Last Monday, I was fortunate enough to be invited for the opening day of the Rencontres d'Arles - an international photography festival that was founded in 1970 by photographer Lucien Clergue, author Michel Tournier and the amazing historian, Jean-Maurice Rouquette. After a few years of glorious beginnings - featuring such prestigious invited guests as Ansel Adams, Robert Doisneau, Ernst Haas, Imogen Cunningham and Brassaï - the festival quickly became incontournable and heralded as one of the most important in Europe. Featuring in large part new works, Les Rencontres now attracts photographers, gallerists, editors and photography lovers from all around the world.
One of the aspects that I had always appreciated about the Rencontres was that it was free! Well, at least it was for me during the nearly ten years that I was a proud resident of Arles. Now, that I live just outside in the tiny Provençal village, that is no longer the case. All the better then to be invited and try to see as much as possible for the opening. As I arrived in town, the line for tickets was already well out the door - a sight that will be common until the end of the festival's run on September 20th.
This year, many of us who have followed the Rencontres for years were especially eager to see how the program would differ now that Sam Stourdzé, former director of the Musée de l'Élysée à Lausanne, has replaced François Hébel, who had been the festivals director since 2001. He gave an energetic welcoming speech, as did Arles' Mayor and the French Minister of Culture who had descended from Paris especially for the occasion...
...but I have to admit that my focus did wander a bit. Have I mentioned recently that it has been hot here? 100° F and not a drop less meant that we were all more than willing to follow the officials...
...next door into the relative cool of the 15th century Fréres-Prêcheurs Church...
...where the English photographer Martin Parr - who was the Artistic Director of the Rencontres in 2004 - has collaborated with the excellent French musician Matthieu Chedid (who performs under the name "M") on MMM.
Their work together was part of the "Résonances" category of this years festival where a photographer was grouped with someone of another field - in this case music. Martin Parr photographed M in concert while Mathieu Chedid wrote a score for Mr. Parr's collection of past works - both hoping to (I am so sorry but this is just how I have to say it) strike a chord in their viewers.
Despite his being acclaimed as one of our most successful contemporary photographers, I find my interest waning in Martin Parr's work. However, I do feel that the collaboration was a successful one and that the series of "beaches" in the various niches of the church (complete with deck chairs) used the lieu in a way that is particular to the Rencontres' tendency to create interesting contrasts.
More to my taste was the winding helix of Olivier Roller's installation - fabricated with double-sided illuminated panels far more beautiful than you can see here - a part of his "Figures du Pouvoirs" or Figures of Influence series that was suspended in a darkened chapel of the Musée Reattu.
At the Reattu, the exhibition, called Daring Photography in English, celebrates the museums fifty years of collecting avant-garde works; a collection whose beginnings in 1965 would instigate the formation of Les Rencontres five years later. And what a phenomenal collection it is. It became delightfully overwhelming to come across walls full of Man-Rays, Brassais, Edward Westons and Avedons, not to mention singular pieces that were breath-taking...
...such as this tragic portrait of Marilyn Monroe taken by Arnold Newman shortly before her death...
...or Rebellion Silence by Shirin Nashat, 1994.
The moments wandering through the Reattu were most certainly some of my favorite of the day. Our past is our present and the selection of photography, curated by the new museum director Pascale Picard was simply stunning.
Not all of the showing spaces are so prestigious and I love that about Les Rencontres. Here, a group showing of up-and coming photographers whose work had been selected by Jean Paul Goude was displayed in the parking garage for Nord-Pinus Hotel.
Will you forgive me if I admit that the heat got to me? I have only this one image to share with you for a truly exceptional (absolutely the correct term) exhibition: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People by Martin Gusinde. Mr. Gusinde travelled to the Tierra del Fuego region at the Southern tip of South America four times between 1918 and 1924 as both a missionary and an anthropologist in order to meet the last of the native peoples of the area, wishing both to document and become as immersed as possible in their vanishing society. The images are not only exceptionally beautiful but haunting. So much diversity has been lost. Didn't I just say that our past is our present? And our future?
After resting woozily on a park bench, I made it out to the Pard des Ateliers, the former workshops for the SNCF trains and the future home to the Fondation Luma...but I am not ready to talk about that project just yet, even while I watched its construction continuing despite the crushing heat.
Inside the Grand Hall, a catacomb of exhibition spaces have been divided into the enormous space. I found Markus Brunetti's enormous images of cathedrales for Facades intensely soothing to take in, especially when given the proper time to do so rather than simply rushing from one to the next.
I also really enjoyed the storytelling behind Thierry Bouët's Personal Affairs quite charming, in which he contacted people who had interesting items to sell on Le Bon Coin (France's answer to Craigslist) in order to interview them and take their portraits.
Amongst this years Discovery Award nominees, I was out-right fascinated by the "moody sensitivity of adolescence"...
...depicted so astutely in the pieces by Delphine Chavet, someone whose work I will follow in the future as well as...
...the classicist meets pop self-portraits by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop...
...whose technicolor representations of iconic African figures imbued with modern touches made me smile then think.
Both of these artists were presented by exhibition curator and art critic Claire Jaquet and seemed absolutely pitch-perfect to me both in their ideas and execution for this new period for Les Rencontres.
And then there were moments like this...when I stumbled into a room where a hipster barber had just shaved off quite a bit of a young mans rather copious hair and beard. Why? I have no idea but there you have it.
By this point, I was sweating rather ungraciously. It is hot as Hades out at the Ateliers and I am just going to take a tiiiny moment out to ask the same question: why? A day pass to the Rencontres is 29 Euros. That is pretty much the price that nearly everyone is going to pay. Now, I know that it is incredibly expensive to pull this huge festival together but I also know that 96,000 people came in 2013 alone. You do the math. In most of the exhibition spaces, there is no air (not even a fan) and I only found one spot where water was available for free - one - and there is only rarely a place to sit down. It is kind of scandalous. I have a hard time imagining the elderly or young children making it through and isn't the point that the Rencontres (which translates to English as "Encounters") be accessible for the rendez-vous?
That said, let's finish on a positive note. I did decide to keep going to the Magasin Électrique as there was one exhibition that I really did not want to miss. It is simply called Congo by two Magnum photographers whom I admire, Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin.
One could say that they form a duet as the photographs, taken in the country of the exhibitions name, are not labelled. I gave up trying to figure out whose I was looking at and instead fell into the play of light and shadows, the unsentimental representations of struggle and joy stripped of all predispositions.
My heart was there, transported.
Les Rencontres d'Arles
Exhibitions July 6th to September 20th
Viewing hours depend on the space, roughly from 10am to 7:30pm
Pass for all exhibitions valid for the entire festival: 37 Euros
Day pass: 29 Euros
One entry per exhibition for the passes
Single exhibition prices starting at 3.50 Euros
Free for disabled persons, inhabitants of Arles and those under 18
In English: https://www.rencontres-arles.com
En Français: http://www.rencontres-arles.com/Home
* Note: There is much more to see at Les Rencontres, including the retrospective of Walker Evans that I will very much look forward to sharing with you later on this summer.