Fotograf Magazine

Arles 2006

The 37’h edition of Rencontres d’Arles, the world’s oldest photography festival, was somewhat less international in scope this summer than has been customary in recent years. This was caused by the current Year of Francophone Culture, due to which an unprecedented share of the official program’s 50 exhibitions came from France. The organizers failed to take advantage of the fact that among the more than sixty French-speaking countries there are such photographical prodigies as Canada or Switzerland. The other change distinguishing this year from previous ones was the clearly marked prevalence of documentary photography and photojournalism, which overrode the few contributions from staged photography, landscape, or conceptual and multi-media works. Yet France also has the Perpignon festival, devoted to reportage and documentary photography. The close cooperation of Arles with the Magnum and Vu agencies was notable in the recent years, but never has it been so intense as it seems now.

This was greatly due to the fact that the festival’s organizers, headed by the very agile and always smiling director Francois Hebei, himself formerly with Magnum, invited as main curator the photojournalist, filmmaker and Magnum member Raymond Depardon. For a large share of the exhibitions, he selected classic black-and-white reportage images by his fellow photographers, which continue the tradition of classic humanist photojournalism, but often seem rather distant from more contemporary trends in photography. He did succeed in drawing to Arles a more numerous domestic audience than in previous years, for most French photography fans favor living French photography in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau, but he failed to captivate most of the foreign visitors, for this time Arles was more of a national, rather than international affair. This time, Central and Eastern Europe were almost disregarded, including photography from Russia, which had been very well represented two years ago (this year there were only the ethnographic pictures of Ivan Bojko; the sole representative of Czech photography was Josef Koudelka, who presented more of his panoramic landscapes, this time from the area around Camargue).

In general, by comparison to the exhibition program of Martin Parr, the guest curator in 2004, or Hebel’s selection last year, Depardon’s choice of exhibitions brought fewer revelations or samples of the most contemporary work. Even so the festival program was rich and varied, including as it did also four screenings (plus a concert of Patti Smith, and the singular pyrotechnical spectacle of the group F) at the Antique Theatre, countless video projections in various parts of Arles during the Night of the Year, creative workshops, symposia, competitions, a market of both old and new photo books, and for the very first time this year, also an entirely official portfolio assessment (participants, however, had to pay a fee, whereas previously the opportunity to present one’s work to foremost curators and critics at spontaneous meetings in hotels or in the courtyards of the Archiepiscopal Palace had been free). Thus the festival probably did not disappoint anyone, as everyone could find something to their liking or meet someone interesting. Its high standard as well as friendly atmosphere continue to rank Arles among the most renowned as well as the most attractive photo festivals.

Raymond Depardon divided his selection of exhibitions into three parts. The smallest, entitled Influences, was dedicated to American photography, which thus received the most exposure in Arles after French photography. A real treat was the two-part retrospective of American photography from French collections, featuring notorious as well as lesser known works by Lewis W. Hine, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Lewis Baltz, Charles Harbutt, Mary Ellen Mark, John Sternfeld and other world-famous photographers. Other exhibitions presented still fresh photographs taken during John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1960 election campaign by Cornell Capa, and an older cycle by Robert Adams, Our Lives and Our Children, a world apart from his present landscape photographs.

Much debate was roused by a series of exhibitions that Depardon compiled from the works of his friends among the ranks of photojournalists, those he has met in France as well as abroad. Sometimes these were imaginatively put together, such as was the case with the comparative exhibition of Don McCullin and Gilles Caron, who often photographed dramatic events at the same time and at the same place, ranging form Israel, Biafra, and Northern Ireland to Cambodia. At other times, though, the exhibitions turned out to be boring to the point of distraction, as with the descriptive color portraits of the Tuareg by Jean-Marc Durou. Some of these exhibitions could also have done with a far more critical selection, as alongside outstanding work they included much that was superficial and banal, such as for instance the retrospective of Depardon’s Magnum colleague, Guy Le Querrec. On the contrary, the subtle and ironic snapshots of girls undressing in front of visitors at a village carnival taken by Susan Meiselas [now known above all for her war reportage) in New England in the mid-1970s have not aged a day.

