Arles 2009
acceuil desat

We said in our report of the 2008 Rencontres that we would go back in 2009. We did. The overall standard this year was even better than 2008, which is really saying something, though equally, we found little that was quite as outstanding as the very best exhibitions last year. Of course the new Clergue exhibition at Montmajour was stunning, though its relationship to traditional photography is somewhat tangential; Attila Durak's Ebru, about ethnic diversity in Turkey, was superb; Cécile Decorniquet's exhibition was another hit; and so forth.

Nor were all the exhibitions necessarily memorable for artistic merit. Without Sanctuary was a collection of postcards of lynchings -- hangings and burnings-alive -- in the United States, up until the 1920s. Almost as horrifying as the images themselves was the fact that these pictures had been made into postcards and sent through the mails, with cheery messages about 'necktie parties' and 'barbecues' on the backs.

Acceuil (Welcome), Rue Dr. Fanton

This year, the logo was probably a giraffe, though (as ever) it was hard to tell: look at the picture on the right, and try to form your own opinion. Most of the pictures that accompany this report were shot with a 24/1.4 Summilux on a Leica M8.2. Some (including this one) were then quite heavily desaturated, either in Adobe Photoshop or at an earlier stage in Phase One Capture One.

There were also some excellent retrospectives and thematic exhibitions. For the former, it would be hard to beat Willy Ronis, and for the latter, Simon Annand's The Half (theatre photography) was fascinating. On top of all this there were some very good commercial exhibitions -- classic prints for sale -- in the Hotel du Forum and the Gallerie Arlatino (www.arlatino.com) on rue de la Liberté.

Of course there was plenty of dross, too, especially in the Ateliers (the old SNCF railway workshops). Some was pretentious dross; some was miserable, gloomy or angry dross; and some was just generic dross, unworthy even of any more detailed qualifying adjective. There is little point in commenting on any of it; some of it, some people must have liked, and the fact that we didn't is pretty much irrelevant. But do not go to the Rencontres expecting to be wowed by everything you see, because that is very unlikely indeed.

lovely girl

We arrived on the afternoon of Monday 6th, the day before the exhibition officially opened. Press registration was vastly quicker than last year: a few minutes in the press room, with our letters of accreditation, and we had our badges, albeit marked 'Guest' instead of 'Press'. If we'd had to pay, it would have been the same as last year: 40 euros each, for unlimited access to all shows except (for no apparent reason) one on the rue 4 Septembre where they wanted another 3 euros each for unlimited return visits. As it happened we saw this exhibition later, at the vernissage, and I'm glad we didn't pay the money. It wasn't bad: it just wasn't very good.

Vernissage is variously translated as preview, private view and opening night, though this isn't really accurate in Arles, as they commonly take place when the exhibition has already been open for at least a day, and often two or three days, and they are not private: rather, they are a sort of street party. A few are behind gates, and demand either invitations or proof of press status, but the vast majority are a free-for-all, typically with lots of wine (sometimes on a help-yourself basis) and quite often with surprisingly good food.

Fet Art vernissage

Fet Art is a wonderful organization which invites us to all sorts of things, and on this occasion we were even more glad than usual that we accepted their kind invitation to Vernissage #14. Not only were the food and wine very good indeed, but this young lady, working behind the counter at the vernissage, was startlingly beautiful; the picture does not begin to do her justice.

 

Themes

Every year's exhibition has a sort of underlying theme, and 2009 effectively had two. One was 'Delpire & Cie': the publisher Robert Delpire played the same sort of 'Godfather' role as Christian Lacroix did in 2008. We have to say that the smack of commercial reality imposed by running a large publishing house seemed to us to exclude a great deal of the more conceptual and less successful work that sometimes fills up the Rencontres exhibitions, and that to our eyes, this was to the good.

family album

'Family album'

There was a major exhibition of 'family snapshots' of the Rencontres at the SNCF Atelier de Maintenance, under the rubric On n'a pas tous les jours vingt ans (You're not twenty every day) but there was also an 'external' (free) exhibition at the restaurant Les Deux Fondus of pictures by Gérard Fraissenet, Mes plus belles années photo, Les Premières Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d'Arles 1970-1976.

The exhibition pictures can be found (with many more) in a book of the same name, available at 30 euros (plus postage) from the author at Les hauts de Suffren, 13800 Istres, fressenet.gerard@wanadoo.fr. There are pictures of Ansel Adams, Lartigue, W. Eugene Smith, Karsh and more.

willy ronis

Willy Ronis

An unexpected bonus at the 2009 Rencontres was the presence of Willy Ronis himself, just short of his 99th birthday. Although he was in a wheelchair much of the time, his mind and his sheer presence were undiminished.

