[needs editing / pics adding but review-wise this is now complete]
I have three days to take in as much of Arles 2018 as I can cope with, and I’ve decided to write up my notes day by day while they’re still fresh in my mind. I may go back and re-edit these notes after the whole thing is over. Maybe I’ll have new insights, or spot themes/connections, or something.
Day 1 was half a day really, so I toured all the exhibitions closest to the town centre (being practical about time constraints, my itinerary is organised geographically rather than thematically or in any priority order). Here are my notes per exhibitions, in the order I saw them. Photos will be added when I get on wifi!
René Burri: “The Imaginary Pyramids”, Salle Henri-Comte, Arles
The first thing I saw was probably the one with the most obvious connections to / inspirations for my Body of Work. The basic premise is that Burri saw the pyramids in Egypt in the fifties and became fascinated with the triangular form. This set is a combination of different treatments of his original pyramid photos (e.g. collages) and photos of scenes and objects that, to a greater or lesser degree, resemble or at least remind him of his beloved pyramids. Thus he sees triangles everywhere, from obvious shapes such as bunting or tents to more obtuse or ambiguous subjects such as shafts of light, or a one-legged man on crutches.
Though a small exhibition, I really took a lot from it. The connection I saw to my own work is this: he observed, isolated and selected a particular shape. I am kind of doing the same thing, albeit in my case the shape is a physical object rather than implied, as some of his triangles are. But I felt an affinity with the working method – seeing, framing, capturing something that one becomes attuned to see in public.
“HOPE, a Collaborative Perspective” (group show), Foundation Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, Arles
From the catalogue: “HOPE, a Collaborative Perspective explores the formal possibilities of the image as document and the document as an agent of knowledge and understanding of contemporary issues. HOPE presents photography as an experience, a sharing. It presents the work of people who have chosen to create images, sometimes in parallel with their professions, to influence their lives and environment.”
The main installation is “My story is a story of hope” by Patrick Willocq, a body of work on how a French village coped with an influx of asylum seekers. It’s a bold and ambitious set of images, huge and complex tableaux that at first glance you think must be digitally composited, but no – intricate physical sets were built for the 41 villagers and 23 refugees to perform roles with symbolic resonance.
Alongside these giant murals are portraits of the participants and, most strikingly, an installation made of life-jackets covering one wall and spiralling up a staircase. You do get a genuine sense of hope from the collaboration, and that’s a rare emotion evoked by this kind of subject matter.
Two smaller sets in the group show made an impression on me for different reasons.
Firstly, and like with the Willocq project, Omar Imam’s series “Syrialism” is concerned with refugees, specifically their post-escape lives and how they think about the situations they escaped. Imam constructs surreal (hence the pun title) scenes built around testimonial texts that are presented along with the photo. They range from mundane (“I found myself eating meat again”) to incredibly chilling (“God sent me a message in a magical moment. He wanted me to stop beheading people”). The images themselves are quite striking, for the most part, but the pairing with the text takes it to a higher level. This is another (loose) connection to my own current work: finding the balance where the images are successful in a self-contained visual sense and yet the text adds an extra layer of meaning.
Secondly, John Hall’s “Puro Pueblo”. This is a set of images from the protest movement in Chile in the early 1970s. I wasn’t impressed so much by the images themselves as the presentation format: large concertina prints placed on shelves. This is a presentation approach I don’t believe I’ve seen before, and it suits the subject matter really well – I think perhaps it’s the resemblance to newsprint. They feel more immediate than framed prints would, even though the material is 40- odd years old. Interesting how presentation methods can change the reading of a series.
William Wegman: “Being Human”,Palais de l’Archevêché, Arles
This was on my must-see list, not only because it’s one of the ‘headliners’ (a Wegman photo is the main promo image for the festival) but because in my non-study life I am a dog photographer – so this work kind of crosses over between my commercial and creative lives, which I found intriguing. There was much more breadth of style than I expected, although I found it an exhibition of two halves: whilst his whole body of work is based around his Weimaraners, his most famous images are those where the dogs are dressed as humans. I found these a little demeaning to the dogs, a sense not helped by the fact that the dogs sport the same deadpan expression in every shot – they just look like they might not be enjoying the charade. Yes, I know I’m projecting.
