I’ve done a post on my overall observations on my first visit to Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. This post is to cover the individual exhibitions I saw.
The festival is grouped under a number of headings: a mixture of genre, subject matter and arbitrary miscellany. I will use these categories for ease of organising my thoughts.
This is going to be pretty long. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Put the kettle on.
If you want to skim to my highlights, these are titled in red text.
Premise: five eminent photography figures nominate two up-and-coming artists each. I saw this in a group with four other people, and we agreed to view all the entrants’ works and then compare notes, including individually ranking the best three and the worst one of the ten projects on display…
I confess I wrote this one off quickly and didn’t give it long enough to ‘get’ the underlying narrative at first. On re-watching, having had the premise explained by someone more patient, it made more sense. He photographed lorries entering and leaving an industrial abattoir over a period of years, and the (extremely banal) images are presented sequentially in a slide projection. The reality of what you are seeing unfolds slowly. Maybe I should be a little more patient and forgiving with seemingly uninteresting art? Or is the onus on the artist to engage the viewer with strong imagery first? Discuss.
Black and white, fragmentary street photography with a few underlying themes – absence, emptiness, consumerism. Some of the images are presented as split images with white space in between, in box frames placed on the floor. I found myself thinking about the connections between images, not always to the point of resolution. I liked this series more than my fellow exhibition-goers did, and rated it as my ‘bronze’ award of the set.
This was a combination of video, appropriated images and a wall-sized room replica – and it did nothing for me, I’m afraid. We must not have been on the same wavelength.
Yokota exposes rolls of photographic paper to light, creating abstract patterns that sometimes resemble dreamy landscapes. The presentation method was quite distinctive – long rolls suspended from above, seemingly to resemble a waterfall. Unfortunately it also reminded me of a wallpaper display. A vaguely interesting curio.
Like Kiwitt, quite disparate and fragmentary in subject matter, but employing a strong colour aesthetic. There’s a sense of narrativity to her images but any story is usually opaque and implied, leaving the viewer to fill in most of the details. She uses masks a lot, suggesting that identity is one of her interests. There’s a surreal and dark ‘Twin Peaks‘-y feel to many of her images. I like the way she sees the world. I voted this my ‘silver’ pick (no-one else agreed).
Four small photos (three of underground pipes, one of flowers) and three urban water features. Unanimously voted the ‘merde’ prize by all five of us. Balls of steel to be given a huge stand at Arles and do this with it.
A study of people with disabilities in Addis Ababa. He has a good eye for simple, human moments, and captures his subjects without patronising them. One could question why such a (good but) straightforward documentary project was nominated for the Discovery Award, surrounded by more conceptual work – maybe it is recognising that places such as Ethiopia don’t have the same photographic history as other countries, and in that context it is progressive work.
My ‘gold’ pick for this set (we all agreed on this one) and also one of my highlights of the whole festival, so I go into more detail. And it deservedly won the overall Discovery Award. The series Stranger in a Familiar Land is a set of staged images of albinoism in Africa. The sole model is striking enough for the lightness of her skin, let alone her beautiful intricate purple hair braids. Posing her in the backdrop of Kibera slums makes her stand out even more than usual, giving a dreamlike quality to the images. The presentation made this project even more engaging: each photo was framed alongside a physical artefact; the viewer must navigate between the photo, the artefact and the title to interpret the image. A masterful series.
Garish, pseudo-surreal, self-consciously wacky photoshoppery. Not my cup of earl grey.
More photo-illustration art than photography really. Much use of appropriated imagery to build kitsch collages about the passing of time. I found the presentation of one half of the exhibit – images laid out in a consecutive horizontal line – more interesting than the individual images; it reminded me of Martin Parr’s Common Sense installation.
I hadn’t heard of Grossman (active in the US from the 1930s to the 1950s) but I liked much of his work, especially his later period when he got more expressionistic and abstract. There’s an inherent historical interest in a lot of the work, though, and one needs to look past that to get to the ‘so what?’ of his work (he reminded of Vivian Maier in that regard). A handful of his images are exemplary though – in particular I loved ‘Pants Store’.
Ethan Levitas / Gary Winogrand
This paired the contemporary New York street work of Levitas with iconic 1960s images of Winogrand. It’s a bold gambit to invite comparisons with a great like this, and I don’t believe Levitas pulls it off. His work is more contrived, more distant than Winogrand’s. The Levitas work gets displayed here better than Winogrand’s though, which is presented as blown-up contact sheets. The dissonance between the two parts of the show is bewildering. I found myself wondering how and why this pairing came about. Odd.
I was really looking forward to this, but felt oddly let down by the presentation. It’s an exact re-staging of the 1979 show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, which used as its conceit that aliens had been studying Earth in the same way as we’d been studying Mars. Photos of urban Yorkshire and London scenes are presented in ‘space chart’ frames. My assumption is that Mitchell wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the scenes being depicted. The problem is that in this re-presentation 37 years later, no such device is needed as the passage of time is enough to make this an ‘alien’ world. The extra-terrestrial conceit just distracts now. A missed opportunity for re-contextualisation I think.
