Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles 2016

Rather a long period of stress-filled time has elapsed since our visit to Arles in September, which I suspect will be a blessing as well as a disadvantage for the purposes of this blog post.  We saw so much and discussed so many things, I will keep these notes as brief as possible.

Sincerely Queer, Sebastian Lifshitz Collections

As the blurb for this exhibition stated: it raises more questions than it answers.  This was an extensive exploration of gender issues and how the body is subject to power and cultural values.  The images were very intimate and felt like stolen moments. Many were joyful and almost triumphant but some seemed to quite dark and secretive.  The strength of the display lay with the sheer volume of images. Seen on mass like this provided a powerful representation of the extent of this aspect of human behaviour.

I found it to be very thought-provoking to consider the importance of the act of photography and the viewing of the images for the participants.  It was clear that empowerment, sex, fetish, humour and intimacy between friends and partners was inherent in the portraits.  Having never really felt personally driven to transform myself for the camera, this provided interesting insights.  I had no idea that mock weddings were even a thing!

My favourite set was of ‘Bambi’ – a stunningly beautiful transsexual who after a life of glamour settled down as a school teacher.

Inspiration: I found the aesthetic of private secret snapshots to be quite appealing and would be interested to explore recreating this, possibly as part of the portrait section of Gesture and Meaning.  I also liked the impact of the repetition and the visual rhyming.

Where the Other Rests – Awakening Forgotten Images

This was a bit patchy for me and did not feel like a cohesive exhibition.  It was even difficult at times to work out the ‘authors’ of the various works.  The introductory text reads: “Can images belonging to others be given a second life?  The trend is moving towards appropriation: many artists are working on the idea of borrowing.”  A lot of these visual ‘reactivations’ explored manipulation and various forms of representation, playing with scale and creating illusions.  One highlight was Afterlife by Broomberg and Chanarin – an “iconoclastic breakdown or dissection of original images which interrupts our relationship as spectators to images of distant suffering.”  This was very powerful with the fragmentation forcing the viewer to really slow down and consider the subject matter and context of this image.


I won’t share my thoughts on the installation which overlaid stills from Rear Window with da Vinci’s Virgin and Child as an homage to Princess Grace.

Melik Ohanian’s Red Memory caught my eye, partly for its effective presence in a gallery setting with the image on glass which could be viewed from different angles. I also found the idea of this being his reminiscence of his first relationships with the world to be quite touching.


I was fascinated by Albert by Tom Molloy.  These were grids of small delicate drawings from photographs of the ‘victims’ of Albert Pierrepoint (1905-92), one of the UK’s most prolific executioners. The combination of the transfer of photography to another medium with the emerging portrait of an unknown but fascinating character made this quite an intriguing highlight for me.


Inspiration: ‘Bokashi’ is a form of Japanese censorship – fogging – which was used effectively. I am quite interested in the scope for changing the physical surface of photographic prints.  The idea of scavenging for images and using them to highlight specific narratives also appeals. This speaks to me about the idea of the massive over-abundance of images and their polysemous nature. Dredging them up to be seen again and reinterpreted seems valid and interesting. I acknowledge the intuitive idea that the production of new and groundbreaking stuff is preferable but this does not really stand up to much interrogation for me.

Systematically Open? New Forms for Contemporary Image Production

This Luma Foundation exhibition aimed to examine “new structures for the presentation of the photographic image, analysing the relationships between photography and its various modes of display.” The four ‘curators’ were Walead Beshty, Elad Lassry, Zanele Muholi and Collier Schorr. This was big and unwieldy and a lot of the imagery didn’t really resonate with me, even though there were a number of interesting ideas (such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s selective use of pixelation on horrific war images and his ‘Touching Reality’) and a lot of photographs of teeth.

Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits seemed to be the highlight for everyone. The work explores self-presentation, using high fashion tropes and performative art. The accompanying text explains how her skin tones were exaggerated to reclaim her blackness. “Can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in society and the position that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter?”  These are stunning, disquieting images; technically perfect and endlessly fascinating.

