Gem Fletcher on Les Rencontres d’Arles

Art Director Gem Fletcher visits the major annual photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, which this year focuses on the evolving role of photography in tackling the major issues facing humanity

“What is unique about this medium is that it’s a dialogue between the artist and life. The ordinary moments of life,” says English photographer Paul Graham from a small stage in the corner of a disused gothic church in the centre of Arles. “Life doesn’t come at you in a perfect sequence; we experience things from unusual angles and points of view”, he adds. It’s fitting that these are the first words I hear at the 49th Arles photography festival.

The Whiteness of the Whale brings together three bodies of work produced by Graham in the US between 1998-2011. Linked by their common subject matter, underlying issues including race, social inequality and the texture of everyday life, he questions the nature of sight, perception and photography itself. Most resonant is American Night where the photographer chronicles his first impression of the US. Through the combination of nearly invisible, overexposed images of the ignored and dispossessed and full-colour photographs of middle-class homes in California, Graham is questioning how we edit out of life, the things we don’t want to see. The contrast between abundance and invisibility, between full colour and an almost blank frame, is disarming. The exhibition astutely recognises how photography can mimic a state of mind in the world.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire