Fotograf Magazine

Arles 2007

While in 2006 the program of the world’s oldest photography festival Rencontres d’Arles focused on French photography, 2007 was dominated by the photography of China and India, also featuring an intensive commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Magnum Photos. Although the budget, ranging around 3.6 million Euro, was many times that of the Months of Photography held in Bratislava, Vienna or Krakow, it was evident that the festival organizers, headed by François Hébel, had to employ measures of economy in comparison with other years. As a result, there were no grand receptions for hundreds of guests in the Roman Arena, or in the famed Alyscamps necropolis; no stunning fireworks displays or dance shows took place, and the number of composite screenings in the Antique Theater was radically pared down. Notable among these was a program which brilliantly combined the uncommonly evocative autobiographical black-and-white photographs of Alberto Garcia-Alix (Spain), full of drugs, sex and loneliness, with haunting music. Instead of the number of festival prizes awarded in 2006, this year saw a single prize awarded – in the category Un nouvel élan. In spite of this, it was a good year – not only due to a number of excellent exhibitions, but also dozens of accompanying events – a two-day long symposium on the photography market, well-organized portfolio reviews (alongside the official fee-based one, there was also a free one organized by the so-called Off Festival), a competition of photography publications, creative workshops, daily discussions with curators and photographers, and an exceptionally successful Night of the Year. In 2007, it became a huge public festival, with thousands of people having fun until the small hours at dozens of screenings, and an even larger number of bars and cafés. Doubtless the event has further contributed to the reputation of Arles as the place for pleasant spontaneous encounters.

 As for exhibitions, the extensive show of Chinese photography which took its title from Beijing’s Dashanzi Art District attracted the most attention. Chinese photography is en vogue today, and has already been presented more than once in Arles. The 2007 exhibition was dominated by huge prints of the staged scenes by the Brothers Gao, frequently featuring nude figures, whether crowded together in tiny bookshelves erected in unfinished concrete buildings, or embracing outdoor urban settings. Nudity, totally proscribed in official art under Mao’s regime, becomes in the photographs of the Gao brothers a sort of symbol of freedom, as well as a form of protest against totalitarianism.

While some Chinese artists render the theme of the loss of tradition through various performance acts and staged scenes, others prefer strict authenticity. Many of those show the rapid metamorphoses of Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities, where traditional architecture is being replaced by buildings of an international style. Although thanks to its relentless repetition in the works of countless photographers this confrontation between the demolition of small traditional houses and the construction of gigantic new skyscrapers has lately become somewhat of a cliché, still some works on show in Arles by Weng Fen, Li Wei, or Miao Xiaochun managed to treat these motifs differently than Edward Burtynsky, Thomas Struth, or Ambroise Tézenas, whose technically brilliant nocturnal pictures of the transformation of the center of Beijing before the Olympics were also part of the festival program. An agreeable digression from this dominant social and political issue was a cycle of intimate black-and-white images by Rong Rong (China) and his wife Inri (Japan), presenting the hardships of their life in the Beijing district Liu Li Tun, which is destined for demolition.

Several exhibitions presented Indian photography, which appears in Europe far less frequently than the photographic work of China. Two historical exhibitions – the Alkazi Collection of hand-colored photographs and memorial albums from the years 1850–1940, and a collection of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil photographs, who documented the life of the early 20th century Indian middle class – struck one as somewhat dull. The main part of the Indian presentation, however, was dedicated to contemporary photography. After decades of the predominance of the documentary, staged photography now asserts itself ever more markedly. An exhibition of the most famous Indian photographer Raghu Rai included both a strong humanist cycle based on the Bhopal disaster, where the irresponsibility of a chemical plant killed or mutilated a terrifying number of people, and also a more recent, visually compelling black-and-white as well as color subjective documentary of everyday life in India. Among the revelations was an exhibition of refreshing impromptu black-and-white photographs of life in Delhi and Mumbai created by the young photographer Pablo Bartholomew in the 1970s. Many Indian artists portrayed the departure from the thousands-year-old tradition, particularly evident in the fast-growing middle class in the current period of economic transformation that has ranked India among the “Asian tigers”. For instance, Anay Mann shows this in his inconspicuously staged photographs, which look like a straightforward documentary of the modern lifestyle of his own family; Siya Singh’s self-portraits record not only her sensations and moods but also the change of the status of women in contemporary Indian society; Bharat Sikka’s large format photographs accentuate, in the style of the Düsseldorf School, the impersonal coldness of the giant concrete constructions choking New Delhi and other Indian metropolitan areas. Still, India’s caste system, as well as its religious and sexual prejudices, remain far from Western liberalism – as was testified by several cycles by Sunil Gupta on the secretive nature of gay life in Indian cities.