My undoubted highlight of the whole trip. In fact, the one purchase I made out of the Arles trip, aside from the catalogue, was Doyle’s End. The presentation is awe-inspiring. A combination of colour images in grids, wall-sized b/w prints, colour-washed posters, graphic illustrations – it’s a multi-media, multi-format extravaganza.
But none of that would matter if the images didn’t work. Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin works over the last three years (i, ON, End) have brought a poetic, expressionistic form of street photography, and given a sense of place like none I experienced from any other photographer at Arles.
Monsters & Co
The one part of this segment that I really wanted to see was Charles Fréger’s Yokainoshima, but unfortunately it had closed the day before I got to Arles…
This is a compilation of images of monsters of various sorts in cinema. It’s a fairly pedestrian theme for a photography festival in my opinion, and horror/sci-fi aren’t my favourite movie genres, so I didn’t hang around long enough to discern any deeper meaning in this one.
This is a collaboration between three Danish photojournalists – Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selves Markussen – and looks at the phenomenon of UFO enthusiasts. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic depiction that avoids mockery. It contains lots of individually strong images and also works as a cohesive overall set, despite the shared authorship. It’s a low-key, quite sweet set that is as much about faith as it is about aliens.
Only two of these three shows were still open by the time I got to Arles.
Part retrospective, part contemporary catchup, this looks at the Mali pop music scene in the 1960s. Much of the interest in the first part is the historic context – all black and white photos from five decades ago are worth a look. I found more to see in Karen Paulina Biswell’s smaller set of contemporary pictures catching up on the band members. This show did also give me the earworm of the trip, the impossibly catchy ‘Rendezvous Chez Fatimata‘!
Tear My Bra
An eclectic celebration of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. Some of it was visually striking, like the the Godfather pastiche and the recreations of iconic Hollywood scenes. However, these two sections were also the most derivative and timid of the lot, as they leant heavily on the audience’s knowledge of existing Hollywood tropes. Maybe Nollywood hasn’t yet defined itself enough of a distinct identity – that’s what came through in these images anyway.
Platforms of the Visible
An odd title for what the programme describes as a look at “Investigation as a photographic topic and the photographer as a detective combing through photo archives”.
This project A History of Misogny, Chapter One: On Abortion is a powerful series, and one which I have picked out as one of my highlights, but perhaps oddly not for the photographic content. The subject of abortion and its effects on women who have them, particularly the dangers in the many countries where it is illegal, is not easy to depict photographically without being gruesome. The images here are portraits with testimonies, photos of artefacts such as surgical instruments, biological diagrams. Without the accompanying text they may not mean as much. However, the two exhibits that had the most visceral effect on me weren’t photographs but physical installations: a surgical chair with stirrups, and a pile of wire coat hangers. These two objects spoke more about the experience and dangers of abortion than the images.
I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserved as the premise didn’t grab my attention. It’s a varied examination of a particular building on the outskirts of Arles, meditating on concepts such as memory, identity, passing time. What I saw of it I found quite clinical and lacking in any emotive connection. But as I say, maybe I didn’t give it a chance (it was one of the shows that I rattled through on day three…)
I missed the Don McCullin show by a day, but having looked through the catalogue it features many of the images I saw at his Photo London show in May, so I’m not too concerned.
This is a set of 80 images of battlefields long after the battles. I find this genre of (very late) aftermath photography quite curious: without the context of the historic warfare these are perfectly ‘nice’ landscapes; it is only when one understands what had happened in the years before that they acquire gravitas. The significance from reading the caption triggers a re-evaluation of the image. One finds oneself searching the photo for ‘clues’ as to what happened there, but of course in most of them there are none, so it becomes largely a work of triggered imagination. Part of me finds this genre of photography a kind of manipulative mind trickery…
Nothing But Blue Skies
This, a compilation of media and art responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is a mixed bag for sure, but on balance I felt more of it worked than didn’t. The first part is a recap of how the attacks were reported at the time – a room covered floor-to-ceiling with newspaper front pages, and a smaller room made entirely of old TVs looping through rolling news footage. Both are quite an assault on the eyeballs and the mind. Only after sifting through the imagery does one start to appreciate the nuances of how different nations and outlets reported the events.
The second half is made of artistic responses to the attacks and aftermath. One piece that I found particularly engaging was Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski. It’s a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the attacks on the twin towers. I got a bit of a Debord/Baudrillard vibe from watching fictional footage standing in for a real event – the sense that despite describing the events as shocking and unprecedented, we had in fact pictured and rehearsed such events already as entertainment. The other takeaway from this is that it has slightly reset my previously dogmatic stance that documentary must show things that really happened – it turns out that you can present a documentary ‘truth’ using only fictional material.
