Fotograf Magazine

arles 2005

It seems that the oldest festival of photography in the world, the in the South of France, has finally emerged from the crisis in which it found itself in the late 1990s. This was to a decisive degree due to the work of the energetic Francois Hébel, who undertook the management of the festival four years ago and has gradaually succeeded in recovering its prestige, winning new sponsors, introducing English as the second offi- cial language alongside with French, and creating a system of awarding well-regarded prizes in several categories. In 2004, when the famous British photographer Martin Parr served as the main guest curator, the festival was immensely successful and brought a number of genuine discoveries. In the following and 36th year, Hébel again took responsibility for the program. Even though he admitted to a certain eclectism, in the end he managed to satisfy most visitors with a wide variety of 55 exhibitions, evening events at the Antique Theater (this time, however, these were rather boring with a few exceptions, such as the brilliant lecture of Joan Fontcuberta on the re-interpretation of famous photographs), discussions with photographers, curators and critics, film screenings, conferences on various subjects, a competition of the best publications on photography, and also The Night of the Year, held for the first time, during which projections took place in several locations around the historical center of Arles late into the night. Most important, however, was as always the informal and friendly atmosphere which marked the official events, including the closing dinner at the famous Antique cemetery Les Alyscamps, and above all the countless meetings of hundreds of festival participants in the cafés and pubs along the Forum, traditionally the social center of the festival.

One of the main themes was that of the portrait, which has since the 1990s seen a veritable renaissance of interest. There were a number of decent exhibitions, yet none which brought anything truly revolutionary. In this section, the Dutch photographer Annet van der Voort presented her series of portraits of eight different women, capturing the phases of cosmetic facial adjustment, from waking up to going out, showing the metamorphoses that take place each day in front of the bathroom mirror. The French artist Denis Darzacq presented a set of static sociological photographs of a multinational group of inhabitants of a housing project in the Paris suburb of Bobigny. The enigmatic portraits of the Brazilian photographer Mario Cravo Neto belong among the best recent work from Latin America. His countryman, Arthur Omar, who has for a whole quarter century recorded the emotions of dancers at Carnival in Rio, selected thirty-five expressive images from nearly fifteen thousand photographs taken during that time. Very traditional and yet evocative static portrait photographs, predominantly featuring the direct gaze of the portrayed, characterized the exhibition of David Balicki, who concentrated on portraits of various notable figures from Arles itself. A real treat was the inventively structured and installed exhibition of three hundred and twenty portraits from the collection of the New York-based collector and gallery owner, W. M. Hunt, comprised of photographs where the eyes of the person in front of the camera remain unseen as done by a number of famous artists, among them Cameron, Nadar, Brandt, Avedon, Penn, Mapplethorpe and Witkin, as well as less well-known or even anonymous photographers.

Another section was entitled World Under Pressure. This did not include only reportage and documentary photographs, but also various multi-media installations and posters created by a graphic designer who in fact does not himself take photographs. Here the broad-mindedness of both organizers and visitors was particularly evident, in great contrast to the current situation in the Czech Republic, where the distance between artists using the medium of photography and photographers in the traditional sense often appears unsurmountable. One of the most powerful works in the entire festival, a fascinating multi-media installation combining dramatically lit color photographs, video projections, music and spellbinding sounds, was presented in the de-consecrated Dominican church by the Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco, a member of the legendary Magnum agency. The result was a work of Baroque tempestuousness, dealing with power, violence, faith, eros and elementary values. Among other highlights was the captivating projection of Branco’s younger colleages from Magnum, Thomas Dworzak, Alex Majoliko and Paolo Pellegrino entitled Off Broadway, composed of expressive shots of various dramatic events in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other neuralgic points of our planet, as well as of shots of daily life where death, sex, violence, loneliness and love fuse in a compelling mosaic. Also powerful were the large-format color photographs by the Dutch photographer Jacqueline Hassink, matter-of-fact pictures of the offices and living rooms of rich female Arab executives and corporate managers, women with an income of tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. These photographs also had the potential to capture the viewer with their sociologically eloquent portrayal of the merger of Arabic and Euro-American culture, as well as to correct the traditional stereotype of the subordinate position of Arab women. Hassink’s countrywoman Christien Meindertsma exhibited in Checked Luggage: 3, 264 Forbidden Objects her stark photographs of the numerous knives, forks, scissors and imitation handguns confiscated in the course of a single week at the luggage check at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. She purchased many of these objects at airport auctions, and she adds to each copy of her eponymous book one of those ”forbidden objects“. Generally speaking, Dutch photography was profusely represented in this section, which also featured the exhibition Why Mister, Why?, whose author, Geert van Kesteren demonstrated in a number of compelling images from contemporary Iraq the deep rift between the traditional, often almost medieval world of Islam and the western concept of democracy that the American and British armies are trying to push through by force. Another hotbed of international conflict was presented in a far less vociferous, but no less unsettling rendition by Barry Frydlender from Tel Aviv, whose technically accomplished digital montages of various seemingly unremarkable scenes from Israeli shops, streets and beaches (which only casually featured the cosequences of Palestinian suicide bombings), multiplying some details or even whole figures, and creating a sense of eerie tension, not unlike the spectral atmosphere of Jeff Wall’s photographs. Another Israeli artist, the graphic designer David Tartakover, dedicated to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a series of superficially propagandist posters, strikingly reminiscent of the Czechoslovak political propaganda of the 1970s Normalization era. More powerful were the digitally adjusted photographs in which he inserted into dramatic reportage shots by other photographers, full of blood and violence, the figure of a silent witness in an orange vest emblazoned with a sign reading ”Artist“.

