hugo for his fascinating portraits of hyena and monkey tamers in Nigeria. 

Many of the festival exhibitions were not selected by Lacroix but by the Le Mejan Foundation, Agency Vu, French National School of Photography, Fnac department store and by other institutions and organisations. For the European public, the greatest discovery was the exhibition of the American Jeffrey Silverthorn who photographed his merciless portraits at the same time as Diana Arbus and anticipated similar photographs done later by Andres Serrano by his ghostlike photographs of dead bodies. Expressively blurred, grainy and unusually composed black and white photographs from various war zones and areas of religious and racial conflicts by the Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrino excellently represented modern photojournalism. More classical style of documentary photography was represented in an exhibition of distinctly colourful pictures of violence and poverty in Haiti by the American Jane Evelyn Atwood and by two exhibitions of the Greek photographer John Demos, showing country and religious life in Greece and the changes in Albania after the fall of the communist dictatorship. Slovak graduate from the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava, Lucia Nimcová, exhibited paraphrases of official pictures from her native town Humenne dating from the communist regime of the 1970’s and 1980’s, for which she received the Oscar Barnack – Leica Prize and the European Central Bank Prize this year. 

An important part of the festival were 22 workshops, portfolio assessments, lectures and debates, photographic publications competitions, a theoretical symposium – this year on the theme of commissioned photography, a seminar on photographic education of children and adolescents, and finally the traditional Night of the Year during which dozens of programmes put together from photographs from various magazines and agencies were projected in venues in the historical centre until three o’clock in the morning. The projection of Josef Koudelka’s incredibly powerful photographs of the occupation of Prague in August 1968, suggestively generalising resistance of defenceless people against armed violence, was the most successful of all the evenings in the Antique Theatre. Novelty of the festival was the European Night, organised on the occasion of the French chairmanship of the European Union. One curator was invited from each of the 27 member states to prepare a projection of work by three of their photographers. It gave a unique overview of the current tendencies in modern European photography and could be seen by thousands of visitors on huge screens during the European Night and then throughout the duration of the festival on computers in the Big Hall. Czech photography was successfully represented by the young photographers Kateřina Držková, Dita Pepe and Tereza Vlčková with their inventive portraits on the theme of identity changes. 

The low level of some exhibitions (it also goes for the so-called Off Festival where the interesting parts were the subjective documents made by the students of the French National School of Photography, but which also included a whole range of literally amateur works) was compensated by the hard-to-repeat friendly atmosphere of the festival in this colourful town where beginners can meet the stars of world photography. In the end, there were enough good exhibitions in this small town on the Rhone that nobody had to return disappointed from the Recontres.

Vladimír Birgus