Fotograf Magazine

35th recontres d’arles

No less than 35 years have elapsed since 1969, when the photographer Lucien Clergue, together with his friends Jean Maurice Roquette and Michel Tournier, founded the first photography festival in the world in the small Provencal city of Arles, an event inspired by the theater festival in nearby Avignon. While by the end of the 1960s there were a plethora of flourishing theater, music or film festivals, the only regular exhibition of work in the field of photography featuring a number of exhibitions was the cultural side of the Photokino trade fair in Cologne. The festival in Arles was a success from the start, and soon many festivals followed its example: in Paris, Barcelona, Houston, Madrid, Bratislava, Moscow, and many other cities. In France alone, to this day there take place no less than twenty festivals dedicated to various aspects of photography – ranging from the universal Month of Photography in Paris, down to a more specialized festival of documentary and reportage photography held in Perpignan. The Rencontres d’Arles, as it is called now, still holds a place of honor among them. A significant reason for its unfailing popularity is the pleasantly informal atmosphere of a sunny Provencal town with a number of Roman and Romanesque historic monuments, and the cosy bistros that early in July each year play host to endless debates among photographers, curators, publishers and admirers of photography. At present, the event is generously sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture, the municipal as well as a number of regional bodies, and most recently also by private sponsors. The festival has offices both in Arles and Paris, a number of attractive exhibition venues including the Archbishop’s Palace and several deconsecrated Romanesque and Gothic churches and chapels, and employs an extensive staff headed by its agile director-manager Francois Hébel, formerly head of the Paris branch of the Magnum agency. It was he who in the last three years has made a significant contribution to the rehabilitation of the festival’s reputation, after a number of failures in the Nineties, when the more temperamental among the visitors expressed their dissatisfaction with the either too esoteric or uninteresting programs by throwing eggs and tomatoes at the director or main curator. Hébel re-established the focus of the event on documentary and artistic photography and opened up a large space to young or forgotten artists. This year he entrusted the selection of most of the more than forty exhibitions on show to the famous British photographer Martin Parr.
In contrast to last year, when the Arles festival suffered from a strike of cultural workers and a massive heatwave, this year all ran smoothly, to the satisfaction of visitors from around the world. Those who have no command of French appreciated that this time all texts at exhibitions were not only in French but also in English, and that the catalogue, of more than three hundred pages, was published in separate editions in both languages. This is a huge difference from the Month of Photography in Paris, whose organizers still choose to ignore the fact that a great majority of its visitors do not speak French, thus helping to undermine the festival’s formerly paramount status.
Martin Parr gave most of the space in Arles to contemporary artists of the younger and middle generation, but he also featured works of older artists that in his opinion had been unjustly neglected, or that were still waiting to be discovered. And it was some of these exhibitions that were among the festival’s highlights. This can be said for instance of the so far little-known photographs of the Polish photographer Henryk Rosse, who was interned in the Lodz ghetto during the Second World War, where he was supposed to fabricate idealized images of the normal, everyday life of Jewish families, but at the same time secretly took harrowing photographs of executions, naked corpses or children dying of starvation in the street. Out of the 3000 negatives that Ross buried during the liquidation of the ghetto and recovered after the war, Martin Parr and Timothy Prus made a selection from among the stores of the Archive of Modern Conflict in London of several dozen exceptionally powerful images, which in effective confrontations created a unique visual testimony of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Among the real revelations were also the color documentary photographs of Paris and Parisians created in the mid 1950s by the Japanese Kimura Ihei (even though a number of these did not rise beyond descriptive touristic-type snapshots), the expressive photographs of 1960s New York by the Hungarian György Lörinczy, or the exhibition entitled “Modern Outlook”, the curators of which chose from among the Keystone Agency archive interwar works by mostly anonymous photographers in the manner of constructivism and Neue Sachlichkeit, that were in fact no worse than similar works by Moholy-Nagy, Renger- Patzsch, Rodchenko, or Funke. For many visitors, another revelation was consituted by some of the images in the retrospective of two well-known British documentarists – Tony Raye-Jones, whose pioneering works capturing the traditional lifestyle of England in the manner of subjective documentary influenced a whole school of disciples in the 1960s and 1970s, and Chris Killip, whose uncommonly striking photographs of the North of England have been developing a tradition of humanist photography for nearly forty years.
