This was my first time to Arles and to the Les Rencontres de la Photographie and what a magical experience it turned out to be. Thoroughly enjoyable and a brilliant way to learn more about photography. I am hoping it will be a regular fixture in our travel calendar.
The Stephen Shore retrospective was a fantastic way to begin the study visit, as there was a such a wide range of work. In his intro, Jesse had talked about how a number of the exhibitions we would be visiting were based around ‘strategies’ rather than concepts and this proved to be an interesting way to critique a number of the collections, not least this one. Jesse’s blog on Arles is here.
Shore’s formulaic way of working quite appealed to me. Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gas Stations was an inspiration to Shore although the latter took a less rigid approach. William Eggleston was discussed too and but it was felt that Shore is more focused with his intent. There was clear evidence of his systematic and rigorous approach – journals including a log of miles, receipts and postcards from every town he visited.
In the photographer’s own words: “One of the thoughts behind the Conceptualist work was that there’s this world out there that we experience, and that making it into a photograph necessitates the mediation of an artist. Almost inevitably, visual conventions come into play, so that what I see in the photograph is tied as much to visual conventions as any opportunity to see the rest of the world. If some of my decisions can be taken out of my hands because of an imposed Conceptual framework — if, for example, I know that I’m going to walk north on Sixth Avenue and at the beginning of each block take a picture due north — then at least one decision out of the array of many necessary to create a photograph has been taken out of my hands. Part of that was to see if I could circumvent the mediating voice of the artist.” From: http://www.gilblank.com/texts/intvws/shoreintvw.html
I had never studied Shore’s work in much detail before so this really helped me to understand the idea of the snapshot aesthetic and it being close to being a pure image. In contrast to our throwaway Instagram culture, he was in fact only taking ten exposures per day and his methods would have required a lot of craft. According to the festival blurb: “Hegemonic practices are contested and resisted.” Shore thoroughly investigated the aesthetic of amateur and utilitarian photography, even to the point of using a toy camera and creating postcards on glossy paper, distributed in kiosks.
He explores the importance of viewpoint: how do you communicate a sense of place with nothing.
I came across an interesting interview where Shore talks about what it is like to see the every day world with heightened awareness, tactile and vivid.
My favourite Shore images were in the New York City 2000 -2002 section. Very cinematic. Black and white. Crowded, chaotic, the frame filled with iconic New Yorkers. Perfect fleeting captures. Feet out of the frame and bodies crushed towards the edge showing the continuity of the parade. Messy. Inspirational. And huge prints which made me want to step into the frame.
The Ukraine images were also fascinating – about the every day life, not a focus on the drama of the subject. Shore very successfully shows how people are tied to, but also alienated from, their surroundings.
The only negative, as Jesse pointed out, was that the chronological curation was possibly a little too straight and boring.
Toon Michiels American Neon Signs by Day and Night was a bit of a disappointment for everyone after the Shore exhibit. Interesting ideas though – he tried to show how the signs really come into their own at night when their “full forms emerge” and how sometimes their tawdriness could not even be erased by nightfall. This did not really have enough strength to be a ‘concept’ but was definitely a good strategy. As Michiels is a graphic designer and image-collector, I tried to look at this typographically and could glimpse the appeal. When designers present – for instance – brand logo options with black backgrounds as well as white backgrounds and varying colour palettes, with the emphasis on repetition but with tone and hue alterations, it almost starts to feel like a Warhol silkscreen.
Next stop was Vernacular! Three series from the Jean-Marie Donat Collection. TeddyBär, BlackFace and Predator. Part of a massive collection of found images. Very mysterious and creepy and made so by the recurring motifs (a person in a giant polar bear costume, ‘blackface’ make-up and the shadow of a male photographer in a fedora hat, respectively) in the family snapshots. They are all staged and posed which adds to the feeling of eerie collaboration. The German word is unheimlich (uncanny).
