This year’s Rencontres d’Arles is a fabulous, bejewelled beast of a photography festival. Spread across the picturesque Provençal city, a place of sleepy, sun-baked, winding streets, it runs this year to more than 60 exhibitions at 22 venues. They say you can get around the festival in three days, but if you did it that fast many of the thousands of images on show would be reduced to a blur. I spent two weeks in Arles and had the luxury of taking in the exhibitions at a more comfortable pace. There was time to go back and look at things again once the shape of the festival had become clear.
I have to confess to some disappointment when I heard that Christian Lacroix, doyen of French fashion, was this year’s guest director. It seemed to promise an orgy of fashion photographs seen from an insider’s point of view that could quickly grate on the nerves. But, as Lacroix himself declares with every justification, anyone expecting a “fashionista festival” will be disappointed. His Rencontres is much broader than that. Lacroix, who grew up in Arles (the festival is quite self-consciously a homecoming), emerges as a man of complex interests and tastes, with a detailed knowledge and understanding of photographic culture. “Emptiness, absence, presence, eroticism, violence, anxiety” is how he sums up – accurately – one photographer he has invited to exhibit. He commends another for his “zen-like laser simplicity that defines contemporary poetry”. Lacroix studied literature and the history of art and wanted to be a museum curator or a theatrical costume designer before falling into fashion by accident. While Les Rencontres does include plenty of material drawn from his métier, it is presented with a level of reflection that genuinely illuminates the field.
There is also an engaging ambivalence. Lacroix seems haunted by the idea that the whole glorious, exuberant, tinselly, apparently life-loving parade might be empty and meaningless. This emerges most clearly in a cluster of exhibitions at the festival’s centre in the cloisters of Saint-Trophime, where the statues have faces eaten away by time. Here, Lacroix shows a series of 23 pictures titled In Memory of the Late Mr and Mrs Comfort by Richard Avedon, a disenchanted farewell to the fashion world, first published in 1995 in the New Yorker. A beautiful model cavorts with a debonair skeleton. Clad in Gaultier, Karan, Miyake and Lacroix, they flaunt their wealth and literally burn money until disillusion enters their narcissistic paradise and the idyll must end. A curator suggests that these images are in “harmonious dialogue” with Lacroix’s festival programme – an invitation to read their disquiet as a kind of key.
In a barrel-vaulted chamber, we encounter unearthly pictures by Lacroix’s regular collaborator, British photographer Katerina Jebb, whose layered scans entomb disturbed and tormented models in ornamental finery. “I have a particular fondness for these autopsy-like images,” confides Lacroix. On the edge of town, at the Atelier de Mécanique, Lacroix the art historian includes a set of technically brilliant still lifes of skulls by Guido Mocafico, a Swiss Italian who works in Paris, based on 17th-century paintings to which they bear an uncanny resemblance. In a neighbouring exhibition by Grégoire Alexandre, another of Lacroix’s guests, the photographer has inserted defiant (or is it taunting?) pink blooms into the eye sockets of a bleached white death’s head. Improbable as it may seem, these modern-day memento mori were one of the festival’s most insistent leitmotifs – Alexandre’s was chosen for a postcard.
In Variations on the Model, a historical display of fashion pictures staged several kilometres out of town at the abbey of Montmajour, the curator observes that the model is dying off now, only the form of the body survives and there can be no revival. Metaphorically at least, there may be some truth in it. The models in Jebb’s autumn/winter 2008/09 prêt-à-porter campaign for Lacroix, previewed in a collage-like exhibition about Maison Lacroix’s way of working, look stricken and enervated. Meanwhile, as the From the Street to the Blog exhibition shows, these days much of the most inspiring fashion is found and photographed informally in the street.
Of course, this is to single out and draw connections between just a few of the festival’s torrent of images. Any sense that there might be some overarching themes of particular concern to Lacroix takes shape only gradually. Although the exhibitions are numbered for convenience, there is no set order to view them and much of the pleasure comes from stumbling across these attractive venues as you go about the city. Several of the exhibitions – Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi, The Still Life at Vogue – occupy abandoned churches. I can’t quite believe in the faux heroic bohemianism of Lindbergh’s moody, monochrome pictures of supermodels like Kristen McMenamy, shot on Beauduc beach in Provence, but the over-scaled pictures certainly work well against the dilapidated grandeur of the Église des Frères-Précheurs.
The five decommissioned workshops and halls at the Parc des Ateliers, formerly used to build and repair trains, make an even more exciting backdrop for the festival. These are huge industrial spaces atmospherically lit by coloured skylights, with magnificent old roof structures of wood and iron, where the exhibitions can be as big as they need to be. Temporary walls divide these enclosures into four or five display zones, each one the size of a substantial exhibition. Frank Gehry has now been commissioned by Luma Foundation and the city of Arles to develop an architectural masterplan, mixing new buildings with the best of the old. Les Rencontres will be headquartered there in future.