There is no sense in going into much detail about the exhibitions themselves. This is partly because we are never comfortable in reproducing others' work, even in the context of a review, and partly because of the sheer dazzling variety. It makes much more sense to concentrate on the actual experience of the Rencontres: the extent to which you become 'pictured out' by trying to see too many exhibitions, the way in which the most improbable venues are transformed into galleries, the curiosity of one's fellow photographers, the inspiration that the Rencontres can afford.

rhodania

 

Hotel Rhodania

The Rhodania, at the end of the rue du Pont on the quayside, is typical of the modestly priced hotels of Arles; the city centre, if you book early enough, really is a bargain -- though you will have fun finding anywhere to park, which is why we normally go down on the motorcycle (not the one in the picture!). But the staircase was the venue for a beautifully executed 'Shooting Barbie' exhibition. This is hardly a new idea -- Barbie in 'real life' situations -- but for example a Barbie with a black eye and bruised cheek was captioned 'This isn't happening... [for Nan]', a reference to Nan Golden's 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency' as presented elsewhere at the Rencontres.

 

Even so, we have already mentioned the Willy Ronis exhibition, which as well as his political photography (strikers, union workers, etc.) contained Roger's favourite nude of all time, Provençal Nude, and one of Frances's favourite cat pictures, Surprised Cat, perhaps better translated as The Cat, Surprised. Below are a few more examples of exhibitions we really liked.

lady series

'Lady' series

Cécile Decorniquet (www.cecileetlaurent.com) was tired of the increasingly standardized portrayal of children as victims, urchins or simply as disadvantaged in one way or another, and created a series of parallel images in which the same little girl is portrayed once as an idealized innocent -- the sort of thing Julia Margaret Cameron used to do -- and once as a society lady of the late 19th or early 20th centuries. This is the merest snapshot of her work on the walls of the Fet Art #13 gallery, but it gives an excellent idea of the way in which our expectations are shaped by the photographic conventions of an era, and of how those conventions can be subverted.

turk 1

Attila Durak's 'Ebru'

We are both deeply suspicious of big prints; all too often, people seem to work on the principle of 'if you can't make it good, make it big'. Also, an awful lot of big prints are either technically inadequate (as a result of over-enlargement) or willfully 'experimental', i.e. tedious. Every now and then, though, there is an exhibition of big, brilliant prints: Pierre Gonnord last year, Attila Durak this year. The ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Turkey is magnificently celebrated by this exhibition; it is well worth buying the book.

le don

Le Don (Giorgia Fiorio)

The Parc d'Ateliers is so vast, and often contain so much dross, that it is easy to give up. Two of our friends did, before they got to Venue 18 in the far corner from the entrance. They therefore missed what were, in our view, the two best exhibitions in the Parc: the Durak exhibition, above, and this one which was about the 'gift' (don) of religion.

radial expo 2

'Prix Découverte' exhibition, Grande Salle, Ateliers SNCF

Each radial gallery is devoted to a different photographer: fifteen of them, nominated by fifteen different sponsors. Several were excellent, such as Rimaldis Vikrasaitis's fascinating representations of Lithuanian village life (nominated by Martin Parr), Véronique Ellena's deceptively simple still lifes (nominated by Christian Lacroix) and Yang Yongliang's 'recomposed' Chinese landscapes (nominated by Claude Hudelot). Some of the others; well, let's say we wouldn't have minded missing them. But what does it matter? You waste a few minutes of your life looking at bad exhibitions, but you greatly enrich yourself by looking at others.

pacheco expo

Le Regard des Aveugles (Georges Pacheco)

For his subjects -- some blind since birth, some who had lost their sight subsequently -- Georges Pacheco set up the lighting, focus, etc., and then placed the camera release in his subjects' hands, so they could take the picture when they judged that they would look right. He also asked them what they would photograph, if they could see. It sounds harrowing and depressing; and yet, strangely, it was not. Rather, it was uplifting. It had a particular resonance for Frances (seen here in the picture) who was facing cataract surgery ten days later.

duane expo 2

Duane Michals Exhibition

Not only was there an enormous Duane Michals exhibition at the Archbishop's Palace; Duane Michals himself 'talked through' his pictures in an entertaining manner on Saturday morning, though we didn't stay for the whole thing because it was too hot and crowded. In a sense, this exhibition was too big; in another, its sheer size and diversity was essential as a showcase for the photographer's talents.