More attention than at any other time was given to the presentation of works by photographers nominated by juries of experts for one of the awards in various categories, eventually decided by a vote of almost fifteen hundred professional photographers, which were registered during the opening days of the festival. The undisputed victory among works of a humanist bent went to the large-format photographs of Simon Norfolk from England, presenting at first glance idyllic urban and rural landscapes in Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, and other conflict areas, which only on closer scrutiny revealed tanks and armed vehicles on children’s playgrounds, craters left after exploded bombs, or ruins of once beautiful buildings. The Prix No Limit, awarded to works which take photography beyond the traditional boundaries, deservedly went to Mathieu Bernard-Raymond from France, for his inventive digitally manipulated images of ”cloned“ people in various phases of movement (by the way, Arles presented an entire range of quality work in novel and functional use of computer adjustments in photography). Many discussions were provoked by the awarding of the Prix Découverte to the seventy-nine year old Czech painter and photographer, Miroslav Tichý in the category of new discoveries. The photographs of this until recently unknown author from Kyjov, in Moravia, were acquired some time ago under somewhat unclear circumstances by Roman Buxbaum, a Swiss photographer and psychiatrist of Czech origin. Gradually, and in part due to a carefully planned campaign operating under the fictitious legend, among others, of Tichý spending years in prison under Communism, he succeeded in placing Tichý’s works in several galleries abroad, where they are now selling for very high prices, and thanks to the famous curator Harald Szeeman even entered them in the Biennale in Sevilla. The crowning of the entire campaign was the publication of Tichý’s monograph by the DuMont publishing house in Cologne, where his works are compared, among others, to Titian, and a retrospective in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which was supposed to be followed by a major retrospective in the Rudolfinum Gallery in Prague (this did not in fact happen due to the many uncertainties surrounding the acquisition, exhibition and sale of Tichý’s work without his consent). While some visitors were charmed by the spontaneity, neo-Pictorialist lyricism and latent eroticism of Tichý’s pictures, many on the other hand saw this sudden upsurge of fascination with out-of-focus and un-retouched greylit shots of women at public swimming pools, shopping or in the streets, mounted in kitschy frames, as an example of skilfull curatorial manipulation. In any case, Tichý was the only Czech photographer presented at the last festival in Arles.

In the part of the exhibitions dedicated to the work of unknown or forgotten photographers, no revelations were comparable to last year ́s discovery of the photographs from the Lodz Ghetto. Most interesting was the small retrospective of Christer Strömholm, a reconstruction of his 1965 Stockholm exhibition featuring provocative shots of transvestites and prostitutes. Strömholm, however, never ranked among forgotten artists, as for decades he has been considered one of the most eminent Swedish photographers. Among the actually quite unknown were the color photographs of Keld Helmer-Petersen, from Denmark, published in book-form in 1948, and exhibited in Arles for the first time after a long pause. Still, their age was their chief recommendation, as they mostly proved banal exercises in composition, without any deeper resonance or striking inventiveness. And thus the most remarkable exhibition in this section was doubtless the presentation of another mystification by the Catalan Joan Fontcuberta, who presented his alleged discoveries from a visit to the non-existent monastery of Valhamamonde, supposedly located somewhere on the border of Finland and Carelia. Fontcuberta presented astonished viewers with images of a whole number of miracles, in which himself he played the role of a monk throwing lightning bolts, riding dolphins, levitating in mid-air, or discovering the likeness of Che Guevara on a slice of ham. The photographs were accompanied by commentary posing as scientific, and museum display cabinets with objects found in the mysterious monastery. This was a real treat for lovers of sophisticated humor.

Arles 2006 will be shaped to a large degree by the photo-journalist Raymond Depardon of the Magnum Agency, who was appointed main guest curator.

vladimír birgus