I am Writing to you from a Far Off Country
This expansive and beautifully presented exhibition, The Jungle Show, takes a trip along the Amazon. Rather than employing a straight documentary photography approach, however, Gross stages scenes that give an impression of the people and the locale. He captures facets of Amazonian lives in an artistic, expressive yet non-condescending way.
PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy
The Hollow of the Hand is a poetry-photography-video collaboration based on the duo’s travels through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC (this last seems out of place, but it hangs together better than you might imagine). It’s a looping video installation that alternates between fragments of film footage with slideshows of Murphy’s photos with Harvey reading her poems over the top. The overall result is suitably ambiguous in terms of narrativity yet gets across lingering impressions of the places filmed. Once strange sensation I had watching it was that I found Murphy’s short film clips to be like moving photographs, in terms of composition and aesthetic – I found myself mentally freeze-framing when I saw the ‘decisive moment’ in each clip.
The title of this group show is somewhat disingenuous, as few of these are ‘failures’, more deliberate attempts to subvert photographic norms. It’s a very entertaining collection of surreal, playful and downright silly visual experiments. It wasn’t what you’d call profound, but I enjoyed it a lot.
Where the Other Rests
This group show is all about appropriation, as subject I am a little ambivalent about. I get that one can create a ‘dialogue’ with pre-existing imagery and make new pieces of art that carry a different message, but I found a lot of the work on show here to be uninspiring and lacking in originality. As noted elsewhere, I find some appropriation to be too self-referential and insular – photography about photography.
The one piece that I did admire here was Broomberg & Chanarin’s Afterlife, which took an image of a Kurdish firing squad execution and deconstructed it, isolating figures from the background and mounting the photo fragments on multiple glass plates – like a collage where none of the pieces touch. I found this detailed dissection of a photograph brought its meaning closer to the surface, in a strange way.
Themed archival collections.
A look at the hitherto hidden world of 19th and early 20th century LGBTQI amateur photography. Gender fluidity and cross-dressing in particular has an enormously rich visual history, but for various reasons the images have been kept private. Sébastien Lifshitz has collected and curated a wide-ranging and fascinating alternative history, proving that the accepted version of society’s history always leaves things out.
An interesting enough visual summary of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Not sure there’s enough there to justify it being part of a major photographic festival though.
Hara Kiri Photo
The visual archives of the satirical French magazine (kind of Charlie Hebdo forerunner?). What you could get away with showing on newsstands in France in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-boggling. Out of the context of the time these images just look variously surreal, profane, pornographic and grotesque. A prurient curiosity.
Outside the Frame
The Cardboard Museum
A self-consciously wacky funhouse-style installation with various rooms containing surreal images and objects in. Like a class of sixth-form art students had been let loose. It would have been a nice lightweight palate-cleanser if I’d visited it halfway through the more serious works in the Parc des Ateliers, but as it happened it was the first thing I saw, and I was simply bemused. It did include the pic below though, that made me laugh.
This section picks out emerging talents.
An Unusual Attention
The work of three graduates from ENSP (the Arles photography school). Guillaume Delleuse was the only one to make an impression. His gritty, sexually-charged black and white urban photography reminded me of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol. Clémentine Roche’s repetitive (found?) street scenes and Vincent Marcq’s deconstructed house didn’t do much for me.
Subtitled New Forms for Contemporary Image Production, this was put together by the LUMA Foundation in Arles. It featured four exhibitions, only one of which was particularly good in my opinion.
Curated by Walead Beshty, Picture Industry is described as “an array of images whose formats reveal the complex and evolving relationship between the photographic medium and its many modes of distribution“. The bare thread that connects these eclectic images is that they were originally presented in different visual formats. So we get prints, slideshows, video installations, 70s porn mag spreads etc. I presume the point is to highlight how images are (at least in part) interpreted based on the distribution channel and/or physicality.
Elad Lassry apparently wants to investigate “what kinds of engagement are possible with pictures“. For reasons best known to himself, he felt the best way to do this was to display large, colourful pictures of dental procedures. Gruesome and fairly pointless.
Collier Schorr curated a collaboration with his near-namesake Anne Collier, but unfortunately I found little of interest in the collection of nudes, self portraits and porn pastiches. Supposedly about “exposed subjects [who] are frequently framed by the formats of the medium itself“, it came across as very self-indulgent.
Photographer and activist Zanele Muholi provided the one highlight of this section. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama is a set of stark, dark self-portraits in various states of costume and make-up, often based around her hair – a key cultural signifier for African women. Each portrait is visually dominated by the strong contrast between the darkness of her skin and the whiteness of her eyes. Her gaze into the lens is penetrating. Striking is an understatement.
That’s me done!