In the Église Saint-Blaise we watched North Korea, A Life Between Propaganda and Reality, made by Dutch artist Alice Weilinga. This is a beautiful film, which melds the propaganda images of life in North Korea with the frightening and depressing reality. It very subtly deconstructs the ideas presented to the outside world. The photographs have been stylized to create a painterly feel so in some shots it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. The music accompanying the film is gorgeous as the camera lingers over the scenes.
For An Unusual Attention, the Rencontres d’Arles invited four student graduates from the ENSP to present their photographs: Cloé Vignaud, Louis Matton, Swen Renault and Pablo Mendez.
Matton: Objets Autonomes is a series about squatters who shape their territory with objects and creations made in situ. Beautiful sculptural quality. Lots of the images have black ‘cave’ backgrounds from the flash – this accentuates the idea that the subjects have been uprooted.
Vignaud: Roberto Bolaño, Les Détectives Sauvages, “une interprétation libre, un écho, une résonance visuelle à un roman. Mexico DF, 1975, Arturo Belano et Ulises Lima, des témoins, une enquête sans fin, des indices, des poètes qui boivent et qui n’écrivent pas, une fuite, une pute, un mac, des flics, Cesarea Tinajero mère du mouvement infra-réaliste ou real-viscéraliste, du mezcal, des devinettes, une impala blanche, un asile psychiatrique sur la route du “Desierto de los Leones” qui par ailleurs pas un désert mais une forêt et où il n’y a pas de lions.”
Loved this – some brilliant images and well designed and presented. One really gets a sense of the mystery of the story and this work becomes much more than merely an illustration. She talks here about a ‘retranslation of atmosphere’.
Swen Renault did not appeal so much although some of the ideas were good. One set of images showed a grid of 16 images seemingly of clouds (or of possibly volcanic ash) but it turns out is from Gaza in 2014. These have been taken from the internet and then reframed to eliminate any context. The spiel mentions “the beauty of the form and the horror of the content.” I find this ambiguity to be quite beguiling. ‘Dernier Appel’ documents the disappearance of telephone booths which are gradually being demolished. The photographers uses this theme to comment on the changes to street furniture in our urban landscapes and also the erasure of the idea of a (briefly) private space in public areas where one can make long-distance contact with another human. Unique displays Window at Le Gras, by Nicéphore Niépce, believed to be the earliest surviving photograph, on an apparently endless grid, as a reference to the vast accumulation of images (and specifically this one) now available on the internet.
The Heavens by Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti is a fascinating project, which reveals the secretive world of tax havens and the billionaire lifestyle. The photographers have borrowed the photographic tropes of the world they are investigating. Whilst brilliantly rendered, these images are quite depressing – Jesse commented on one of a man on a golf course with two black caddies that it represented everything wrong in the world. The only image I could honestly say I loved was of the moonlit sea dwarfing Trump’s yacht.
Day two took us to the Grande Halle. Everyone adored the Thierry Bouët exhibition Personal Affairs. This is a simple series based around people selling unusual items online. Bouët had convinced the sellers to be photographed (although some faces are hidden). This is a humorous set with great captions. It is unashamed in its commercial feel – reminding us of the materialism of society but with the added element of recycling and a form of sharing/contact with others. Bonet centres a lot of his subjects in the frame and uses lines and shadow to create interest and balance through symmetry and perspective. These devices link the people to their surroundings showing the context of their environment.
Ambroise Tézenas’ I Was Here, Dark Tourism was interesting and included some great individual images but did not feel like a cohesive set to me. It seemed to be a mix of the straight scenes of natural disasters or human atrocities and images of people visiting those places. I was not sure of the message the photographer was trying to convey – apart from his apparent disappointment with the ‘gawkers’ – but I suspect it was rather diluted by trying to include so many sites. This work sparked a fascinating conversation about the relative power of images and words. The image of Aylan Kurdi on the beach had just been published that week so it was a particularly poignant discussion.
Next was Markus Brunetti’s Facades. Interestingly this was the only part of the visit where photography of the images was prohibited. This exhibition was the result of a long project of heavily-altered images of church and cathedral facades. The hyper-reality was quite disorienting. All the skies are overcast and grey and the light effects have removed any perspective. The facades seemed to be exactly that – flat and with no weight behind, like images in a paper model-making book. There are no people or signs of life and nature. Someone commented that only the architect could have ever visualised these structures like this via their original plans.