The most extensive as well as most revealing part of Depardon’s selection, entitled Photographers of Politics and Society included a notable number of higher quality exhibitions, as here the curator gave more room to contemporary creative trends. These were represented for example by the uncommonly expressive collection of images by the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen taken during his two-week stay in the French cities of Saint-Etienne and Gap. His high-contrast, grainy and often also out-of-focus photographs of fragments of urban landscapes, things, dogs, and above all people captured in pubs, in the streets, or during intimate moments in their bedrooms, create an extraordinarily evocative, intense as well as melancholy picture of a section of society today, from a very subjective perspective. Even though Petersen had already used some of these same motives already in his previous series, his febrile visions remain open to broad interpretation and have a lot in common with the work of some other members of Vu agency (as could be see in Arles in the work of Michael Ackerman, an Israeli photographer living in New York and Krakow), His work clearly delineates the path that a part of the contemporary documentary photography scene has taken, away from the all-embracing optimism, unambiguous interpretability and maximum clarity of visual composition found during the golden era of humanist photography. Another supremely contemporary take on documentary photography came from the evocative color images of Philippe Chancel (France); with subtle irony and formal refinement he showed the tragicomic aspects of life in Communist North Korea, stripped of any features of independence and individuality. Prague should also be given the opportunity to see this outstanding exhibition. A strikingly imaginative use of non-manipulated color photography appeared in the work of Chancel’s countryman Gilles Leimdorfer, whose keen eye for the absurd moments of everyday reality captures many aspects of French lifestyle on his trip down the Nationale 7 highway. Among the number of politically oriented exhibitions focusing on Africa the retrospective of South Africa’s David Goldblatt stood out. He has for over thirty years with extraordinary visual power documented the uneasy coexistence of the white and black inhabitants of his homeland. In many of the other exhibitions on Africa and the Middle East, however, the effort at “political correctness”, so typical of French official politics, had the upper hand over actual photographic qualities.

Arles also presented a number of exhibitions that had not been selected by Raymond Depardon but by various collaborating institutions. Among the best of those was the spectral and at the same time melancholy series of staged scenes from Mussolini’s Italy by Paolo Ventura, made of tiny figures and painted plywood in the fashion of animated films (before Arles the exhibition was featured at the Month of Photography in Krakow). A pleasant diversion was provided by the retrospective of French advertisement photography from the period 1930-2006, which tracked its evolution from avant-garde works by Man Ray and Francois Kollar via the sexually provocative 1960s fashion photographs of Guy Bourdin and Jeanloup Sieff down to the shocking contemporary computer-adjusted scenes of Dimitri Daniloff. By contrast, the utter dullness of most of the collections of unimaginative descriptive landscapes and architectural heritage images from Provence, the Alps and the Cote d’Azur was not relieved even by the fact that the local cultural heritage agency had commissioned for their execution such famous artists as John Davies, Bernard Plossu or Massimo Vitali. On the other hand there was a brilliant and extensive exhibition of tromp l’oeil paintings and installations in various empty spaces by the multimedia artist Georges Rousseau. Aside the already mentioned work by Ventura, among the scant staged photography of any quality were the works of the duo Christophe Clark & Virginie Pougnaud, inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper or the films of Jacques Demy, as well as the works of the laureate of one of the festival’s five awards, Wang Quingsong, whose complex compositions featuring dozens of figures metaphorically show the enormous changes that China is undergoing today. Considering what an important place is held in photography today by the various applications of computer adjustment, there was very little to be seen in Arles of this trend. In fact, by comparison with the previous two years, the whole exhibition of the candidates of the four awards, nominated by five curators exclusively from francophone countries, presented less experimental and more classical works. These were at times quite monotonous (as for instance the utterly amateurish-looking photographs from a fishermen’s feast in Mali by Mamadou Konate), but in many cases [e.g. the sensitive color photographs of adolescents at a farm in South America by Alessandra Sanguinetti of Argentina, or the fresh photographs from the Chinese provinces by the French photographer Maxence Rifflet] the nominated collections contributed to rendering this year’s Arles festivals if not among the best, then certainly among the better years in its history to date.

Vladimír Birgus