Fotograf Magazine

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2014

This year the 45th edition of the photography festival in Arles, traditionally held throughout most of the summer, garnered a great deal of attention even before it started. This year would be the final one with François Hébel at its head. Hébel already had a short stint as head of Rencontres d’Arles in 1986 and 1987, when he first began organizing exhibitions in converted industrial complexes; he was then head of the festival uninterruptedly from 2002 until 2014. Without question he was instrumental in saving a waning festival and helping to build it up into one of the most important international photography events, complete with a fantastic budget (in 2013 6.3 million Euro), something even the organizers of the Venice Bienniale cannot boast, and an ever-growing numbers of visitors – approaching a hundred thousand at this point, with a large number of fine exhibitions and screenings, a vast presentation of photographic publications, as well as expert symposia and educational programs, which alone counted ten thousand participants last year. In addition, the festival succeeded in creating a relaxed atmosphere, where star artists and curators can mix with regular visitors. This will always remain to Hébel’s credit – along with the fact that unlike many other French festivals, he forced through the use of English as one of two official festival languages.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing criticism of the inferior quality of a number of exhibitions (two years ago was probably the low point, when the festival focused on the Arles-based National School of Photography), as well as the perception that Hébel as the former director of Magnum allowed its members more than their fair share of exposure, that his selection of foreign photographers focused heavily on some regions to the exclusion of others – apart from France, leaning towards China, Latin America and Africa, while with the exception of Josef Koudelka ignoring photographers and curators from the post-communist countries of Central Europe (not one individual from this region was ever listed among the Discoveries Award nominators), that he collaborated with the same unchanging group of people. Over time there was also mounting discord with Maja Hoffmann, co-owner of the Swiss pharmaceutical corporation Hoffmann-La Roche, a major patron of the festival as well as of other culture institutions, some also located directly in Arles. Together with her father, Hoffmann contributed heavily to the construction of the Van Gogh Foundation building which opened this year, and already some years ago backed a plan for a large cultural center designed by Frank Gehry. There is a rub, however, as the said building to which Hoffmann is to donate tens of millions of Euro through the LUMA Foundation is to be located directly on the premises of the former rail depot facilities which now host a sizeable part of the festival exhibitions. Many of these depots are set to be demolished and the festival will thus lose a significant exhibition area. In protest against this, Hébel resigned in his capacity as the head of the festival, and as of next year the position will be filled by Sam Stourdzé, director of the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne. It will be curious to see how far will he in turn be able to withstand pressure from Hoffmann, who prefers conceptual photography to the classical photography which dominated the festival during Hébel’s tenure.

This year, Les Rencontres d’Arles should above all be seen as a grand farewell and tribute to the outgoing director. However, instead of creating a breakthrough program that would be remembered for years to come, Hébel opted instead for looking back on the past. He once more invited to the main program, entitled Parade, those who had intensely collaborated with him in the past. The prevailing sense for long-term visitors of the festivals was thus one of déja vu. Once more we were presented with Erik Kessels, the propagator of photographic archaeology and new interpretations, this time with no fewer than nine exhibitions of Dutch photographers, few of whom provided much interest. What managed to rise above the tedious average were mainly the works of Hans Ejkelboom, a conceptual artist who already in the 1970s took portraits of himself in place of the actual fathers of various families, or styled himself in roles imagined for him by old friends whom he had not seen for many years. Once again, we saw the work of the French photojournalist Raymond Depardon, this year in the role of both artist and curator, of an exhibition of descriptive images of French memorials dedicated to victims of the First World War. A far more compelling evocation of the centennial of the cataclysm than this baroque and officious show, however, was the much more intimate exhibition of the French photographer Léon Gimpel, whose colour autochromes capture young children playing at war in 1915.

Once more the festival program also included (for how many times now?) Lucien Clergue. The eightieth birthday of the founder of the Arles festival certainly merits a retrospective – but why not one but two, each featuring a number of identical items, and a far too liberal selection, one which apart from his outstanding portraits of Picasso and Cocteau also featured far too many kitsch nudes? Joan Fontcuberta created another one of his mystifications – following his series of non-existent animals or the secret missions of Soviet astronauts. This time he exhibited an apparently forgotten archive of an industrialist named Trepat, presented as his commissions to the masters of photography of his era: Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Walker Evans, tasked with portraying his industrial facilities and their products in Modernist visual style. In reality these images were taken by different photographers altogether, their style nonetheless close to that of the avant-garde artists listed, or else skillful manipulations. Only true connoisseurs of the history of photography, however, could tell the difference – and even some of these actually fell for the ruse and believed that Fontcuberta had succeeded in unearthing a treasure trove. Martin Parr – another of Hébel’s frequent collaborators, under whose curatorship the festival achieved one of its pinnacles in 2004 – together with Wassink Lundgren presented an extensive collection of Chinese photographic publications thus far little known in Europe; this was exhibited in the gloomy premises of an empty office space. The Kafkaesque atmosphere of this labyrinth of darkened rooms was enhanced by the fact that visitors were allowed to view the publications only with the help of powerful flashlights. The same setting also hosted an installation of Daile Kaplan’s exhibition of images related to the US auction house Swann Galleries, featuring a variety of three-dimensional objects, often rather bizarre, all incorporating photography in one way or another. This year Arles also showed several other exhibitions of various photography collections. The finest of those was the outstandingly curated selection from the Artur Walther Collection, focused on themes of typology, featuring large series of metaphorically conceived photographs of plants by Karl Blossfeldt, Sander’s static portraits of Germans of various social classes and professions, stereotypical industrial architecture photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher, or Richard Avedon’s photographs of influential Americans.

One of the principal crowd-pleasing attractions among the more than fifty festival shows was the David Bailey retrospective. Featuring a number of compelling portraits of Mick Jagger, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss and other famous figures, family photographs, portraits of ordinary people as well as examples of what were groundbreaking fashion photography in their day, this exhibition was nonetheless flawed due to its cramped and unimaginative installation. In spite of this, Bailey’s simple but powerful portraits surpassed the celebrity pictures of Patrick Swirc. Of excellent quality was also the show of the Prix Pictet awardees, Nadav Kander, Mitch Epstein, Luc Delahaye and Benoît Aquin, demonstrating how blurred the line between documentary and art photography is today. This was in any case obvious also in the multilayered collection of photographs of present-day Israel which won Martin Kollár the Leica Oskar Barnack Award, making him – after Lucia Nimcová – the second Slovak laureate of this prestigious award. On the whole, however, contemporary photography was somewhat in the background this year. It was represented above all by the extensive Discoveries selection, awarded this year to the Chinese photographer Kechun Zhang’s subtle portraits of the relationship of man and nature in the Yellow River area; there was also a new exhibition by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz featuring gigantic family portraits and tourist photographs made up of thousands of fragments of small photos, and the imaginative installation of various static objects by Chema Madoz (Spain). It was in fact the parallel alternative festival Voices Off that provided a better overview of contemporary photography in some of its exhibitions and screenings, and which this year represented a serious competition to the official festival; to a large degree it compensated for the fact that Les Recontres d’Arles 2014 was significantly weaker than last year’s edition.

Vladimír Birgus