Fotograf Magazine

47the Edition of Arles Photography Festival

For 47 summers, Arles becomes a centre of photography. This year, Les Rencontres d’Arles welcomed more than 13 thousands visitors, including the president François Hollande. The official program consisted of almost four dozens exhibitions, accompanied by screenings, lectures, award ceremonies and autograph sessions as well as one hundred exhibitions from the festival Voies Off and a short festival of the publishers of photobooks. The organizers could rely on an all-time high budget of 6.7 million, an amount other photography festival can only dream about. For the second year, new director Sam Stourdzé did away with the previous (and often ineffectively restricting) concept based on one central theme for every edition. Just as last year, the exhibitions are split into a number of smaller topical groups, pointing out the diversity of photography from classic documentary photos to multi-media installations. Before coming to Arles, Stourdzé prepared successful exhibitions about Chaplin and Fellini, combining photographs with the documents and texts of the time. That might be why Arles hosts so many expositions that resign on traditional approach based on hanging photo images, often presenting results of long-term research projects.

Laila Abril, a Catalan artist, presented one of the best expositions on offer, A History of Misogyny. First chapter: On Abortion, focused on illegal abortions in countries where abortions are banned for various religious, political or ethnic reasons. Combining photographs with screenings, written documents, sound recordings and authentic medical tools, she achieved a highly emotional impact. The combination of staged and documentary photographs and portraits of indigenous people of the Amazonian rainforest with images of landscape and different significant objects also works well for Yan Gros, a Switzerland artist, whose exhibition uses spotlights to enhance the emotional impact of the photographs in dark space. The author, who won the generously subsidized competition for the best dummy photo publication, displays a cleverly structured and graphically designed book on the same topic, published with the help of his last year’s award. Operation Condor, another impressive exposition by João Pina, a Portuguese artist based in Argentina, sums up the results of his long-term investigation in the crimes of six dictatorial regimes of Latin America that had seen the disappearance of 60 thousands political opponents since the mid-70s, with many others spending years in jail or being executed. Pina creative a vivid mosaic comprised of the portraits of former prisoners and the relatives of those who remain missing, of images of the places where people were tortured, of different memories and transcripts. A vast exposition of Yan Morvan, a French artist, causes strong emotions, too. The seemingly peaceful photographs taken during more than 10 years with a large-format camera capture the places where great battles and war massacres have taken place since classical times. The exhibition and a large book are accompanied by texts about the history of these places. However, to combine current photos with history based on research is not always a recipe for success. For example, the Stéphanie Salinas’s multi-media exhibition about transformations of the Grand Hall, built for the Colonial Exhibition in Marseille in 1906 and later moved to Arles, spreads across two floors of the Church of St. Trophime, but it would be better suited for space in a history museum than a photography festival.

Documentary and reportage photography is less visible than it used to be under Françoise Hébel, a former director of Magnum Agency, but it is presented at several marvellous exhibitions, including a large retrospective of Sid Grossman, an American pioneer of subjective documentary, whose work was almost forgotten due to his leftist leanings that earned him a place on the FBI black list in the Cold War era. The influence of Grossman’s expressive photos from the 40s on many other photographers is proven by a selection of photographs by his successors found in the retrospective itself as well as by Garry Winogrand and Ethan Levitas’s works in their double exhibition of images from the streets of New York. Certain parallels can also be found in William Klein’s photographs of dancers in the streets of Tokyo taken in the early 60s. Most of them are published for the very first time; only two of the photos were included in Klein’s iconic Tokyo, published in 1964. The New York School of Photography, represented by both Grossman and Klein, is also reflected in Eamon Doyle’s coarse-grained photographs taken in today’s Dublin. Doyle’s exceptionally strong exposition, combining middle-sized black and white as well as colour photographs with gigantic blow-ups and impressive sound and visual effects, is one of the best things offered by this year’s festival.

The same cannot be said about the general impression evoked by the exhibition of Don McCullin, a famous British photojournalist. Its curators, Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian from Tate Gallery, London betted on an original concept that would steer away from a recently held McCullin’s retrospective in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the exhibition thus has to do without his famous war photographs, if you don’t count a few examples in the newspapers of the time. The exhibition is dominated by McCullin’s excellent social documentaries from the 60s and 70s England, but his mushy images of romantic landscapes take far too much space, not to mention his recent descriptive photos of ancient monuments reminiscent of tourist guidebooks. Andreas Serrano, an American artist and one of the stars no festival forgets to invite, presented a number of his photographs bordering on pornography at an evening session in the Theatre Antique. But his exhibition in nearby Avignon, a part of the festival in Arles, shows a different story, offering a multi-layered collection focused on torture, including staged photos, details of torture devices and large-format photographs from former East German prisons, where the secret police subjected political prisoners to brutal investigations.

For the second time, the festival hosted Cosmos Arles Books, an exposition of 88 publishers. The traditional photobook competition received over 800 submissions covering a wide range of styles, from large monographs to modest booklets issued at the author’s own cost in 10 copies, and all of them were displayed. The main prize in the Artist’s Book category went to Mariken Wessels for Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor, while Anette Behrens won the History Book Award with her (in matters of) Karl. A Czech photobook with Dita Pepe’s photos and Bára Baronová’s text called Intimita (Intimacy) made the short list of 17 finalists. Despite the recent presence of Krzysztof Candrowicz, the Polish director of Lodz and Hamburg festivals among the nominators, no exhibition from East European countries materialized; the official program didn’t offer a single exhibition of Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Hungarian photos.

Vladimír Birgus