Fotograf Magazine

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2009

The organisers of this year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles didn’t have an easy go of it. On one hand there were big expectations for the 40th Anniversary of this, the world’s oldest, photography festival, and on the other hand the global economic crisis markedly reduced the festival’s budget. Ultimately, however, the director Fran ois Hébel, and his co-workers succeeded in putting on one of the most attractive annual events in recent years. This stemmed from his idea to invite a number of former guests, whose works represented radical breakthroughs in the development of photography. He also invited all previous directors of the festival, who nominated their candidates for the Discovery Award. This year in Arles savings were made such that most journalists has to pay entrance fees for the evening shows. Yet as concerns the number of exhibits in the official programme and their quality or the extent of the 556-page catalogue and the quality of the symposia, the creative workshops, and the portfolio assessments this was not even noticeable.

When the Arles Festival first ran forty years ago, photography was only beginning to carve a place for itself in the artistic context. In the town of Arles, with its fifty-thousand inhabitants, there was very little exhibition space. Yet despite this, organisers were able to put together a meeting of many top photographers, critics, curators, and everyday people interested in photography. This gradually became a model for other photographic festivals. Arles had its stronger and weaker years. Thanks to the graciousness of the town and its many sponsors it was possible to build new spaces for exhibits in various churches, former hospitals, and first and foremost in renovated industrial halls, where a new centre for photography and film based on a design by Frank Gehry is slated for construction.

The arrival of new festival directors, Fran ois Hébel and Fran ois Barré, seven years ago proved to be a huge impulse for the festival’s development. Whereas there were only 14 exhibits in the official festival programme in 2001, this year there were 66 – along with dozens of others in the unofficial “off“ programme. The number of visitors has also grown from 9000 in 2001 to 60 000 last year. The catalogue has grown exponentially. In addition to French, the English language is also now commonplace at the festival. Each year at the beginning of July, when the festival opens, this entire town in Provence literally comes alive with photography.

Since 2004 the function of main curator-hosts contributes to spicing up the festival. Fashion designer, Christian Lacroix, who last year gave the largest amount of space to fashion photography exhibits, was followed this year by American photographer, Nan Goldin. She in turn invited mainly artists, who similar to herself show their views of the contemporary world and their own lives. Goldin appeared on the programme several times and showed her own photography collection, which includes not only the works of her friends like David Armstrong and Peter Hujar, but also photos by artists who had the most influence on her, i.e.Weegee, Strömholm, Arbus and Clark.

Goldin’s slide projection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Balada o sexuální závislosti), became an actual milestone in the development of photography in the second half of the 1980s. This was thanks to the uncompromising openness and visual appeal, with which Goldin portrayed the most intimate moments of her life, while at the same time creating an image of part of the younger generation of that day, desperately looking for alternatives to the establishment and to the lifestyle of their parents, even at the price of their own destruction. Goldin quickly became a role-model for many other photographers. But she never again achieved the success of this, her photo diary, with its wonderfully-combined, carefully-composed, colour shots of unrefined moments.

This could also be seen in Arles in the juxtaposition of the expanded version of Ballads against the new projection entitled, Sisters, Saints and Sibyls (Sestry, svatí a Sibyly), combining old amateur photos from her family album with the artist’s photographs and films on three screens. The story of her own rebel sister, whose life ended in suicide, had many strong moments, but as a whole it did not come off as authentic and natural as Goldin’s older works.

Nan Goldin included in her selection homoerotic portraits and nudes of her former classmate and long-time friend, David Armstrong; the depressive panoramic photographs of drunks, beggars and homeless persons in the dirty streets and muddy markets of Ukraine’s Charkov by Boris Michailov; the sensitive shots of her own family by Swiss photographer, Annelies Štrba; a small retrospective on Swede, Anders Peterson (including his expressive photos from the oldest shots of regular guests at the Hamburg pub, Café Lehmnitz, from the 1970s up through to his new works); or the autobiographical photos of his compatriot, JH Engström.

Among the works in her selection that peaked the greatest amount of interest were photographs by young American, Leigh Ledare. Some of these were also shown at the Prague Biennale Photo 1. Ledare went further than even Goldin in breaking erotic and ethnic taboos. In very private scenes he took shots not only of his brother and himself, but also of his mother, a former successful ballerina, who took a young lover after the age of fifty. Although many of the pictures can shock with their erotic openness, the exhibit as a whole provided a multi-layered image of the relationships between mother and son, between public and private realms, between young and old. On the contrary, the newer colour photographs of fornicating couples and addicts shooting up drugs by Antoine D’Agata testified to the fact that the constant repetition of the same motifs and the mechanical application of the expressiveness of blurred images leads to disintegration and to superficial self-serving effects.