Inspiration: be brave with portraits and think creatively about props and tropes. Size matters.

Ethan Levitas/Garry Winogrand

I found the link between these two photographers was not made convincingly enough for this exhibition to be plausible. Levitas felt like a weak pretender which distracted from both artists’ work.  I perhaps should have given it more time and attention.

Inspiration: meh.

Discovery Award

Participation in pooling our own gold, silver, bronze and ‘most disliked’ judgments for this felt slightly less enthusiastic than last year but I found it to be really useful again.  Not least because Gareth managed to identify the point and worth of Frank Berger’s slaughterhouse work in a way that Rob and I entirely missed which was quite instructive.

I gave my gold to Sarah Waiswa’s Stranger in a Familiar Land (and found out afterwards that the actual judges agreed!). The work is technically superb, depicting an albino woman in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.  The images are very light and bright mounted on a white background with white frames.


This is the artist’s statement from her website:

“Stranger in Familiar Land is a series that looks at the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Tanzania, for example, they are hunted for their body parts, which are believed to possess magical powers. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. This project groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state.”

Although I thought the series was excellent, my response to it does not really match the stated intentions in this statement. The dreamlike quality certainly comes through but my overriding sense was of the model’s calm dignity and humanity in a highly complex society.  She seems safe even though she is clearly uncomfortable in some of the captures. Maybe my reading of the images is just off-kilter with the staging.

Inspiration: some of the work in this competition seemed quite unoriginal and not very engaging but was based on a reasonable premise so just keep chipping away.

Sid Grossman – from document to revelation

I wasn’t familiar with this photographer at all but loved this exhibition. Superb street with loads of fascinating details and some stunning compositions. The show also included work from a number of Grossman’s students who continued his legacy: Morris Huberland (1909-2003), Leon Levinstein (1910-1988), Rebecca Lepkoff (1916-2014), Arthur Leipzig (1918-2014), Sy Kattelson (1923 – ), David Vestal (1924-2013), Harold Feinstein (1931-2015).

Inspiration: take time to find great composition opportunities and keep shooting until you hit perfection.

Eamonn Doyle – END

This blew my socks off. A collaboration between the photographer and painter (and curator of the show) Niall Sweeney and with sound by David Donohoe, this was an atmospheric tour de force. It is hard to believe that street photography can still look completely fresh but Doyle has created an eerie, anonymous, fragmented portrait of Dublin which is vaguely familiar but also revelatory. Photographs sit next to abstract paintings and images on glass. Huge structures support grids of scenes from the city and its sleepwalking/zombie inhabitants, perfectly choreographed to show every day life as we have never seen it before. Gaps allow massive prints of people to be seen from the other side of the room, cleverly and inescapably wedged into a changing landscape. Number one highlight of the whole festival for me.

Inspiration: yes, yes, yes, all of it!  Think about collaborations more, don’t be afraid of pursuing something that seems to have been done to death and don’t be afraid of mixing media or being brave with radical presentation.

Nothing but Blue Skies

This exhibition was a thoughtful and creatively curated collection of work about the September 11th attacks on Manhattan, particularly as represented through the media. It was inevitably quite harrowing as much of the imagery – even massively abstracted (eg by Thomas Ruff) – is very evocative for anyone who remembers the event first hand.  There is a focus on the repetition and the symbolism with all its resulting hyperreality but like the day itself, there is so much to take in that one quickly becomes befuddled with incredulity and confusion.

Some of the ideas were incredibly clever such as Fontcuberta’s Googlegram photomosaic of images of the twin towers made up of 8,000 images thrown up by searches for ‘god’, ‘yahve’ and ‘allah’.

Inspiration: this exhibition was based around one globally-recognisable image, of the burning towers against the blue sky background, and includes over a dozen brilliant and often wildly different, artistic responses to it.  Don’t be afraid to tackle something that has been done a million times already.