As diverse as Lacroix’s guests are in their subject matter and styles, they share an impulse to construct their images. Even the most ‘documentary’ photographs – Vanessa Winship’s pictures of school girls from Eastern Anatolia, Charles Fréger’s uniformed guards – are posed according to the prevailing convention as formal portraits. Françoise Huguier’s series of pictures of communal apartments in St Petersburg heighten their grimy realism with lurid splashes of colour. Her portraits of an occupant called Natacha, often seen semi-naked in her room, sullen, sultry, close to giving up, but alive with a sense of unfulfilled potential, are intimate collaborations between the women over time. The desperate, kitchen-sink theatricality gains enormously from the installation, with one room leading to another in approximation of the dark, claustrophobic interior where they were shot. Another Me: Transformation from Pain into Power, Achinto Bhadra’s remarkable series of therapeutic portraits of Indian girls and women who have survived trafficking and abuse, enlists the subjects’ full involvement to create dramatic, intensely moving personas that express their feelings, using masks, face paint and other props.
Here, the fantastical image, turning oneself into a vengeful spirit or a benevolent deity, becomes a form of self-liberation. The idea of the fantastic informs many of these pictures. Tim Walker, regularly seen in the pages of Vogue, creates wonderland tableaux, frequently involving Lily Cole, perfectly cast as the otherworldly girl, which immediately conjure up memories of Lewis Carroll, JM Barrie and Cecil Beaton’s pictures. Walker repeatedly reworks the surrealist trick of bringing the outside inside – tents fill a living-room floor – or taking the inside outside, where he hangs dresses from trees, like glowing lanterns, or perches antique beds on the roofs of old cars. This world of artifice, illusion and nostalgic delight for summers long past is entirely untouched by the intimations of entropy and finitude seen in Avedon, Mocafico or Alexandre, and for that reason, despite their appeal as fantasies, Walker’s pictures feel less true.
Alexandre has used the ‘otherness’ of Lily Cole in his pictures, too, but the slippages and displacements in the scenes he constructs look elegantly dysfunctional rather than dreamily ecstatic. He aspires, he says, to create “spaces in which reality merges with abstraction, dialectical/paradoxical games with a marked fantastic side to them and narratives for which we do not possess the key”. In one recent picture, a model leans against a wooden frame, voluntarily submitting to the encumbrance of a crudely fashioned device that serves no practical purpose. The constraining armature of fashion, its absurd and impossible demands for an ideal of beauty and presence that transfigures the everyday, appears to be the subject here, the very act of submission to its discipline making possible what Alexandre calls “a floating world propitious to dreams and random wanderings”. In the Discovery award exhibition, American photographer Marla Rutherford achieves something similar in her hyperreal studies of models in fetishwear, investing ordinary settings – a motel roof, a breakfast table – with the sense of an alternative, amplified reality where anything might happen.
Yet the fantastic can also be discovered in the everyday. It is not even necessary to manipulate reality – we just need to look at it differently. Unwanted wedding pictures by Jean-Christian Bourcart, a former wedding photographer turned photojournalist, show how the most conventional occasions can become the source of accidental wonder, as in the spectral image of a man on a bench watching himself kissing his bride. In this and other pictures, Bourcart treats his own archive as a kind of found photography resource, returning years later to these cast-off images with an eye alert to the possibility of marvels. Even professionals are in thrall to the idea that some of the strangest, most affecting photographs are taken by ordinary people. The lack of know-how or guile seems to guarantee their authenticity. Both of the festival’s photography book awards, decided during the opening week by visiting experts, went to titles pieced together from found, amateur material: Michael Abrams’ Strange and Singular, an associative essay in pictures, and Ed Jones and Timothy Prus’ Nein, Onkel: Snapshots from Another Front, 1938–1945, showing Nazi soldiers at leisure. These books are feats of picture-editing rather than photography. That’s a bracing message to send to colleagues toiling in the field to create original work.
One of the festival’s most extraordinary spectacles – the show I most wanted to see – is a found photography project that has acquired almost legendary status. Joachim Schmid’s ever-expanding Pictures from the Street is shown in its entirety, 914 sheets pinned up in a neat line around the cavernous breeze block walls of the Atelier de Mécanique. Schmid began his collection in Hamburg, in August 1982, when he picked up two discarded photobooth pictures of a man with a moustache. By the end of the year, he had found only three pieces, but he kept on going. By 1986, he was on a roll – he picked up 14 that year. The pictures come from anywhere he happens to be: Lisbon, São Paulo, Barcelona, Berlin (where he lives), New York, Albuquerque, Paris, Arles, even Haywards Heath. Many of them have been torn into pieces. Schmid assembles the fragments as best he can and presents the numbered pictures in chronological order. The final image, a bride embracing her mother, is dated June 2008, shortly before the festival opened.
The experience of viewing all these lost and rejected photos is overwhelming. After two or three hundred, it’s hard to take any more in. What do these images mean? There is a violent energy in the way they are torn to shreds, as Schmid points out, though this is intensified by sticking them back together again. But are they really “desperate attempts to purge memory”, as one critic suggests? While these pictures didn’t mean much to the people who tried to destroy them – too bad they’d never heard about found photography – their circumstances and narratives must remain a mystery. What matters now is what, if anything, we bring to them as viewers. Above all, Schmid’s random sequence of photographic fragments represents in microcosm the inconceivably vast flood of photographic images that swirls through every moment of our lives. While many images are charged with meaning for us as individuals, many more mean nothing. This brilliantly conceived festival – a triumph for Lacroix and the organisers – offers superb opportunities to dive into the flow. Some insist that photography is finished. That’s not how it looks this year in Arles.
The festival runs until September 14 2008. For more information on Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie, go to rencontres-arles.com