Other representatives of raw, subjective documentaries were displayed in Arles outside the selection by Nan Goldin. They included, for example, Portuguese photographer Paulo Nozolino, the Dane Jacob Aue Sobol and the Israeli Michael Ackerman. In their expressive, black-and-white collections using blurred movement and sharp tonal contrasts they combine seemingly banal moments from everyday situations, non-traditional portraits, the details of nude bodies, photos of animals and spatial fragments. In these they accent personal experiences and feelings, yet they also create generalising, non-idealised views of many aspects of contemporary life, in which – despite all naturalness, depression and sadness – there remains a small glimmer of hope.

At this year’s meeting in Arles various types of documentary and report (news) photographs dominated overall. There were some exceptions: for example, the retrospective on the ninety-year-old French representative of lyric, humanistic photo-reporting,Willy Ronis; or the unnecessarily extensive exhibit of Turkish photographer, Attila Durak, who presented changes in the life-style of his compatriots in blatant (over-simplified), descriptive, colour photos. Traditional methods were not used in this case.

The projection of the new series by Martin Parr on the theme of richness ranked among the strongest works. After several years, during which Parr drew attention primarily to the middle class, this time he focused on wealthy persons. In many parts of the world, from the United States to Great Britain and on to Russia, China or the Republic of South Africa, he captured with his typical English humour and subtle irony the parallels and differences between people, who are wealthy from birth, and the nouveau riche, who try to adapt to this circumstance. The exhibit by the Italian, Giorgia Fiori, included multi-photo, strong, black-and-white photos with themes of religion. The colour shots of various African and Latin American countries by French photographer, Laurence Leblanc, came across as strongly subjective. American photo-reporter, Eugene Richards, showed his first colour collection that nostalgically captured abandoned homes in American’s rural areas: he presented these in addition to his well-known, black-and-white photos of persons living on the fringes of society.

The festival also included, of course, many other different types of photography. Conceptually-focused creations, connected with the texts of philosophers and artists, dominated in the exhibition of new outgrowths in the photographic collections of the National Library (Biblioth que Nationale) in Paris. The Museum Réattu held its own with an extraordinarily clever installation of select works from its rich photographic collections (Man Ray, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mario Giacomelli, Jacqueline Salmon, Bogdan Konopka, et. al.). The retrospective on Duane Michals also peaked great interest. In this exhibit one could see newer, joking paraphrases of the works of current photographic stars, in addition to his famous sequences on the boundary between photography, film and literature. The portraits by Englishman, Brian Griffin; the humorous photos by Denis Darzacq showing dancers jumping or levitating in shopping centres, or the fantastic shots of small models of architectural structures by Japan’s Naoyo Hatakeyama, which look like authentic views of New York or Tokyo streets, were also wonderful. Graphic artist, curator, and legendary publisher of books on Cartier-Bresson, Klein, and Koudelka and founder of the Photo Poche Edition, Robert Delpire, introduced himself with a three-part exposition that documented his life’s work. The organisers also felt it necessary to pay tribute, through another exhibit, to the founder of the festival, Lucien Clergue. But his saccharine juxtaposition of nudes with religious motifs did not garner much enthusiasm.

Fifty-five-year-old Lithuanian invalid photographer, Rimaldas Viksraitis, ended up winning the Discovery Award and its monetary prize valued at 25.000 EUR. Joan Fontcubert nominated Slovak, Magda Stanová, for the this honour for her text-image collection reflecting the photographic medium. Mr. Viksraitis was nominated by Martin Parr for his unrefined photos from the lives of persons in rural Lithuania. Otherwise photography from Central and Eastern Europe received only a minimal amount of space in Arles. Russian photography was not represented at all (Boris Michailov is a Ukrainian living
in Berlin). From among Polish creations Nan Goldin added the non-traditional sports photos of Tomasz Gudzowaty at the last minute: unfortunately they did not make it into the catalogue. Nothing from contemporary Hungarian
or Latvian photography found its way into the festival. This also holds true
for contemporary trends in Czech photography, provided we don’t count the intermedial series, Macbeth and the Shareholders (Macbeth a majitelé akcií) by Toma Drahoš (an artist of Czech origin, who has lived in France for a long time now), which was shown as part of the exposition by the National Library
in Paris.

Although the work of contemporary Czech artists, Dita Pepe, Petr Hrubeš, Sylva Francová Kateřina Držková, Barbora Bálková, Tereza Vlčková, Barbora Žůrková and Radim Žurek and others was recently shown and widely presented, celebrating successes at other French festivals in Lille and Lyon (Tereza Vlčková ended up winning the main BMW Prize last year in Lyon), in Arles Czech photography was only represented by older photos of Václav Havel and his friends taken by Bohdan Holomíček, brought forward by the Centre
for Visual Art in the Breton town of Plouha. It is also clear that provided we will continue to have no cultural institutions or photographic agencies in the Czech Republic that are capable of negotiating the presence of current exhibits by contemporary Czech artists at the Arles Fes tival and look after their production, then only the works of classics artists, Drtikol, Sudek and Koudelka, will remain known.

Vladimír Birgus