Yan Morvan – Battlefields

This part of the festival really took me by surprise. What looked like a bunch of rather tedious landscapes quickly moved me to tears. The former war photojournalist has travelled around the world photographing scenes of battles from the last 3,500 years. Morvan has captured the timelessness and the natural beauty of over 80 battlefields, showing that conflict can reach everywhere.  The quiet scenes, devoid of human figures, simply placed on green and brown walls, allow for contemplation and it was the accumulation of the images that created such a strong sense of emotion for me.  Where the battles were already known to me, it was a revelation to see the actual site and imagine the unfolding of events and the carnage. But each image was gripping in its own way and the overall effect was to show me something that a camera could not reveal without the collaboration of my imagination, and an insight into war that I would normally quickly turn away from.

Inspiration: this exhibition reached me in a way that most war photography has not and it seems it was an authentic artistic development for Morvan who felt that the genre had become nothing more than ‘infotainment’. It is always worth trying different ways to communicate a message you feel passionate about.

The Hollow of the Hand – PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy

I am a huge fan of PJH and really wanted to be moved by this but it fell short in my opinion.  The combination of the written/spoken word and images was engaging and atmospheric but the piece did not provide me with enough information or time to feel anything much about the places visited. The artists did not seem to add anything I couldn’t have probably guessed about Kosovo or Afghanistan or DC.  PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album is much more evocative, albeit after a few listens. This may be something that required more than just the one viewing.

Maud Sulter – Syrcas

Although I found it hard to relate personally to this series of images, I found myself interested in Sulter’s short life and vision for her art. This work explores the genocide of black Europeans using visual tropes from the Nazis.  Collage always appeals to me, for reasons I have not yet fully identified, and some of these images were quite striking.

Inspiration: for goodness sake, experiment more with collage and photomontage!

Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, Tobias Selnaes Markussen – Phenomena. A Close Encounter with a Reality of Aliens and UFOs.

This was my second favourite exhibition at Arles.  Absolutely fascinating with a wonderful mix of mystery and unknown quantities of fact vs fiction.  The aesthetic and general approach was very anthropological and documentary in style, with a 60s/70s feel. Not all the images were captioned which added to the sense of intrigue and portraits sat alongside pictures of ‘evidence’ such as alien cakes and random bits of rock. The project reminded me of all the things I love about Soth’s Broken Manual. Superb work by an clever team of Danes.

Inspiration: it is fine to make stuff up if you do it well enough. Developing a narrative based on some great ideas and well-researched information can be extremely engaging.

Other work included:

Tear My Bra – a brilliant look at the Nigerian film industry. The work was witty and well-executed.


Radicalia by Piero Martinello – featured religious fanaticism, the mafia and ravers. I liked the idea and the presentation but I don’t think it  really hung together as a concept.  Or maybe the photographs were just not quite good enough.


Christian Marclay – a highly entertaining interactive piece which celebrated abandoned bottles and city pavements; walking through the tunnel allowed the viewer to become part of the installation. Much more fun on the inside than listening to the bottle noises from across the hall.


Maginot Line by Alexandre Guirkinger – didn’t do a lot for me except to make me wonder if I should have done the OCA Landscape module for the 973rd time.

Swinging Bamako – I thought the Cuba connection would make this more interesting to me but it did nothing.

A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission by Peter Mitchell – loved the idea of this but found the execution to be too dry for my taste.  Cool to look at old pictures of Leeds though.

A History of Misogyny, Chapter One, On Abortion by Laia Abril – clearly very important work and superbly done but way too harrowing for me to look at for very long. I am hoping that a lot of people (especially men) gave it plenty of attention.

The Jungle Show by Yann Gross – beautifully presented in a darkened atmospheric room with backlit images. Again, important work looking at lost communities and the impact of globalisation but it did not strike a chord with me.

Fabulous Failures – The Art of Embracing  Serendipity and Mistakes, curated by Erik Kessels – a wonderful collection of eclectic work. Some was ludicrous but funny, some just brilliant and I wish I’d had more energy for this but it was sadly the end of a very hot day.


Final thought:

Cannot bloody wait for next year!


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One Response to Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles 2016

  1. Rob Townsend says:

    Excellent write up and a great reminder of a most enjoyable and educational few days!


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