Good omens, great images: Rencontres d’Arles

The breadth of photographic work at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles festival continues to impress, inform and inspire

This year the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival is focusing on the other great institution of photography based in Arles: the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie (ENSP). The school is now 30 years old, more than enough time for its graduates to have made a mark. Many of the festival’s 60 exhibitions are devoted to photographers educated by ENSP and to the work of several of their teachers. It sounded as though this Rencontres might be a little inward-looking compared to the magnificent sweep of work the festival usually delivers, but in the event it provides a great opportunity to take stock of the ‘French school’ and there is also plenty of photography from elsewhere to enjoy.

Koudelka’s mysteries

As chance would have it, “elsewhere” was where I started, with an exhibition of the great Czech photographer Josef Koudelka’s pictures of gypsies, showing at the Église Sainte-Anne in the centre of town – one of the festival’s perennial pleasures is wandering between the atmospheric venues. I first saw these stunning photographs at the Hayward Gallery’s Koudelka retrospective in 1984 and many have stayed in my mind. They were published in 1975 but not reprinted until last year when Koudelka added many new pictures. For me, they set a benchmark for photography, one never far from my thoughts as I viewed the rest of the festival. Koudelka was trying to document a way of life, to tell human stories, but his pictures always possess another level, a mystery that is not so easily explained, and they are miraculously observed and brilliantly composed images. Tellingly, he resisted the photojournalistic pressure to add captions, beyond the date and place the picture was taken, or to explain his motives and intentions in taking them.

Robots, analogue accidents

The festival’s main site is the Parc des Ateliers, several vast, exquisitely dilapidated sheds formerly used for repairing trains – I watched one visitor ignore the exhibits to concentrate on photographing the networks of scratches on the walls and doors. Most of the ENSP photographers are on show in the Atelier des Forges and the Grande Halle; one or two graduated as recently as last year, though most have more experience. There is no dominant style or set of concerns, nor would one expect this from a school that aims to develop “auteur” photographers. I particularly enjoyed Vincent Fournier’s pictures of spacemen in bleached white space-centre interiors, and his studies of the latest generation of robots, where the machines – one sits reflectively in a reception area – look just as alert and ‘alive’ as their straight-faced, flesh-and-blood supervisors. The pictures tell us something about the techno-world to come and does it with curiosity and humour.

Designers are fascinated by the role of accidents in the creative process and Jean-Christophe Béchet has a whole room full of accidents that have occurred with Kodak photographic film – some photographers still resist digital image-making. He blows up the blurred or double-exposed frames, complete with sprocket holes, to become full-sized, wall-mounted pictures. Béchet suggests that all creative artists relish the moment when chance intervenes and their work slips out of their artistic control. Later, looking at some ENSP student work, I came across a personal statement that perfectly captures the power of the harmoniously resolved accidental image, as well as many consciously taken pictures: “The image is the omen of an absent world scattered with clues like so many signs delivered for interpretation. It is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle you are trying to put together.”

In the meticulously constructed photo-tableaux of Aurore Valade and Grégoire Alexandre, the jigsaw-puzzle mechanics of picture-making become an explicit operational principle, while losing nothing in mystery. Valade makes portraits of people in their homes, “staging their daily lives” by surrounding them with objects and possessions, with the world outside, hinted at by the presence of a newspaper, invariably visible through a window. The photomontage and retouching in the images is seamless. In Alexandre’s collection of studio pictures at the Église des Trinitaires – a festival highlight just a little diminished by his having been extensively shown already in the 2008 Rencontres – artifice and enchantment are the watchwords. In one picture, displayed on a monumental shelf running around the church walls, an only mildly taken aback model confronts a big roll of green paper metamorphosing into a rearing origami unicorn.

Some new discoveries

Every year the festival invites several experts to propose three photographers for the Discovery Award and this year they are all heads of photography departments at other art schools and institutions. They include Olivier Richon, professor of photography at the Royal College of Art in London, whose nominations, all graduates of the college, have an engaging eccentricity, though none seemed an obvious candidate for the prize this year. Nadège Meriau photographs the interiors of foodstuffs such as bread as though they are cavernous illuminated spaces; Regine Petersen documents the effects on witnesses of falling meteorites; and Eva Stenram adapts vintage pin-ups so that curtain backdrops now partially conceal the posing women.

This year’s Discovery Award went to Jonathan Torgovnik, a School of Visual Arts graduate who lives and works in Cape Town, for his portraits of Rwandan women raped and impregnated during the 1994 genocide. Taken in tandem with Torgovnik’s interviews, the pictures of the survivors and their unasked for children are heartrending. This is a case where the supplementary material seems entirely justified, though many of the sitters have a disturbing mien even before one starts reading. Elsewhere in the awards and the festival, there are instances where long, worthy research projects that sound impressive on paper yield visual results of little intrinsic communicative power. High-resolution colour photographs of middle-ground and distant views can be uneventfully bland, whether the subject is a nuclear power station near a village in Korea, or independence ceremonies in South Sudan. These were the moments when my thoughts returned to Koudelka, a photographer who never wastes the viewer’s time with a dull shot. Is it more ‘truthful’ or inherently less manipulative to create conceptually-driven pictures that have nothing memorable about them? A great photograph should surely be able to survive on its own merits.

Looking for clues

The proof of that can be seen in an exhibition of pictures from the archives of Fratelli Alinari, which operated as a family run photographic studio in Florence from 1852 to 1920, before becoming a firm. This magical display features a picture of a hot air balloon with two passengers floating in precise alignment above an industrial chimney while spectators watch from a roof. Another enigmatic sepia image shows two small children done up in their finery and poised on stilts. The sequences of pictures have been organised with great curatorial panache using Tarot cards, by way of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, to generate the visual ‘narratives’. I can’t say whether it makes complete rational sense, but the effect is spellbinding – like metaphysical omens of “an absent world scattered with clues”.

Rencontres was founded in 1969. In 2001, just 9,000 people visited the festival. By 2011, the figure for summer attendance had risen to 84,000 – 11,000 up on the previous year. For a photography lover, it has become one of the world’s great unmissable events.

The Rencontres d’Arles photography festival runs until September 23. Full details on all the exhibitions, events, screenings, and contributing photographers can be found at rencontres-arles.com

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