However, while those images left me a little cold, his other sets were much more interesting – he displays an interest in art history, and has used his canine muses for various portraiture series emulating artistic styles (e.g. cubism, constructivism, abstract expressionism). These I found to be much more visually engaging than the dressing-up box ones. Overall a good exhibition, albeit in a ‘mainstream’ kind of way. Probably of more use to the commercial photography side of my life at the moment, though it does make me more confident that in future the two worlds might not be so separate (i.e. that including dogs in art projects has potential).
Baptiste Rabichon: “En Ville”, Cloître Saint-Trophime, Arles
This year’s BMW Residency winner, and I confess I’m as baffled as I was with last year’s. Rabichon takes images of urban French apartment balconies with plants and mashes them up in experimental collages. The resulting images are very chaotic yet tonally quite samey (dark greens). There’s something in there about humanity’s relationship to nature, but I found the execution not to my taste and so struggled to engage with it.
Gregor Sailer: “The Potemkin Village”, Cloître Saint-Trophime, Arles
A “Potemkin Village” basically means a fake one, with facades standing in for real buildings. Sailer has travelled around various countries photographing these curios. It’s a thoughtful comment on the predominance of fakery in modern society – quite topical with ‘fake news’ and all that, yet also linking to decades of theory going back to Debord.
The images are nice enough but it all seemed quite derivative, as I remembered I’d seen this idea explored by a British photographer who looked at police training grounds (a fellow student tells me I meant Sarah Pickering’s Public Order). If I hadn’t seen that first I’m sure I’d have been more impressed with Sailer’s work.
Jonas Bendiksen: “The Last Testament”, Eglise Sainte-Anne, Arles
Bendiksen found seven men around the world claiming to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, and gained access to photograph six of them. The result is series of documentary-style images with a slightly uneven tone. Some of it comes across as quirky and endearing while other parts straddle the line of exploiting people who are potentially mentally unstable – the comparison that kept springing to mind was a Louis Theroux documentary. The section on David Shaylor (former MI5 whistleblower) in particular was problematic: the scenes where he takes on his female alter- ego resemble a grotesque parody of trangenderism. Bendiksen claims to take his subjects seriously but it doesn’t always come across that way to me. And yet purely visually, this section gave me one of the more memorable images of the festival so far, a close-cropped portrait of Shaylor looking upwards wearing distinctive goggles.
Robert Frank: “Sidelines”, Espace Van Gogh, Arles
Simply put, this is a collection of Frank’s lesser-known work – his early work outside the USA and a set of images from the time of The Americans: a selection of iconic images included in the book and some outtakes that didn’t make the edit. The earlier work I found quite different to his more famous output: more ‘straight’ photography with a sharper eye for framing, composition, focus and other technical qualities that seem to be deprioritised for a ‘mood’ later in his career. The subject matter is more novel too – one gets used to seeing images of 1950s USA but see less of, say, 1950s Switzerland. Saying his early compositions are more precise than his later work doesn’t necessarily mean they are less visually engaging – he had a flair for positioning shapes and lines in the frame, and it’s almost a shame that he changed style so much.
The Americans expanded edit is curious. I usually expect such ‘outtake’ selections to be inherently less engaging than the known project, as (a) the famous images have had time to settle into their iconic status, and (b) there’s usually a good reason why the outtakes were excluded in the first place. This set met the former point but not the latter – almost all of the unearthed shots I could see fitting into the original book; none were identifiably ‘inferior’ or wouldn’t have fit in terms of tone or flow. A handful were, to me, better than some of the images that did make the original cut.
