At 40, Rencontres still packs a punch

The French photography festival may be 40 this year but, as Rick Poynor finds, it can yet surprise

The Rencontres d’Arles photography festival is 40 years old and this year’s event finds the organisers reflecting wryly and with a justified measure of pride on the sometimes bumpy journey. The 40th festival divides into two broad themes. In 40 Years of Rencontres, which includes the annual Discovery Award, we meet photographers who have a long acquaintance with Rencontres, many of whom espoused photo­graphic principles that seemed unassailable when the festival began. There were protests and walk-outs when the first large-format colour pictures and digital images appeared on Rencontres’ walls in the 1980s.

40 Years of Disruption shows photo­graphers who challenged the old traditions. In 1987, the festival presented one of the earliest European exhibitions of Nan Goldin’s work, and she has been invited back to show her photographs, curate a selection of photographers she admires, and exhibit pictures from her own enviably extensive private collection.

It might sound like a mishmash, but the great pleasure of Rencontres is that the sheer number of exhibitions – 66 this year – means there will always be surprises as you criss-cross this beautiful, relaxed town, where summer tourism remains at a civilised level, visiting shows in historic buildings, decommissioned churches and old industrial spaces.

After decades of debate, photo­graphy has acquired an increasingly secure artistic status in the last 20 years, to the point where art historian Michael Fried can argue, in a recent book, that photography now ‘matters as art as never before’. The photo­graphers who founded and supported the early Rencontres came from the photojournalistic tradition and they could rely on magazines and news­papers to publish their work. As these opportunities declined, the book and gallery became the primary outlets for many photographers. Art photo­graphy’s aims are often antithetical to those of photojournalism and the widening gulf between the two modes of practice can be seen in Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art, which repeatedly implies that art photography is a more considered and serious endeavour than photojournalism – “a snap-happy, shoot-from-the-hip response to unfolding events”.

That sounds like a plausible summary only until you revisit some of the work that defined this allegedly casual and thoughtless tradition. This year, Rencontres pays tribute to one of the masters of mid-century humanist French photography, Willy Ronis, now 99. Ronis’s absorbing exhibition at the Église Sainte-Anne, which includes classic pictures of two boys playing on a moving barge, far from adults’ watchful eyes, and a weary worker with silicosis gazing out of a window, is one of the festival’s undoubted highlights.

Equally impressive are the photo­graphic achievements of publisher and creative director Robert Delpire, subject of several exhibitions in Arles. Delpire studied medicine before, still only 23, starting Neuf magazine, where he made all the right connec­tions and ran pictures by Brassaï and George Rodger. In 1958, his company, Delpire, was first to publish Robert Frank’s The Americans, now an acknowledged masterpiece. Delpire went on to co-found the National Centre of Photography in Paris, which mounted 150 exhibitions and launched the superb Photo Poche monograph series, published these days by Actes Sud in Arles (available in the UK as Photofile from Thames & Hudson).

The photography of that era stands up so well because it offers frequently remarkable images of ordinary activities and extraordinary events captured in inventive and unfamiliar ways. The best pictures are unpretentious yet full of depth: they reveal something engaging or moving about their subjects and, decades later, this continues to resonate with us. “Photography is a way of looking. You’ve either got it or you haven’t,” says Ronis with unfashionable bluntness. It was striking this year to see how, even now, plenty of the most exciting images continue to operate within the supposedly suspect tradition of reportage. In the Discovery section, Don McNeill Healy, a young Irish photographer, exhibited 96 Pigeon House Road, a series following the life of a family of travellers in Dublin. He uses garish colour with controlled expressive brilliance. Eugene Richards, well known for his black-and-white pictures of social and urban subjects, spent three years on America’s back roads, photographing abandoned homes in states like Nebraska, Arkansas and Wyoming. His pictures of discarded possessions – his first in colour, published as The Blue Room in 2008 – offer an obliquely mournful memorial of decline.

Palestinian photographer Raed Bawayah’s portraits of patients at a mental hospital in Bethlehem form a similarly engaged project in support of an excluded and overlooked category of people. “Viewing the photos does not require intellectual training,” says Bawayah, “even the illiterate can be touched by them and understand the cause they support.” The studies of Lithuanian village life by Rimaldas Viksraitis, who won this year’s Discovery Award, present a mind-boggling – ‘slightly insane’ says Martin Parr, who nominated Viksraitis – picture of country folk who appear to spend much of their time cheek by jowl with their farmyard animals, naked, groping each other, or drunk. This might sound exploitative, but these are Viksraitis’s friends and neighbours. The pictures are not judgemental, most viewers will never have seen anything like them, and they document a warm, grimily real, pre-technological way of life.

Parr himself has devised – with a much less forgiving eye – a slideshow titled Luxury, itemising the parties, art fairs and race meetings attended by the international super-rich in Moscow, Dubai, Beijing and closer to home. Supported by a layered soundtrack by sound artist Caroline Cartier, with the persistent buzzing of flies, Parr delivers an up-close-and-intrusively-personal exposé of the moneyed classes quaffing champagne, puffing on huge cigars and jabbering away on mobiles while sporting outlandish Dior sunglasses. Given the current global economic conditions, Luxury is timely, daring, remorselessly revealing and a lot more provocative than the deadpan style favoured by the art world, which is much less evident in the festival this year.

While Parr’s pictures need buckets of gaudy colour to achieve their satirical effect, there were signs across Arles that black and white might be making some kind of come­back. It’s doubtful that Viksraitis’s scenes of rural abandon would be quite as palatable without the aesthetic distance and formal unification that monochrome confers, while the hazy, dissolving, black-and-white images of Jean-François Spricigo, another award nominee, make even a small child or snowman look phantasmal and sinister. Introducing her private collection of pictures, ravishingly displayed in a church, Nan Goldin notes her prefer­ence for black and white, although she used colour in breakthrough work such as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) – revisited here as a slideshow, alongside a recent slide-based piece, Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, about the suicide of her sister Barbara in the 1960s after time in psychiatric institutions.

At 40 minutes long, it was certainly powerful. But Goldin’s style of personal disclosure doesn’t allow much room to feel anything but sympathy for Nan, who is even shown self-harming in some pictures. She jacks up the impact with a lachrymose soundtrack. When Nick Cave’s The Weeping Song started after Barbara lies down on a railway track, a woman in the audience startled everyone by wailing in the dark with chilling dismay. No one could say the 40th Rencontres lacks emotional punch.

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