Fotograf Magazine

Rencontres d’Arles 2012

Since 1992 when Françoise Hébel, former director of the Magnum Agency, took over management of the ailing Les Rencontres d’Arles, the number of visitors to the oldest photography festival has risen – from nine thousand eleven years ago to last year’s eighty-four thousand. Even though each year has not been equally impressive, excellent expositions and evening projections were to be found in the festival programme. This year’s 43rd Annual Festival, which from July to September included presentations of sixty exhibitions, caused however embarrassment among the many regular visitors and strong criticism even in very prestigious media such as the British daily, The Guardian. Most blame goes in this case to the poorly-chosen main theme for the festival, the French School. It was not a good idea to dedicate alhmost half of the festival’s exhibitions to pedagogues, graduates and students from the local National Superior School of Photography (École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie Arles); even if the school is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its founding this year. Education in photography definitely does not rank among the things that France should boast about; in contrast to the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland or the Czech Republic. After all the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie Arles is so far the only post-secondary school specialising in photography. The school with its three-year study program, with no option for doctoral studies, is without a doubt of good quality. We can also find among its roughly 640 graduates many persons, who have successful careers in photography, criticism or curatorial work. But so far none of them has become a global star like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth or Thomas Ruff from the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Rineke Dijkstra from the Gerritt Rietvald Academie in Amsterdam or Gregory Crewdson from Yale University. So why did the festival, which ranks among the most important in the world, choose such a local main theme? At first I thought it was due to sharp budget cuts (this was alluded to by many exhibition spaces not in use), but the budget was in fact larger (six million Euro not including VAT) than in past years. So the reason was probably the close connection between the festival and the school, both of which were founded by the same people and whose joint future headquarters are meant to be a new building that the LUMA Foundation, one of the festival’s main sponsors, wishes to build in Arles based on plans by the architect, Frank Gehry.

Despite the fact that the festival’s main theme was poorly chosen, this does not mean that there were not very good artists among the exhibiting students and graduates of the Arles school. Twenty-four exhibitions documented the gradual shift from dominant Conceptualism from the era when the school was founded – a time when students under the influence of teachers like Christian Milovanoff and Arnaud Claas created series of photos with long literary explanations – to the wide scale of current contemporary trends. Olivier Metzger ranks among the most successful new graduates. His work was recently shown at the French Institute in Prague. His original and suggestive series, ‘Smile (Forever)’, portraying the life of an aging woman, is an excellent combination of staged and authentic photos. The distinctive portraits by Aurora Valade were also very good; as were the depressing large-format photographs by Pétur Thomsen documenting the industrial devastation of the Icelandic landscape and the original workshop scenes by Grégoire Alexandre. The school’s presentation could have benefited however from a more strict selection process. Why, for example, did the banal descriptive shots by Bruno Serralongue of celebrations of Southern Sudan’s independence or the range of epigone photographs from the thousand-time rehashed “Düsseldorf School” style make the cut?

Festival organizers did not make use of the generous space offered by the National Superior School of Photography in Arles for confrontation with other schools – and meanwhile in the exhibition halls, where most exhibitions from this section took place, there remained a lot of empty space. Their plan to have a comparison with other schools produce five nominator-participants for the 2012 Discovery Award competition worked only partially. Even if each of them was in some way connected to a photography school in the USA, the Republic of South Africa, Japan, Finland and Great Britain (traditionally none of them came from Central European post-communist countries, where today photography schools are experiencing a big boom), some of them nominated artists, who long ago made a name for themselves on the international photography scene and who were not, for anyone casually following photography, newly-discovered talent. Among them was forty-three-year-old South African photographer, Jonathan Torgovnik, who to his credit won the Discovery Award of 25.000 EUR for his exceptionally provocative portraits of women, who were brutally raped during the genocide in Rwanda and who gave birth to children, whose fathers were enemy soldiers. Torgovnik was able in simply-composed photographs and with accompanying texts to capture the tragic fates of the raped women and their difficult relationships to their children, who were born as the product of brutal crimes. 