Among the crowd attractions of Rencontres d’Arles 2007 was the exhibition and screening commemorating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Magnum Photographers. Together with Vu, the agency has traditionally held an important place in Arles – the current director of the festival, Mr. Hébel, even used to be its head, and both of the main curators of past years, Martin Parr and Raymond Depardon, were members. The 2007 exhibition celebrated the agency’s history and its most seminal photographs as well as entire photo-books by its members. More powerful, however, was the impeccably prepared projection on four giant screens which illustrated the fundamental differences between the expressive self-reflective images of Antoine D’ Agata, Martin Parr’s sarcastic view of consumerism and globalization, the finely wrought subjective documentaries in color by Alexander Webb, Harry Gruyaert and Constantine Manos, the eloquent sociological glimpses of various buildings by Mark Power, and the traditional humanist photo-reportage of Magnum’s “founding fathers” – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and George Rodger. This made it very clear that while not avoiding current creative trends, Magnum still succeeds in maintaining its position at the top of the class among photographic agencies.

The vote of accredited professional photographers and journalists gave the Arles Discovery Award, along with its subsidy of 25,000 Euro, to the 31-year old Laura Henno (France) for her melancholy color pictures of subtle mystery, capturing with imaginative use of natural light the faces of teenagers against a dark background.

Also excellent were the technically flawless panoramic images by the Taiwan photographer Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao. The artist captures here various locations around New York’s subway line No. 7, connecting Times Square with Queens, half of whose more than two million inhabitants were born outside of the United States. Large-format digital photographs, sometimes made up of up to sixty different shots, were fascinating not only for the acuteness of their vision of the ethnic and architectural diversity of America’s largest city, but also with the incredible sharpness of the minutest detail, surpassing even the phenomenal quality of Andreas Gursky’s photographs. The fact that among the five curators nominating the participants of a competition that proved very uneven in terms of quality, not a single one was from the new EU countries was doubtless reflected in the fact that the region was represented by only one artist, Poland’s Agniszka Brzeżańska. Her vapid and decorative compositions of light and shadow, created with the help of an optical prism, might perhaps have been fascinating at the dawn of abstract photography, or as a school exercise in composition, but they could not compete among works representing current trends in creative photography. And at the same time Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the Baltic countries have no shortage of more imaginative artists. Still, it has to be said that an extraordinarily weak representation of this region has become the rule at Arles in recent years.

Arles naturally also featured exhibitions outside of the main areas of themes. Among these was the show of portraits of Elizabeth II, created by both foremost photographers and the monarch’s family, from her childhood to her recent eightieth birthday, a retrospective of Dieter Appelt featuring a number of his conceptual cycles of photographs and multimedia installations, or the exhibition of the laureates of the HSBC Foundation for Photography prize stressing that during the ten years of its existence at least in Western Europe the archaic antagonism between the visual arts and photography has been overcome, and that the sole factor relevant in conferring the prize was quality, regardless of whether the work in question was documentary, conceptual or staged photography.

Even though Rencontres d’Arles 2007 included also several downright bad exhibitions, crowned by a collection of trivial Polaroid snapshots of various jazz musicians by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, this was still a successful year, confirming once again after a crisis in the 1990s that the festival is experiencing a happy period under the leadership of François Hébel. 

Vladimír Birgus