Raymond Depardon: “USA 1968–1999”, Espace Van Gogh, Arles
This has the misfortune of being shown next door to the similarly-themed but superior Frank exhibition. While covering a later time period, Depardon’s work is black and white documentary work taken across the USA, so the comparisons are hard to avoid. A lot of Depardon’s images here are quite ordinary – he doesn’t show much of a distinct photographic style. I found this a little disappointing as I’ve recently seen two Depardon shows elsewhere (mainly his work in Europe and notably France) and found his work in those to be much more interesting visually. Maybe the USA just wasn’t the best subject matter for him. While there are a few individually interesting images, I actually found myself liking the blue paint on the gallery walls more than most of the photos.
As an aside, while I generally appreciate the Arles tradition of selecting one or more countries to focus on per festival – last year’s Iran shows were particularly memorable – I was a little disappointed to see the USA being chosen this year. It’s hardly under-represented in the world of photography.
“The Hobbyist” (group show), Eglise des Trinitaires
Nominally covering the very broad subject of “hobbies”, this is a bit of a mish-mash that doesn’t really work. Presentation-wise it is very eclectic too; this approach can work if there is a coherent thread or sense of message coming through, but I just found it to be a bit ‘all over the place’. Ironically it failed (for me) to get across the passion and enthusiasm of being really into a particular hobby. I can’t get excited about photos of hobbies I’m not excited about (angling, collections baseball cards, skateboarding etc). Most of the photos are taken by hobbyists rather than photographers, and those so close to a subject can’t always communicate its nature to ‘outsiders’.
Many of the photos, especially the British ones, had that familiar deadpan, slightly satirical (perhaps unintentionally) style to them. But they were all a bit sub-Parr, if you know what I mean (I don’t expect I’m the first to have thought of that particular pun).
I was thinking about why I had engaged with this so little and I think it’s this: it showed hobbies, not hobbyists. I think if the images were more OF hobbyists than BY hobbyists then it may have had wider appeal, or at least had a cohesive thread running through it. In the end it’s just too loose a theme to hold it all together, and the human connection that could have been its backbone was missing.
Pasha Rafiy: “Bad News”, Chapelle de la Charité, Arles
Medium format environmental portraits interspersed with empty street scenes. It’s all technically excellent but I found it hard to see much of a thread or a point. Unremarkable.
Laurianne Bixhain: “On the Other End”, Chapelle de la Charité, Arles
Experimental, abstract images produced by (I think) vintage photographic methods. Difficult to really engage with – a very small set of images and dark, uninspiring aesthetic.
Feng Li: “White Night”, Maison des Lices, Arles
Idiosyncratic street photography in urban China. Li has a good eye not only for quirky (classic street photography) moments and juxtapositions, but also for distinctive compositions, vantage points and framing. He’s good at finding the unusual view on an everyday scene or object.
Yingguang Guo: “The Bliss of Confirmity”, Maison des Lices, Arles
Mixed media/genre look at arranged marriages in China. Some documentary images sit side-by- side with a wall-sized installation of ‘wife ads’. Less successful for me were the abstract- conceptual images alluding to the nature of arranged marriages, although overall I applaud the approach of using differing artistic strategies to approach the same subject matter.
“An Unusual Attention” (group show) Maison des Lices, Arles
Three graduates from ENSP selected by the Arles organisers to represent contemporary photography. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, all three were a case of Emperor’s new clothes for me.
Rémi Fernandez delivered a series of snapshots (presentation included a set of 6×4”s on a tabletop with a mini photocopier next to it, telling visitors to make their own copies…) of what you might call ‘subcultures’ living on the fringes of society – the kind of thing I’ve seen many, many times before, and I couldn’t see anything new in his version.
Victor Jaget’s work is also in what you might call a vernacular style and, on paper, it’s a set I should be interested in at this point in my practice, sharing as it does the subject matter of objects. However, his images of bollards, fruit bowls and the like are just unremarkable – nothing in the lighting, composition, juxtapositions, symbolism, framing, sequencing or indeed any other aspect of photography jumped out at me. Perhaps I’m missing something.