A pleasant feature of the Arles festival is the fact that it does not close itself off into a select grouping of traditional photography. It also gives a large amount of space to contemporary artistic works using the photographic medium. Among them this year was an exhibition by one of France’s most important contemporary artists, Sophie Calle, who combined her photographic, film and literary works into a thought-intensive and visually-provocative whole. Israeli architect, film-maker and artist, Amos Gitai, received an entire 15th century Gothic church for presenting his multi-media works. His exhibition, in which contrasts between light and dark played a big role, did not open until eight in the evening, when the light rays would be disturbed by daylight entering through the church windows. Four days after the start of the festival the organisationally- and financially-demanding project, To the Moon via the Beach. Its organiser, the LUMA Foundation, had tonnes of sand brought into the antique amphitheatre and invited a number of artists in to transform it into dunes, a beach and moon craters. Later they introduced their works into this vivid environment in various ways. The project was meant to promote the creation of a new Arles Centre for Contemporary Art, but its connection to photography was very loose.

As usual documentary photography and photojournalism were also strongly represented. The Magnum Agency had a meeting of its members in Arles and two dozen of them spoke during the evening in the Antique Theatre about the start of their careers in photography. Eighty-four-year-old Elliott Erwitt, who during selected projections presented his vast work including many photographs with much deeper meaning than his popular anecdotal photos with dogs, earned great success. On the contrary, the full-length documentary film about Henri Cartier-Bresson did not thrill. Its director, Pierre Assouline, did not display much film-making inventiveness therein and he created a sort of marble monument, which at the start was interesting due to its authentic speech by the great photographer, who as is known did not like to be photographed or filmed, but it gradually became boring. Among other things there was the poor selection of photographs, which failed to include many original and today-still-fresh, spectral shots of Spain, Mexico and France in the 1930s. Meanwhile there was an excess of second-rate landscape and portrait photos. On the contrary, one of the top-ranking presentations by the Magnum Agency and of the entire festival was the exhibition, Gypsies, by Josef Koudelka, which in a simple, yet well-thought-out, installation at St. Anne’s Church on Arles main square presented not only iconic photography, known from the book dating back to 1975, but also strong, multi-layered works that did not make the cut for the original publication. With the fifty-year distance the timelessness of Koudelka’s collection stands out even more. It consists of dramatic shots from the occupation of Prague in August 1968 and from the more contemplative and subjectively approached series, Exily (Exiles); the three main pillars of his work. The exhibitions organised by the Méjan Association and the Vu Agency offered some excellent examples of contemporary documentary work. They included rousing shots of religious and political conflicts in the Caucasus by David Monteleone or the great results of photography workshops organised by his compatriot, photographer, actress and singer, Georgia Fiorio. This time however the historic portion was disappointing. It was presented as new copies from old negatives from the archives of the Alinari Brothers of Florence or a second-rate collection from Jan Mulder, in which banal shots by unknown artists from Peru dominate over several fundamental works by top Latin American photographers.

Even though this year’s Rencontres d’Arles did not rank among the most successful, each visitor definitely found something in it for themselves. After all they could choose from several dozens of expositions at the off festival, which ran parallel to the main event (this year the new gallery, Omnius, took part – the gallery was opened this year in Arles by Prague-Paris curator, Helena Staub). They could also attend one of the fifty creative workshops, the huge shows with new photography books, four evening projections in the Antique Theatre, from the Night of the Year (Nuit de l’Année) event, which this year was projected in the poor neighbourhood on the other bank of the Rhône, and from various symposia and lectures. Next year not only Marseille, but also all of Provence including Arles, will be a European Capital of Culture. Perhaps this will be an impulse to restore the Arles festival to the stature of one of its recent best years.

Vladimír Birgus