Fotograf Magazine

Rencontres d’Arles 2015

When the long-standing director of Rencontres d’Arles François Hébel bid farewell last year at a spectacular closing ceremony held at the Théâtre antique, it seemed that the world’s oldest photography festival was about to undergo radical changes and facing an uncertain future. The exhibition space in the former railway depots which formerly hosted the larger exhibitions was also significantly reduced, as the LUMA Foundation, headed by Maja Hoffmann, the Swiss co-owner of the pharmaceutical company La Roche, has undertaken the construction of a giant culture center designed by Frank Gehry on the site of some of these former workshops. The other locations owned by the foundation are now to be used mainly to host their own events. Naturally what is also at stake is the versatile orientation of Rencontres d’Arles, whose program has always featured a broad spectrum of exhibitions, ranging from the photojournalism shows of members of Magnum to staged series by Duane Michals or Erich Kessels’ explorations of archive photographs.

As of early October last year, the new director of the festival is Sam Stourdzé. At only 42 he has extensive experience as the former head of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne as well as a curator of a number of large-scale exhibitions, including retrospectives of Dorothea Lange and Tina Modotti, as well as multi-media exhibitions dedicated to Chaplin and Fellini. For this year’s official festival program of 35 exhibitions, Stourdzé did not choose a single main theme as a focus as was often the case in the past; rather, alongside three thematic areas oriented to the relationship between photography and cinema, music and architecture, he also provided extensive space to contemporary trends in documentary and portrait photography, as well as various photographic collections.

For the first time he invited a curator from Central Europe among the five members of the jury, each of whom nominates two photographers for the Discovery Award as well as judging the competition of photobooks (something Hébel had never done during his tenure). Stourdzé appointed Krzysztof Candrowicz, the Polish director of festivals in Łódź and Hamburg. Candrowicz had a lucky hand in picking the spectral series by the young Polish photographer Anna Orlowska, who combines staged scenes with shots of animals and static details, as well as nominating the Ukrainian Shilo Group, who represent a peculiar response to the recent events at the Maidan Square in Kyiv, the dire situation in Ukraine and its insecure future, and also the influences of the Soviet past in their fusion of documentary and stylized photography. Still, in the end the Discovery Award went to France’s Pauline Fargue for her self-reflexive series combining fragments of eight thousand pages of her diaries with compelling photographs.

A large section of the accompanying programme this year was dedicated to historical exhibitions. Among the finest of these was the Walker Evans show, which was focused not on his well-known Farm Security Administration social documentary projects, but rather his lesser-regarded magazine work undertaken between the 1930s and the 1960s. Alongside Walker’s own vintage prints the exhibition included excerpts from his published photo-essays of passengers on the New York subway, anonymous people in the streets of Detroit photographed by a hidden camera, and photographs of architecture and various smaller static objects rendered in the style of New Objectivity. Also presented was the largest retrospective to date of his countryman Stephen Shore, who along with William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz was the most eminent pioneer of modern colour photography. Most captivating of all were his older works, for example images of the peripheries of large American cities rendered in the style of new topography, while more recent pictures from Ukraine brought forth little that was novel or revealing.

As has become traditional for them, the local Musée Réattu in Arles offered a splendid installation presenting two hundred works of their fifty-year old photography collection, featuring works by Man Ray, Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, Klergue, and other famous photographers. While the museum mostly showed single photographs, the Paris-based European House of Photography built the showcase of their collections around larger sets of photographs, sometimes running to dozens of items by Robert Frank, William Klein, Larry Clark, Josef Koudelka, or Helmut Newton. The collection of Jean-Marie Donat provided a contrast to both the above-cited collections of works by famous artists, presenting instead anonymous staged photographs defined by a large degree of the grotesque and the absurd – for example, dozens of photographs in which the sitters pose with people disguised in polar-bear costumes. One may further rank among historical exhibitions the extensive show of gramophone record covers featuring legendary photographs by Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, Irving Penn and Anton Corbijn. Even the historical part of the festival, however, had its low points. One of those was an exhibition of purely descriptive images of 1970s-era Las Vegas neon signs by Toon Michiels.

