I spent a little less than three days at the Rencontres d’Arles this year and so didn’t manage to get to see everything (I suspect you really need at least twice as much time), but I saw almost everything that I had originally planned to, and believe that on balance I spent my time reasonably wisely.

Index of exhibition reviews

I saw 20 or so exhibitions, and found enough of interest in about two-thirds of these to write up short reviews. I’ve grouped them here in loose categories of my own invention.

Career retrospectives:

Big names:

Group shows:

Documentary (-ish):

Conceptual:

Overall impressions

This was only my second visit to the festival so I only have one iteration to compare it to, but overall I found it to be almost but not quite as mind-expanding as the first (or perhaps one’s first is always the most memorable?). I came away from Arles 2016 blown away by one particular exhibition (Eamonn Doyle’s) that was unlike any I’d seen before, but 2017 didn’t deliver such a singular highlight, rather a handful of impressive shows that opened my mind to photographic possibilities I’d not previously considered. The festival programme is grouped into themes, albeit quite loosely. My own observations of emerging themes would be:

  • A little more documentary-based work than last year; a little less what one might consider fine art or conceptual work
  • A number of group shows featuring photographers from particular countries
  • An increased prevalence of video work in various forms (whole projects; parts of projects; ‘making of’ explainers) that I have mixed feelings about

A realisation that struck me towards the end of my time there was that I get the most out of Arles when I see genuinely new and innovative work; the shows that made the least impression on me were the archive shows featuring historic work by big-name photographers (Meyerowitz; Liebovitz; Surrealism). I think for future visits I may make this insight one of my guiding principles when planning my itinerary. The only exception to this indifference to the archive would be Fukase – because his work was new to me.

Highlights

With the benefit of a week’s hindsight, three exhibitions stand out as being the most interesting and inspirational of the festival, two for a similar reason. Both the Masahisa Fukase and Michael Wolf retrospectives taught me that one can look at one subject any number of ways, and there is no need to stick with your first execution, or indeed to choose just one.

Many of the Fukase projects but most notably Ravens demonstrated that he could approach the same subject matter from multiple angles, for as long as his curiosity continued; Wolf has found countless ways of making life in cities look unusual and striking.

The third and quite different highlight would be David Fathi‘s The Last Road of the Immortal Woman, an incredibly dense and multi-layered work that only features 10 images but pulls you in deep.

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Practical takeaways

My current photographic fascination is the defacement (digital or physical) of photographs to obscure parts of the image, as this fits in with my ongoing search for visual metaphors for forgetting. With my perception filters open for this phenomenon I spotted it everywhere, and collected several examples of technique that could provide some inspiration for my work in progress.

On a broader point, I am increasingly realising that as a viewer I am interested in an image for one (or ideally both) of two reasons:

  • I am already interested in the subject matter…
  • … or the image is visually compelling in its own right.

An interesting aesthetic can make me more interested in the subject of the photograph, but if your subject is outside my normal sphere of interest (e.g. life in Iran) and the image is unremarkable, I will likely walk past it. Flipping this notion round from being a viewer to being a creator, I must keep in mind that photography is a visual art and if I want my images to earn the viewer’s attention then I must keep visual interest uppermost in my mind.