Prune Phi’s work was probably the most interesting of the three but also the least photographic, being mostly paint and found-photo collage. I’m not necessarily a purist when it comes to art photography mixing media and genre, but this seemed to feature so little photography as to be an odd choice for this festival. It’s definitely art, but is it photography? ;-)
“1968, What a Story!” (group show), Croisière, Arles
I wasn’t initially sure how much of an impression this was going to make on me, as the events of 1968 are for me “history” rather than “the past” (i.e. happened before I was born – just). This was based on a preconception that it would all be straight documentary photography – but I was pleasantly surprised that new approaches and non-traditional vantage points made the whole subject come alive in a way I hadn’t expected.
The most visually interesting work was by Marcelo Brodsky, who took documentary photographs of the protests (in France and elsewhere) and overpainted and overwrote them with additional layers of information or emotion. The end results are vibrant meta-narratives that manage to project both forwards and backwards in time to give a deeper kind of communication than a standard photograph can provide.
The other interesting set was from the Paris police archives, and beyond the live action shots of rioting – visually familiar, even if from a different viewpoint to usual – the really fascinating material was the aftermath shots cataloguing damage to property, vehicles and street infrastructure. These have an eerie calm air to them, devoid of the kind of emotion coursing through the riot scenes. To me these aftermath shots, in a sense, say more about the sudden rupture in society than the riot scenes themselves do.
Jane Evelyn Atwood and Joan Colom: “Public Space”, Croisière, Arles
This is one of those ‘in dialogue’ exhibitions that pairs thematically similar bodies of work. Atwood in Paris in the 1970s and Colom in Barcelona in the 1990s both turned their attention to red light districts, in the case of the former, specifically the transgender scene in the Pigalle neighbourhood. There’s little particularly remarkable about any of the images, to be honest. The usual ethical questions about exploiting the less fortunate spring to mind with many of these shots. Neither photographer seems to find anything new to say, or a new way to say it.
Lucas Olivet: “Kopiec Bonawentura”, Croisière, Arles
Olivet has taken a Polish legend and used it as a jumping-off point to create an imagined version of Poland that just happens to be scattered around the globe. What emerges is, in one sense, a story of immigration and integration, but in another is a collection of Polish clichés. Although I suppose when any nationality builds a community within another country, it brings a distilled version of itself, which is naturally risking resembling a stereotype.
“Prix Pictet Celebrates its Laureates” (group show), Croisière, Arles
This is basically a ‘greatest hits’ show from the seven Prix Pictet prizes awarded over the last decade: Benoit Aquin, Valérie Belin, Luc Delahaye, Mitch Epstein, Nadav Kandar, Richard Mosse and Michael Schmidt. Most of the works are intensely serious in subject matter and spectacular in scope and scale, and one gets an idea of the kind of photography that the judges seem to be looking for – although maybe it’s time they broadened their horizons a little? If not, one could play a ‘guess the next Prix Pictet Laureate’ game with a reasonably high degree of certainty.
Different to the rest is the Michael Schmidt work on the food industry – more small-scale, more subtle. It made me want to see more of his work.
The other notable work was the most recent, the Richard Mosse infrared work on refugees – stunning to see up close. Again I’d like to see a bigger body of this work.
Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais: “Midnight at the Crossroads”, Croisière, Arles
This is a poetic, visually stunning documentary series looking at African spirituality across Benin, Cuba, Brazil and Haiti. What comes across is a realisation that there is a world of spirituality beyond the ‘major religions’ and – frankly, theirs look a lot more interesting than ours. The images are beautifully lit and composed, and Middel and Morais avoid too much overt ‘othering’ in their compositions and selections (appreciating that this is a subjective concept).
Adel Abdessemed: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Croisière, Arles
This chap comes across as more of a prankster than a photographer. Most of the shots here are of him in the same street outside his Paris studio, with family members or his agent, doing ‘outrageous’ things. Wild animals are brought onto the street for his shoots, though they don’t do much; he seems to just want to get a photo of a lion on a Paris street. He might believe he has a vivid imagination but on the basis of these works, his ambitions are quite uninspiring. The one thing here that I thought did stand out as a ‘serious’ piece was his sculptural recreation of ‘Napalm Girl’, inaccessible behind a glass screen and casting an oversized shadow on the wall (metaphor alert).