In the section devoted to contemporary work, much space was given to large format photographs of seemingly unaesthetic constructions of the peripheries of large cities, betraying the influence of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and other representatives of the now highly successful “Düsseldorf school of photography”. Among these were a French group exhibition portraying Marseilles through color shots of monotonous warehouses and containers by Frank Breuer, or the views of a chaotic tangle of pylons and electric wires in the streets of Japanese cities by Kanemura Osamu. Two exhibitions of color photographs by Hans van der Meer provided refreshment; his images captured amateur football teams in Holland and in Provence with subtle humor. The group exhibition entitled Ports of Africa was of rather uneven quality, and apart from a quantity of banal photographs featured also outstanding color panoramas by Pascal Bois and expressive documentary work by Bruno Boudjelal of Gabon. The Paris-based agency VU presented the work of several of its photographers. Most interesting were the extraordinarily dramatic and expressive reportages from Chechnya by Stanley Green, that can be ranked among the highlights of contemporary war photography, and also naturalist documentary photographs by Anders Petersen. This exhibition included also color documentary images by the Slovak photographer Martin Kollár. The more interesting of those, however, were his older works, which expose with subtle irony certain absurdist aspects of quotidian existence in Slovakia and in the Czech lands, rather than his more recent work on leisure time in the ten new EU member countries – those often did not transcend the level of the superficial and anecdotal, with an unimaginative use of color. Portrait photography was represented in outstanding ways – as for instance in the group portraits of the politicians of various local councils in the USA by Paul Schambroom, or the sociological portraits of rich Indian families by Dayanita Singh, which showed the intermingling of traditional and Western cultures. Russian photography won much acclaim, and was presented by the Moscow House of Photography, whose director Olga Sviblova selected for Arles several technically perfectly rendered large format cycles by the group AES+F, original exploitations of the possibilities of computer manipulation of photographs, shocking images of the Donbass miners in ballerina costumes, or apocalyptic compositions of corpses by Arsen Savadov, as well as samples from several photographic cycles by the well-known performance and conceptual artist Oleg Kulik. A number of masterful works by the world’s foremost photographers were to be seen in items from the collection of the Fnac department store chain that runs photogalleries in dozens of its branches in many countries, and since 1978 has also collected photographs.
Martin Parr is also a passionate collector, but apart from ackowledged classics, he is also interested in popular photography, kitsch and the use of photography of objects of daily consumption. The large halls of former railway workshops, where a number of exhibitions were held this year, hosted his collection of watches bearing portraits of Saddam Hussein, and various kitschy trays and platters with photographs of idyllic landscapes, beautiful girls or the Queen of England. The Paris gallery owner and collector Serge Plantureux exhibited the results of a recent workshop he held, whose participants, alumni of the National School of Photography in Arles, discovered a number of historically and aesthetically valuable photographs in local archives or fleamarkets. Among the most interesting items in this area, however, was the fascinating family album of the amateur photographer Leo Polhuis, who between the years 1959–1981, and with a tremendous, spontaneous talent, took hundreds of slides of his parents, wife and children, documenting the life of a typical Dutch family of the time.
An important part of the Arles festival are the evening slide show programs, accompanied by music and commentary, in the charming atmosphere of the Antique Arena. This year their quality was considerably less even than that of the exhibitions. On the one hand, there was the outstanding retrospective of one of the foremost representatives of color documentary photography, Harry Gruyaert, the presentation of excellent works by graduates of the Yale School of Art, or Martin Parr’s program on seminal photography publications which included also the Czech Letem českým světem (Czech World in Brief), but on the other there were descriptive shots of the flood in Arles and a panegyric on the worldwide distribution of Korda’s portrait of the Cuban Communist revolutionary Che Guevera. At the final gala event, following an opulent dinner for 600 guests in the Antique Arena, five prizes of 10, 000 Euro each were awarded in various categories. The strongest misgivings were provoked by the “Without Horizons” prize, that was not awarded according to most participants’ expectations to the renowned Japanese artist Daidoh Moriyama, whose revolutionary work was widely published and was recently, to great acclaim presented also in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – but instead to the British fashion photographer Jonathan de Villiers, who will present his works – uneven both in terms of their subject matter and quality – at a major solo exhibit only later this year. Many other nominations by five leading photographers and especially the winning works (with the exception of the brilliant large format photographs of human intervention in landscapes by Edward Burtynsky) seemed random, and certainly did not represent the best of contemporary photography, and not even the best of what could be seen in Arles. It was typical that among the nine members of the jury not one was from Central or Eastern Europe.
The festival in Arles, however, is not made up of exhibitions, projections, and award ceremonies, but also of creatiave workshops, portfolio evaluations, symposiums and exhibitions of publications on photography. And, above all, the informal meetings of friends are the main reason why each year such great numbers of photographers and photography lovers from all around the world sojourn to the south of France. Most of them were definitely not disappointed this year.


vladimír birgus