Fotograf Magazine

Rencontres d’arles 2010

This summer, crowds of photographers, curators, critics and mainly ordinary people interested in photography once again travelled to southern France city of Arles to the world’s oldest photography festival. This year for the fortyfirst time. There were over seventy-thousand of them, more even than last year. The programme of exhibitions, however, was not as clearly defined and compact as a year ago, when the invited main curator, Nan Goldin, focused on varied forms of subjective documentary photography that very openly spoke of life filled with sex, drugs and violence. This year the organisers, led by the director François Hébel, were once again able to create a wonderful atmosphere. Thousands of residents watched dozens of projections during ”La Nuit de’l Année” (The Night of the Year), this year shown directly in the town centre, for free. Further exhibition spaces were added to the existing ones, the lectures and discussions were jam-packed, spots for Photo Folio Review were sold out way in advance and hundreds of books were submitted for the photographic publication competition – an amount that cannot be seen anywhere else. The French Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand, nephew of the former president, once again attended the festival’s opening. Only the decision to extend the opening week, during which Arles becomes a Mecca for the world of photography, to ten days proved to be better for hotel and restaurant owners than for festival visitors as such. Those who showed up in the beginning often missed those who arrived a few days later. For this reason next year’s opening segment will again be shortened to the usual week.

The official programme included sixty exhibitions and many other events. Alongside these, dozens of other exhibitions took place in the Arles “off programme”. Unfortunately most of them were not of extremely great quality. Part of the tradition are the night-time projection in the Antique Theatre, of which there was untraditionally fewer than previously. Namely, the evening High Society Photographs from 1960-2010 devoted to unofficial photos of famous actors, singers, aristocrats and politicians was very successful. The authors of these photographs were very often celebrities themselves. Just as successful was a film Waste Land about the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, who created portraits of persons scavenging in the trash from materials these same persons had collected at trash dumps near Rio. Muniz later sold these photographs at an auction in London and gave the proceeds to the photographed. On the contrary, during the evening when nominators from the ranks of art curators (none of them was a specialist in photography) presented their favourites for the Discovery Award, one could even hear some whistles. In this way the viewers expressed their discontent with the fact that established world artists the likes of Hans-Peter Feldman were nominated in this category (by the way, his one hundred portraits of people aged from 1 to 100 years old ranked among the truly strong series). The audience also expressed wonder over what are generally banal amateur snapshots from various cities doing at a world festival. Even if their author is a famous Japanese architect, Kazuo Shinohara. Eventually, hundreds of journalists and expert visitors justly awarded the Discovery Award to an American photographer, Tyran Simon, for her suggestive portraits of unfairly convicted prisoners, which were taken at the venues of their alleged crimes or places of arrest. The Discovery exhibition ended up being reprised in the prestigious Moscow gallery, Garage.

Among one of the most attractive parts of the festival belonged a superbly assembled retrospective on a classic of modern Italian photography, Mario Giacomelli. In addition to many today famous landscape details and high-quality contrast photographs from traditional rural life, the exhibition contained a large number of less published naturalist shots from an old people’s home that thanks to their degree of stylisation and subjectivity (from the author’s perspective) were ahead of their time. A true discovery turned out to be a smaller exhibition by Austrian, Ernst Hass, which demonstrated his pioneering importance in the beginnings of his innovatory use of colour. A real lure was the first public presentation of a photograph collection by French film producer, Marin Karmitz, not only for including quality works of such artists as Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, André Kertész, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Christian Boltanski, Anders Petersen and Michael Ackerman, but also for the extraordinarily suggestive installation in an old Gothic church. Another inviting event was a presentation of part of the Polaroid collection, which is currently housed in the Musée de l‘ Elysée in Lausanne. It includes the works of a number of world renowned artists. It was also interesting because of the fact that other parts of this unique collection and their fate has been discussed at length over the past year in relation to an auction at Sotheby‘s in New York in June 2010. Several rare photographs were sold at the auction after the company’s bankruptcy. Many of the artists, like Ansel Adams and others, contributed photographs or exchanged them for photographic material in the belief that the collection would forever remain together as a whole. Lots of viewers were also enthusiastic about the exhibition Shooting, where in a “photo firing range” they could shoot their own portrait with a rifle and also look at dozens of photos of famous persons, who had earlier taken part in this once popular form of carnival entertainment.

Contemporary photography was represented at many exhibitions in Arles. The extensive exhibition reGeneration 2 was devoted to the youngest artists, for which curators from the Musée de l‘ Elysée in Lausanne selected exhibitors from seven hundred nominated students from 120 schools. These were students, who according to the curators, best represented current creative tendencies and showed the most promise for the future. The vast majority of them presented examples of conceptually-firm, image-strong and technically-impeccable works. Four current students at the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava – Tereza Vlčková, Barbora Žůrková and Radim Žůrek and Anna Orlowska from Poland – were chosen into the selection of eighty artists representing forty-eight schools from twenty-five countries. The travelling show that was also displayed in Lausanne as well as in the Aperture Gallery in New York and which now awaits several other reprises will most certainly launch the careers of a number of the artists represented. However, this was just one of very few exhibitions in Arles, where current creations from Central and Eastern Europe were represented. Unfortunately this area, with the exception of Russia, traditionally remains outside the realm of the organisers‘ interests.

Compared with previous years there was fundamentally fewer of both classic photojournalistic and documentary photographs, which the Magnum agency has always presented in large numbers in Arles. But even this type of photography wasn’t omitted. Among the festival’s strong points ranked the series of colour photographs by Paolo Woods, which captured representatives of various social classes in today’s torn-apart Iran, a group project by fourteen contemporary photographers, who since 2006 have been conducting modern photography surveys into the political, social and environmental problems of modern-day France or a new series of black-andwhite expressive documentary photographs from Siberia or the Far East by the French photographer of Slovenian origin, Klavdij Sluban. Other parts of the festival included a group of exhibitions focused on music legends from the recent past, including for example comprehensive photographic collections of Mick Jagger by famous photographers such as Beaton, Bailey, Watson, Lindbergh, Leibovitz and more. There was also a comprehensive exhibition of photos with a punk theme.

This time round Argentina was the guest of the festival. Its presentation was not as strong as that of Brazilian photography several years ago. The ninety-year-old Argentinean artist, León Ferrari, who in his collages often takes the Catholic religion, racism, Nazism and American imperialism to task, exhibited in the captivating atmosphere of a deconsecrated church on the main square. His provocative caricatures of the Pope and Christ gave an almost visionary impression in the church environment, but the primitive basicness of the space brought to mind Communist propaganda from the Cold War period. But in Latin America leftist regimes are in increasingly greater fashion, so Ferrari is celebrated there (but also for instance at the Venice Biennale) as a great artist. However, many of his collages remain very far from the quality of John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photomontages, even though some of his works – for example, the statue of the crucified Christ on a fighter jet – cannot be denied its high emotional strength. Another famous Argentinean, Marcos López, showed shocking computer-edited scenes that combine high art and kitsch, Baroque with Surrealism, reality with hallucinations, and South American folklore with contemporary Latin American literature. In November this exhibition was again shown during the Month of Photography in Bratislava.

The forty-first meeting in Arles was not ground-breaking, but it did represent a good standard for a festival offering a wide range of views on the past and the present of photographic creation. And that’s a lot.

Vladimír Birgus