One of the most useful and interesting parts of the whole study tour was the Discovery Award section. For this, five European photography supremos had each nominate two photographers or artists using photography “whose work has recently been discovered or deserves to be”. Each OCA student had 30 minutes to look at each booth of work and decide their favourite for the prize. We then discussed this in depth, critiquing the work and voting for our own gold, silver and bronze awards.
Anna Orlowska: Leakage is an unsettling collection of surreal images exploring our subconscious fears, delusions and fantasies. Some of the images were tremendous and some seemed a little amateur to me.
Shilo Group: powerful work about cultural, social and political issues in the Ukraine. Some of the prints were produced on outdated Soviet photographic paper which, the trio stated, produced unpredictable results. “What will our future be? That is the question we are trying to answer by digging into the past, unsealing people’s fears, trying to reason them out of their absurdities and illogical behaviour.” Also from the Festival blurb: “Shilo means awl, expressing the group’s intention to pierce the old, played-out, and constrained Ukrainian photographic environment.”
Lisa Barnard: very strong title – ‘Hyenas in the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden’. It explored the complex relationship between the military, entertainments and technology; the blurred lines between reality and the virtual world and the dislocation created through the use of drones.
Paola Pasquaretta: a strange exhibit involving volcanic ash that I didn’t quite understand.
Robert Zhao Renhui: this purported to be a catalogue of evolution in response to stress. Some of it was fact and some of it was based on “proposals, hypothesis and papers written by scientists”. Some beautiful images but quite straight in its presentation – presumably very deliberately. Jesse commented that some of it had quite an undergraduate feel to it.
Pauline Fargue: the official winner. This was beautifully presented and included some fantastic work. It might have seemed pretentious if produced by a Brit but seemed completely authentic from a French woman. Here are some of her thoughts, from the festival website:
“How can we inhabit a landscape now that the visible is merely virtual and our bodies are tirelessly excluded? That is the question that haunts my installations (video/sound/sculpture/performance), whereby the spectator experiences immersion in image. This seeking has its source in an unusual photographic practice. For fifteen years I have been manipulating images, always using identical notebooks. Eight thousand pages on which photo and graphics interpenetrate, where photography becomes a material to work, cut, fold, traverse. At once journal, archive, and collective adventure, these notebooks bear witness to an unending work process in which the banal engenders the bizarre, where chance alternates with ritual and partakes of an underground temporality, a perpetual present. No Day, the title of this practice as well as of all my photographs, comes from Pliny the Elder—’Nulla dies sine linea’ —who attributes it to Apelles, the classical Greek painter who let no day pass without drawing a line. Here the line is the tiny daily sentence, the stroke that crosses it out, the threshold of the landscape, the fold of the image, the tie that binds us: time.”
Julián Barón: it took a while (and some light-shedding from Gareth) to begin to understand these three pieces of work but they seemed to be commenting on power and class and the influence of the media. He says “We find ourselves submerged in a technological era where we absorb and re-project images like signal repeaters. The photographs and videos that we consume and create makes us a part of the regime. We are witnesses to and extras in the image of our time.”
Delphine Chanet: this was my pick. I think the artist captured so much about being a teenager – the innocence, the feeling of invincibility and the fragility. These images are timeless and nostalgic, slightly voyeuristic, slightly sexual but always beautiful and, for me, evocative. There was something of the Virgin Suicides about them. Jesse said they looked like a Top Shop ad.
Omar Victor Diop: very impressive, clever, important work but it just did not resonate with me really.
The Cool Couple: interesting ideas here about the power of beards and their part in a variety of cultures. Thought-provoking but a little unsubstantial for me.
I was blown away by the Congo images. A joint project by Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin, which successfully avoids the typical portrayals of Africa (“anthropological reporting and exotic travel tales”). We really feel some emotion and connection between the photographers and the scenes and humans they are capturing. Many different types of image – come collage, some triptychs, some Street, some portraits, some snapshots, some reportage. No titles or commentary. Mostly black and white, some with incredible filmic lighting effects. Artistically, this was the most inspiring set of images for me personally.
