Rencontres D’Arles: All realities are here

Even in transition the Rencontres D’Arles festival continues to delight with a wide-ranging show of both historic and contemporary photography, says Rick Poynor

This year finds the Rencontres photography festival in Arles in a state of transition. François Hébel, director since 2002, is leaving the post and parts of the festival, drawing on contributions by established collaborators, have a wistfully retrospective air. Hébel has titled this 45th edition ‘Parade’.

At the Parc des Ateliers, the disused railway sheds at the heart of Rencontres, big changes are under way. The Luma Foundation has bought the site from the city and is developing an arts campus with a masterplan by superstar architect Frank Gehry. One of the picturesquely dishevelled sheds, previously a key venue for the Rencontres, is given over to a display of Gehry’s architectural models, while another now houses a new gallery and is no longer available to the festival’s organisers. Two buildings remain at their disposal further into the site, but it was easy to feel, as a regular visitor to Rencontres, that an era is over and that the festival’s capacity for environmental drama has suffered a blow, despite the other venues around the city in old churches and the like. One can only imagine some of the anguished conversations this must have provoked behind the scenes.

Recognising that something needed to be done, the city has come up with an old office block, given the name Bureau DesLices, just off the city’s main boulevard, and this was one of my first ports of call. One heads for the top-floor official entrance and then descends through the exhibitions that occupy the abandoned office units. Two floors are devoted to an extraordinary survey, one of this year’s highlights, focused on Chinese photobooks from the Communist era and after, from the collections of Martin Parr and the Dutch photo-team WassinkLundgren. As co-author of three volumes devoted to the history of the photobook, Parr is established as a vital advocate of the medium. Here, he goes to even greater lengths to demonstrate the importance of the photobook in global photographic culture by opening up a whole new territory for review.

The only snag is getting to see it properly. Hoping, presumably, to add interest to a drab setting, the organisers have plunged the entire building into gloom and then issued every visitor with a torch to peer at the exhibits. After seven years of research effort, it’s hard to believe that Parr was delighted by this ruse. The exhibition is still amazing – books are projected on the walls – but the framed images and the books in vitrines are tiring to decipher, and the same applies to other exhibitions in the building. Next year, we can only hope: no torches.

One of the great satisfactions of visiting Rencontres is the way that it mixes the opportunity to make discoveries in contemporary work with lashings of photographic history; any newcomer to the subject would find it an education.

At the Espace Van Gogh in the centre of town, the entire space is taken over this year by an exhibition about typology, taxonomy and seriality explored through photographs, many of them classics, from the private Walther Collection. The display opens with a brilliant, monochromatic first room devoted to typology, bringing together Karl Blossfeldt’s modernist plant studies and JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s less familiar photo-documents of black women’s intricately braided hairstyles, like pieces of head-borne architecture, seen from the back.

Elsewhere, there are collections of picture postcards of colonial women, of photographs applied to everyday objects such as purses, lamps and shirts, and an exhibition of an American collector’s old pictures of people in groups (sports lovers, firemen, Ku Klux Klan members, etc) that verges – magnificently – on monomania. In one stunning assembly from 1918, 25,000 officers and men form themselves into the shape of a ‘Human Liberty Bell’ for the waiting camera, on a parade ground at Camp Dix, New Jersey. Given what it records, it’s a comparatively small picture, an almost whimsical image, of a gigantic but long-lost expression of collective patriotism. Rencontres constantly reminds you that vernacular photos, which reveal so much about their times, often equal the impact and fascination of pictures produced self-consciously as a form of art.

I had been wandering between exhibitions for a while before it occurred to me that I had seen surprisingly few contemporary pictures. It was time to visit the Discovery Award on the main site, where five photography experts each nominate a couple of photographers. Kechun Zhang from China won the prize this year, and rightly so in my view. Zhang’s pictures of the Yellow River, shot with muted colours, are like scenes from a pale distant planet where life barely impinges in landscapes of startling emptiness. In one photograph, a man contemplates a giant head of Buddha inexplicably dumped in a deserted coal yard. In another, Man Pumping Water in Wasteland, apart from the wading man, there is nothing to see but a sheet of smooth water, miles of 2 3 barren sand and a bleached sky. The imagery might seem bleak, but the stillness gives the scenes a curious optimism, which the photographer of these momentous industrial transformations appears to intend.

Also impressive, because they capture something deeply significant in our time, are Will Steacy’s pictures of the newsroom and printing plant of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as it struggles to deal with the declining circulation that faces all American newspapers. Steacy had family members in the profession and this is partly their story. He tells it with a news journalist’s sense of gravitas and panache in dozens of pictures mounted in a deceptively casual frieze on three walls: part reportage, part collage. It’s moving, full of insight and shot through with a sense of something enormously valuable and beneficial to its community that is inexorably ebbing away.

Next to work like this, the more experimental digital pictures on show in the Discovery Awards, even those with high visual impact, could seem self-indulgent. A chopped up and reassembled version of reality that says more about the artist-photographer than anything else can look enervated set alongside work that stays closer to verifiable events. However questionable photography’s status might have become as a reliable document of reality, there is no gainsaying the facticity of massive re-landscaping or newspaper industry decline. Still, it’s a continuing strength of Rencontres, and an excellent reason to go there, that it allows so many possibilities to be pondered simultaneously in a hugely stimulating tour.

Rick Poynor blogs at observatory.designobserver.com/rickpoynor. For more on the fesitval see rencontres-arles.com

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