Among contemporary photography exhibitions, the various forms of the modern documentary were well represented. Paolo Woods (Netherlands) and Gabrielle Galimberti (Italy) showed an outstanding collection of documentary images – portraits and eloquent static details and photographs of architecture on the subject of tax havens, ranging from the British Virgin Islands to Panama and Singapore – places where hundreds of thousands companies and individuals establish their fictitious permanent residency. Absurdist tourist expeditions to the settings of both recent and past tragedies – the genocide memorial in Rwanda, with the skulls of thousands of the murdered, the vicinity of the Chernobyl power station, or the ruins of houses destroyed in the Wenchuan earthquake in China – were given compelling rendition by Ambroise Tézenas (France) in his series I Was Here – The Tourism of Desolation. One may see as proof of continuity with Hébel’s leadership of the festival the extensive retrospective of Martin Parr, who had previously presented his work in Arles as well as curating a number of other exhibitions. On this occasion, he put on display five hundred of his works from different stages of his career, all accompanied by the music of Matthieu Chedid. An Italian colleague of Parr from Magnum Photo, Paolo Pellegrin is likewise no newcomer to this Provencal city. His recent photographs from the Congo, created jointly with Alex Majoli, nonetheless suffered from a rather uneven quality, and certainly did not live up to Pellegrin’s finest works. Among the “non-documentary” contemporary exhibitions audiences were drawn to Sandro Miller’s (USA) remakes of iconic portraits from the history of photography, in which the actor John Malkovich styled himself – with a greater or lesser degree of wit (and unfortunately at times pandering to cheap taste) as Mick Jagger by David Bailey, William Klein’s smoking model from the famous Vogue cover, or the boy with a mock hand-grenade in the notorious photograph by Diane Arbus. Many visitors were fascinated by the exhibition of large-format photographs of the facades of European cathedrals executed with stunning technical perfection by the German photographer Markus Brunetti, who achieved an incredible sharpness of even the tiniest details by combining a formidable amount of digital images. The source pictures that make up the resultant image of the Cologne Cathedral, for example, were taken over a period of seven years.

The festival featured a number of traditional events, such as the nocturnal projections at the Théâtre antique, dozens of guided tours and book signings, portfolio reviews, workshops, evaluations, and various educational activities for schoolchildren from far and wide, as well as a number of awards (the newly-established Prix Elysée amounting to 80,000 Swiss Francs to support a project and photo book was awarded to the Slovak photographer Martin Kollár, while the Leica Oskar Barnack Award went to Swedish photographer JH Engström). There were naturally several novelties as well, such as the Cosmos Arles Books book sale and exhibition, with eighty publishers and book distributors taking part in the blazing venue of the Magasin Electrique. It was, however, at the expense of this event that the exhibition of all of the seven or eight hundred books submitted to the competition for best photobook of the year, traditionally held during the opening week, was sacrificed, with the result that only about ten percent of the books were presented, a shortlist selected by unfathomable criteria by three people who were not even members of the jury. Personally this was one of the disappointments of Arles this year – for nowhere else did it used to be possible to see in one venue such a vast amount of photobooks brought out by renowned artists and publishing houses in a given year than in Arles. Nor was this the only disappointment – among the other let-downs was the rather inferior quality of most of the eighty exhibitions featured in the parallel Voices Off programme (with the exception of the excellent show of the Berlin Ostrkeruz school, the double exhibition of Lucca Gilli and James Reeve in the Omnius Gallery, run in Arles by the Czech curator Helena Staub) and the screenings of the Night of the Year, which was held this year in the inhospitable venue of an old paper mill far from the centre of town. And also the mind-numbingly boring closing ceremony, with its highlight – the 1914 silent ethnographical documentary In the Land of the Head Hunters by the photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis, set among the Native Americans. The film would certainly grace any historical documentary film festival, but showing it as a highlight of a photography festival was a highly strange choice, and if most viewers did not walk out this was solely due to the excellent live music accompanying the rather naïve and archaic film.

Still, reservations aside, the organisers again succeeded in finding a large budget of 6.3 Euro – something other festivals can only dream of, attracted large audiences, and managed to offer a rich and varied programme featuring a number of fine and revelatory exhibitions. Rencontres d’Arles 2015 thus defied last year’s doomsayers and succeeded in re-asserting its foremost status among the world’s most prestigious festivals of photography.

Vladimír Birgus