I found myself losing interest in the Total Records exhibit although I was quite surprised by how many images taken by the alleged great ‘Masters of Photography’ were used on covers (eg Robert Frank, Elliott Erwitt, W. Eugene Smith). There was enjoyable little film of Jean Baptiste Mondino talking about how didn’t really feel he was a photographer but that his work was a result of “developing passions”. And the Sleevefaces bit was awesome – not least because so many OCA students were on the wall.
Although the official part of the tour had now ended, my final viewing was over at the Musée Départemental Arles Antique. I was very keen to see the Walker Evans Anonymous work, partly – obviously – because of his great importance to the development of photography but also, specifically, as I am presently working on the social documentary module of Gesture & Meaning. This exhibition placed emphasis on his work in print – particularly in magazines, another subject dear to my heart.
From the festival website: “Evans began to publish in 1929 and soon found ways to set his own assignments, write the accompanying words and design his layouts. He worked in black and white and colour. Over nearly four decades Evans used the popular magazine page to produce a resistant counter-commentary on American society and its values. Where the mass media enjoyed celebrity culture, Evans photographed anonymous citizens. Where the mass media promoted consumerism, Evans valued enduring objects and the persistence of the past in the present. Experimental and yet classical, Evans’s photo-essays have been overlooked until recently. ‘Walker Evans, Anonymous’ presents original magazine pages alongside vintage prints and related material, looking at Evans as a pioneer of modern photography, editing, writing and design. The exhibition includes Evans’s many attempts to shoot unnamed citizens on American streets and the New York subway, his images of popular graphics and vernacular architecture, and his celebrations of everyday life.”
The work really conveys the dignity and energy of ordinary workers and it was easy to see how much Evans has influenced so many photographers (Katy Grannan particularly came to mind). The larger images clearly had much more impact, especially the subway portraits where a subject is looking at the camera. Evans strove to ensure that people were unaware of being photographed – hoping that their guard was down as much as possible. James Agee writes in 1940, about the people using the New York subway, “Each carries in the postures of his body, in his hands, in his face, in the eyes, the signatures of a time and a place in the world upon a creature for whom the name immortal soul is one mild and vulgar metaphor.” We certainly do get a sense of time and humanity.
The lay-outs of the magazines worked really well and were inspiring for Assignment 1. The mix of portraits and context shots presented a simple narrative, beautifully.
I also loved his ‘color accidents’: “This is the restless, cacophonic design created by time, the weather, neglect, and the fine hand of delinquent youth. The bitter colours and ironic forms splashed and molded on many an old door or torn wall have their own way of arresting attention.” (Evans writing in the Architectural Forum, Jan 1958).
Desperate for the Arles experience to last longer, we even popped in to the Souvenirs of the Sphinx collection, curated by Luce Lebart.
“The pyramids overshadowed the Sphinx for millennia until drawings, prints and, especially, photographs made it an icon. Wouters Deruytter’s collection is a history of the photography of this solitary, monumental sculpture. The Sphinx sits beneath albumin, collodion or gelatine skies in monochrome hues ranging from brown to pale pink in nineteenth-century photographs to black and white in the twentieth. The Sphinx, a witness to the birth of archaeology and the growth of tourism, has placidly watched a parade of travellers go by. Wouters’ monumental photographs offer an unprecedented vision of the Sphinx. Exploring the giant with a lion’s body inside and out, the photographer invites us to the heart of the world’s most enigmatic sculpture. This work and this collection tells us how much heritage awareness shifts from one object to another. After accompanying and documenting admiration for the Sphinx, it is the photographs’ turn to be preserved and offered for contemplation.”
It was surprisingly enjoyable and prompted many (as yet unresolved) thoughts about photography, juxtapositions and gallery presentation. The images were grouped by time and style and POV/composition. It was good to be able to look at a single subject, photographed by millions of people ever since photography began, and think about broader issues of approach. And it was the perfect end to the study part of our wonderful trip to Arles.