Christophe Loiseau: “The Right to the Image”, Croisière, Arles
A series of portraits of prison inmates investigating notions of self-image. Loiseau met with each subject to discuss how they saw themselves and wanted to be portrayed, and called the end results ‘portrait-stories’. Significant limitations placed on the shoots by the authorities made Loiseau and his subjects use initiative to get the shots they wanted. It works really well – Loiseau gained enough of the subjects’ trust to get them to open up about they saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen. I guess this concept would feasibly work in other contexts but it’s particularly pertinent in this situation, where “prisoner” risks over-writing all other self- identifications. A quietly powerful set of portraits.
Géraldine Lay: “North End”, Croisière, Arles
On paper I wouldn’t have guessed it could work so well, but it’s a triumph: a French photographer shoots in British cities (mainly but not exclusively in the north, hence the name) and captures a real sense of British life. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see us so clearly? (It reminded me a little of the Strange and Familiar exhibition I saw a couple of years ago, on the same premise). Lay has such a great eye for small details. It’s kind of street photography, but a little more lyrical, even painterly sometimes (her shots with glazing and reflections are reminiscent of Saul Leiter). Other inspirations seemed to be Eamonn Doyle’s Dublin work, perhaps. She has a knack for making the ordinary look special (I need this knack).
One interesting realisation: at first I assumed that all the pics were taken in Manchester, as the first few had appropriate location clues; on closer inspection though many of the others were taken in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow – now I’m wondering if British cities are really as distinctive as we think. The outsider’s eye has observed the similarities more than the differences that a local might emphasise.
Valérie Jouve and Vivien Ayroles: “Marseilles, Jericho”, Palais de Luppé, Arles
Taking that last point a step further: this is another ‘in dialogue’ project between two alumni of local photography school ENSP, that seeks to demonstrate how similar some scenes of the outskirts of Marseille are to similar spaces in Jericho. That’s pretty much it. Nice pictures but I was slightly nonplussed that they turned it into an exhibition at Arles.
Todd Hido: “La Lumière Sombre”, Palais de Luppé, Arles
Basically a set of portraits experimenting with particular lighting setups inspired by classical European painting. And beautiful portraits they are too. Most seem to be of the same highly photogenic sitter, and between subject, pose and lighting they are images that really draw and hold the gaze. I wasn’t looking for, and didn’t find, any deeper meaning. Sometimes a good photograph is just a really beautiful photograph. Sometimes it’s just a retinal thing.
Ann Ray: “The Unfinished – Lee McQueen”, Parc des Ateliers, Arles
Lee, better known under his middle name of Alexander, McQueen met Ann Ray in 1996 and invited her to photograph his life and work until his death in 2010. Fashion is the milieu but it’s not fashion photography; it’s almost all black and white and very dramatic. McQueen comes across as more of an artist than a designer. While the shots are mostly of McQueen’s working environment, there are quite a few candid portraits, interspersed with quotes. There’s a morbid curiosity in gazing at the portraits where McQueen addressed the camera directly, as though you might see any foreshadowing of his death by his own hand only a few years later. I found this whole set strangely affecting. Without really knowing much about McQueen beforehand, I came away with a sense that his death was a huge loss to the world. Ray does a very good job of getting him across in these photographs.
“The Train: RFK’s Last Journey” (group show), Parc des Ateliers, Arles
Technically it’s a three-person show, as Paul Fusco’s famous set of images from Robert Kennedy’s funeral train forms the centrepiece, but it is augmented by Rein Jelle Terpstra’s ‘reverse view’ collection of photos taken by the bystanders of the train, and Philippe Parreno’s filmed recreation of the journey from 2009.
