Fotograf Magazine

Jubilee Rencontres d’Arles

When photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier and curator Jean-Maurice Rouquette launched the first photography festival in the southern French town of Arles with three exhibitions and an evening screening in 1970, they could not know how gigantic the event will be in fifty years. Last year, the festival attracted a record of 140,000 spectators, and this year’s jubilee edition might have been even more successful. The official festival programme included fifty exhibitions, six more were included in the accompanying programme, and another fifteen exhibitions were staged in the nearby towns of Nîmes, Avignon, and Marseille (plus 250 exhibitions of very varying quality were presented at the Voies Off festival). The fifty years of the festival’s existence were also mapped by an exhibition and a special catalogue representing part of the festival collection of 3,300 original photographs, which are now kept in the Musée Réattu and can also be found on the Internet.

This year, the festival management strongly responded to last year’s criticism of the non-proportional representation of women with an attempt to present as many women photographers as possible. Women absolutely dominated in the historical section, with only relatively few men (e.g. Edward Weston and Lucien Clergue). The highlights included the great retrospective of Helen Levitt, first presented last autumn at Albertina in Vienna. Levitt’s still fresh black and white images of children on the streets of New York have been published many times, but the exhibition also included a number of less known photographs, which confirmed the author’s important place in the history of subjective documentary and, in many cases, in the inventive use of colour in documentary and portrait photography. Unlike the Albertine exhibition, however, the installation in the Centre Vincent Van Gogh lacked elegance and good lighting. Bad lighting unfortunately affected another exhibition in the same building. The exhibition entitled Unretouched Women presented photographs by three American authors of now legendary books that showed different women’s fates in the 1970s. Susan Meiselas photographed bizarre striptease performances of women at various local fairs and carnivals in the USA with both considerable irony and great empathy in Carnival Strippers (1976). Abigail Heyman presented one of the first distinctly feminist perspectives of the often undignified role of girls and women, based on their own experience, in her publication Growing Up Female: Personal Photo Journal (1974). And finally, Eve Arnold published her images of women of different social, racial and religious groups in The Unretouched Women (1976) in her early sixties. However, the retrospectives of women photographers also included a very poor exhibition of avant-garde photographer Germaine Krull, presenting only banal shots of her journey by boat from Marseille to Rio in 1941. Historically, the exhibition might seem attractive for showing the exodus from occupied France, but its quality was still far below the constructivist images Krull is famous for. 

Therefore, one of the most interesting exhibitions was the large-scale retrospective of Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková in the impressive premises of the deconsecrated Gothic church of St. Anne, where exhibitions of world-famous artists usually take place. So far, the Arles festival has been known for not presenting many photographs from Central Europe in its programme. Jarcovjáková’s presentation in such a prestigious space was, of course, influenced by the festival emphasis on women photographers and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the most important thing must have been the very quality and originality of her work. When Martina Buláková first introduced Jarcovjáková’s work to the festival director Sam Stourdzé, they wanted to prepare only a small exhibition. But when Stourdzé learnt more about the scope of the photographer’s work, he asked her and the curator, Lucie Černá, for an extensive set of two hundred images from the period between 1970 and 1989, when Jarcovjáková created a candid, raw photo diary of her self-destructive hedonistic life full of alcohol and sex, so different from the lives of most people in the former socialist Czechoslovakia. The unvarnished authenticity, spontaneity, frequent blur and naturalistic use of flash light make her images radically different from humanistic and social documentaries that dominated Czech documentary photography during Jarcovjáková’s studies at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. They are unusually raw and open, sometimes almost naturalistic, but they show the author’s sincere effort to search for her own identity, deeper relationships, and roots.

Although Jarcovjáková has exhibited her work since 1980 and has recently attracted attention with her autobiographical book The Black Years, which included excerpts from her diaries, she was quite unknown on the international scene. All the more surprising was her extensive exhibition in Arles, entitled Evokativ, prepared in cooperation with the Czech Centre in Paris. Its installation was very sophisticated: together with Lucie Černá, the author thematically divided her it into several chapels and on two long wooden walls in the centre of the deconsecrated church. The curator’s texts presenting the context of the images and fragments of the author’s memories, which were not unfortunately included in the book published for the Arles exhibition, played an important role as well. Jarcovjáková’s exhibition in Arles aroused great interest with its theme of underground life in socialist Czechoslovakia since most Western visitors had no idea there were semi-official gay clubs in Prague at that time or that the gap between the official world and private life was so great. Many rave reviews (published in the most prestigious newspapers such as New York Times and Libération) compared Jarcovjáková to Nan Goldin, a similarly open photographer. However, the Czech photographer did not know Goldin’s work when she was taking the pictures presented at the Evokativ exhibition. 

In Arles, Czech photography was not represented only by Jarcovjáková but also by many books at the greatest world’s show of photographic publications and by a wide range of images at the gigantic exhibition of photographs and photomontages, Photobrut, presenting the work of Karel Forman, Zdeněk Koška, Luboš Plný, and Miroslav Tichý. The Luxembourg exhibition included Czech art as well: after all, one of the two exhibiting authors, Polish artist Krystyna Dul, who lives in Luxembourg, is studying at the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava, Czech Republic. Her series entitles Resonance perfectly combines archival images and original photographs, presenting a multilayered story of a former owner of the castle where she now lives with her husband. 

One of the largest and most important exhibitions in Arles was the retrospective of French photographer Philippe Chancel entitled Datazone. The genuine installation combined different styles and formats, presenting a warning apocalyptic vision of the world. The exhibition entitled Anonymous Project was tremendously successful as well: it included older family photos made by unknown British amateur photographers during the last seventy years, cleverly presented in the interior of a typical English house. A free continuation of this project was another exhibition entitled Home, Sweet Home, presenting photographs by Martin Parr, Daniel Meadows and other authors and showing different views of a typical British family and their home. A real discovery, even for professionals, was the exhibition of avant-garde photographs by Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott and many other well and lesser known photographers, originally published in Variétés magazine in Belgium between the wars, which remained forgotten in the archives of the Institute of Social History for decades. The exhibition We Were Five at the Musée Réattu, presenting the work of American photographers who studied under Aaron Siskind in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s or published their work in Aperture magazine, was also a breakthrough. The highlights of the festival also included the revelatory exhibition Restless Bodies presenting sixteen photographers from the former GDR who, like Libuše Jarcovjáková, photographed unofficial parallels to the official communist art. 

Although there were quite a few poor exhibitions in Arles, on the whole, the jubilee festival edition was certainly one of the best in the history.

Vladimír Birgus