Something else the Rencontres gives you is inspiration, which arrives in both direct and indirect forms. The indirect form lies in seeing the work of others, and thinking, "If they can do that, then surely, I can do this." The direct form lies in Arles itself, which is an enormously seductive place to photograph. As we said in the review of the 2008 Rencontres, you start seeing everything as photographs, line, form, colour, simply because that is what you are looking at all day. Well, perhaps you see content as well, but not always...

big nudes

Bob Giorgi Exhibition

We remarked on Bob Giorgi's superb nudes (at the Graphistes Associés, Place Louis Blanc) last year, and this year, it was just as good, but completely different. Neither of us is a great fan of nude photography, but for these, we'll make an exception. This venue is not a part of the programme of exhibitions organized by the Rencontres; at a rough guess, these add 50% or so to the number of 'official' exhibitions, this year given as 66.

Both the photograph above and the photograph below well illustrate that in photography, as in any other form of art, there are no rules; all that matters is that you follow your own vision, and that you execute your work well. At one of the exhibitions, we encountered a marvellous quote, which unfortunately we neglected to write down and attribute, to the effect that the problem of art is never a problem of content, but a problem of form.

jumble expo

David Armstrong exhibition

The Rencontres does not just give ideas for content, but also for display. Is this an exhibition? Yes...

Silver and digital

Something we really noticed at the 2009 Rencontres was that while about 90% of the cameras being carried were digital, about 90% of the exhibitions seemed to be film-based. Both of these figures are subject to a wide margin of error, especially when you allow for the number of M-series Leicas you see at Arles, but by and large, this isn't a festival for gear-heads. Yes, Leica were there with both M-series and S2 cameras, and Olympus was making much of their new Pen, but they were the only obvious camera makers, though printer manufacturers also have a strong presence. We find it hard to get excited about printers, though.

leica stand

 

Leica stand, Espace Van Gogh

For the last few years, Leica has been in the corner of the Espace Van Gogh, near a number of the principal exhibitions and handy for the book-stalls which also line the cloisters of the building. At least half a dozen specialist photographic booksellers come down for the Rencontres, with a wonderful stock of books ancient and modern.

The highly symmetrical flower-lined gardens of the Espace Van Gogh have at their centre a pool and fountain; on a hot day, you may see weary tourists (usually young ones) dangling their feet in the pool or even wading in it.

 

The exhibition spaces

Even if the exhibitions are tiresome -- and at least half of them are -- then you can just admire the exhibition spaces instead. The old French Railway workshops (Ateliers SNCF) are a wonderful source of shapes, colours and textures, but other venues range from the ultra-modern Museum of Arles to ancient churches to cellars that might be a thousand years old. If you possibly can, get out to the abbey at Montmajour, maybe 5 km/3 miles from the city centre. There are often good exhibitions there -- this year it was Lucien Clergue's latest work -- and the buildings themselves are fascinating.

floating door
girders + cable tie

Doors, Museum of Arles

Girders and cable-tie, Ateliers SNCF

 

mj loos
pillar, no smoking, roni

Toilets, Abbaye de Montmajour

Exhibition space, Ateliers SNCF

Graffiti

By and large, we hate graffiti; but as mentioned in last year's report, some of it starts out as art in Arles, and some of it seems to merge together to create art. Add in the countless posters and handbills that are stuck everywhere, and even if you don't like it, you may find it hard not to photograph it.

emu + top hat
graffiti swirl
graffiti fox teacher
brainwashing

Details

Because Arles as a city is over 2000 years old, and because it has weathered and been repaired and rebuilt and restored throughout its life, there are endless architectural details to photograph. All right, they don't necessarily make for Great Art (see the notes on the Body of Work, below) but at the worst you can get some great souvenirs of a beautiful place and at best you may well end up with pictures that you, or others, may like to hang on the wall. They're a lot prettier than graffiti, if seldom as dramatic.

barred window
shutter

Barred window

Most windows in Arles are barred, at least on the ground floor: not just for today's security, but a reminder that for many centuries there was little in the way of policing.

Shutter with latches

Shutters are often closed during the hottest part of the day, in an attempt to keep the interior cool. Air conditioning (and electric fans) are recent inventions.

 

shutter grill and hinge
shutter and buttress

Shutter

Before wood-screws became affordable, the normal way to make a strong bond was to run a long nail through, and then hammer over the end; a sort of rivet.

Shutter and buttress

Buttresses like this are sometimes structural, but sometimes they are merely to stop carts (and cars) cutting too close and scraping the wall at corners.

Body of Work

The essential thing for an exhibition in Arles is of course a coherent Body of Work; just taking nice snaps, or even good photographs, isn't enough. So this year Roger deliberately set about creating a Body of Work, photographing the table and chair on the top landing of our hotel (the Voltaire). The light was ever-changing, of course, and the chair was constantly being moved, sometimes by chance (Frances's camera bag brushing against it) and sometimes by design. Of course, a cynic might suggest that in some cases a Body of Work is an inability to decide which is the best picture, coupled with a lack of resolve to throw out the second best.

table 5
table 6

Table 5

Table 6

table 7
table 10

Table 7

Table 10

Travelling with non-photographers

An obvious concern for a photographer considering a trip to Arles is what to do with non-photographer spouses and children. Fortunately, there's plenty. At least, you see plenty of children in Arles, and they do not seem especially fractious or unhappy. Then again, the excellent quality of much of the ice-cream may have some influence on this. And for those who cannot live without shops, the Rencontres are the time of the July sales, with lots of big names: Christian Lacroix is a native of Arles, and maintains a shop there. Don't miss the amazing 'Ali Baba's Cave' of mostly Moroccan imports in the rue des Grilles, either; Idris, the owner, buys directly from the people who make what he sells, and his prices are very fair indeed.

backlit coule hand in hand
family on doorstep

Couple, hand in hand

Just wandering through the streets together is very agreeable. Although the weather is often hot, there is plenty of cool shade and often a breeze as well.

Family

Arles is a very bohemian sort of place. Even the well-to-do sit on doorsteps and pavements while they are working out what to do next.

restaurant courtyard
colours looking up

Restaurant courtyard

There are numerous restaurants at all price levels throughout Arles, though location can be as important as food quality in determining prices.

Provençal sky and shutters

For most non-photographers, the first name they associate with Arles is Van Gogh; and as well as the Foundation, there's still the light there that he painted.

beside the rhone
man scratching head

Beside the Rhone

The Rhone is of course one of the great waterways of Europe, which is why Arles has been an important city for over 2000 years.

Where are we going next?

There's so much to see in Arles that you'll never see it all in a week. You might just about be able to see most of the exhibitions in that time.

Ultimately, though, the Rencontres contain the clue to their importance in their very name: rencontres means meetings or encounters. It is a place to meet new and old photographers and their work, and sometimes to marvel at the way that your fellow photographers' minds work, for good or for ill.

man photographing bum

Surprisingly many, for example, seemed to treat their cameras as fashion accessories, rather than as tools. When we saw someone with a Leica M6 over his shoulder, but using his camera 'phone to take a picture, we were surprised. Then, a few hours later, we saw someone else with a Rollei twin-lens reflex, doing exactly the same thing.

Even those who treat their cameras as tools seem sometimes to have an odd set of priorities: friends told us of seeing a photographer at the Wednesday market, using a huge DSLR and a monster white Canon 'pro' lens to photograph... some onions!

There were also surprisingly many people carrying huge backpacks, presumably of photographic equipment: not something we would care to do under the fierce Provençal sun.

 

Man photographing statue

At the entrance to the archepiscopal palace, there is a curiously moving statue of a blind man carrying a cripple. It is hard to photograph: we have both tried, a number of times, without any great success.

We were therefore intrigued to see someone trying an angle which we confess had never occurred to us. We find it hard to visualize exactly how his picture may have turned out, but that is the fascinating thing about Arles: it makes you think.

cam wilder, sepia

 

Cam Wilder

The Rencontres are a great place to arrange to meet fellow photographers whom you know only through correspondence or via the internet. For the last couple of years we have done this, and we sincerely hope that this aspect of the Rencontres will continue to grow both for us and for them.

This is Cam Wilder, fellow Leica user and black and white addict. Technically the picture is of some interest in that it was shot (with Cam's Leica M8 -- she has Roger's M8.2 in her hands) under predominantly sodium vapour lighting, then desaturated in Phase One Capture One. The net result is surprisingly akin to a hand-coloured sepia photograph.

 

The bottom line

It has taken us years to realize it, but until recently, we had been treating the Rencontres in completely the wrong way: merely as an opportunity to see lots of very good exhibitions (and even more bad ones), and perhaps to collect a few pearls of wisdom from the Great Names.

That's not what it's about. It really is about Rencontres (meetings). Not about meeting Great Names, nor even about running into the occasional stranger who becomes a new friend. No: it is about meeting your own friends, even if previously your acquaintanceship has never been face to face. Book a hotel room. Encourage your friends to do the same. Meet them there. And maybe we'll see you there too in 2010.

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© 2009 Roger W. Hicks