However, the Fusco images stand head and shoulders above the sideshow responses. I’d seen a few images from the set in books and online, but never in real life and never such a comprehensive set. I was struck by the variety of scenes: from back gardens with two people waving to massive city squares thronged with people. Some of the tiny details, such as desolate expressions on faces, really prick the viewer. The sense of a country beaten down and betrayed by its own over-done optimism is palpable (this was only a few months after Dr King had been assassinated, as well as only five years since JFK). Two more recent events occupied my thoughts as I saw these images, one from two decades ago and one from two years ago: the massive crowds of people mourning for an icon they knew but didn’t know, that was Princess Diana in 1997; the political assassination aspect and the loss of optimism it personified – well, that took me back to Jo Cox being murdered. Such is the power of photography and memory slippage: fifty year old images of someone who died before I was born triggered memories of similar-but-different events.
After that the other two were OK but inevitably lacking by comparison. Terpstra’s sourcing of crowd photos is more interesting in principle than in practice: most of the photos are interchangeable shots of a passing train. We learn little new, beyond putting ourselves in the shoes of the mourners. But I got more out of seeing the mourners than seeing what they saw.
Parreno’s film is a curio; it reminded me of an unnecessary Hollywood remake of a classic film. It kind of acts out Fusco’s photos, but I rarely find the moving image as engaging as the frozen one.
Lily Gavin: “A Story with Vincent”, Parc des Ateliers, Arles
Gavin was invited to be on-set photographer for Julian Schnabel’s movie of van Gogh’s life, “At Eternity’s Gate”, and in parallel produced a body of work intended to emulate what would have been a photographic record of van Gogh’s later life and death, had a camera followed him around. This concept lifts the series above a regular on-set series – rather than being a ‘behind-the- scenes’ project, this is more of a constructed reality project. Having said that, I found the famous faces slightly distracting, pulling me out of Gavin’s intended world and back to ‘oh, that’s Willem Dafoe’. The portrait series Gavin produced alongside the narrative set is a worthwhile addition, and adds to the effect of immersion that Gavin sought.
Gilbert & George: “The Great Exhibition, 1971–2016”, Parc des Ateliers, Arles
I would never have described G&G as photographers, though they use photography extensively in their work. Having been reasonably familiar with their work, I thought I knew what to expect: gigantic brightly-coloured murals featuring a combination of G&G in deadpan poses (sometimes unclothed) and transgressive words or imagery. And I was half-right, as much of the work here (especially from the 1990s onwards) fits this description well. However, I found more interest for me in the work that deviated from this template, mainly their earlier work to be honest. The later works are a bit too ‘over-designed’ for my tastes.
Busting taboos while appearing to be genteel elderly Englishmen is their thing. They deny it, but there’s a thick streak of intentional shock built into their work. Some of it is beginning to look somewhat puerile. Whoever curated it still thinks the word fuck is shocking, given that there are multiple walls given over to variations of f-word phrases. I’ll spare you a photo of “Bum Holes”, as I’m sure you can imagine it. Thankfully it’s the only inclusion from 1994’s “Naked Shit Pictures” series.
The works I found most interesting were, as mentioned above, the ones that didn’t scream ‘classic G&G’. At one end, the most purely photographic early works had a simplicity of message that got lost later; at the other, between being photo-heavy and finding the more garish aesthetic that defined the last two decades, they had a short but bizarre cartoonish phase where they seemed to be channelling Keith Haring. I found these more graphical works strangely fascinating; after this they got too busy visually.
Worth a visit, but I’m not sure I want to see much more Gilbert & George art in my lifetime.
“A Pillar of Smoke” (group show), Maison des Peintres, Arles
14 photographers documenting life in contemporary Turkey. It’s a shocking admission but I think I’m getting desensitised to images of suffering, oppression and devastation. Too many photojournalism exhibitions? The plight of the people gets harder to empathise with when I am bombarded with imagery. Each set on its own could have got its point across in a measured and focused way, but 14 projects in one exhibition is sensory overload and my mind stopped taking in details. The only thing that broke through was a project on dog fighting, a horrific pursuit that turns my stomach. It’s a dark inclusion in a festival where William Wegman is a headliner.
Matthieu Gafsou: “H+”, Maison des Peintres
This exhibition charts the different kinds of, and a little of the history of, transhumanism: enhancing the human body through technology. It starts off by pointing out that coffee and corsets are enhancement agents, before moving on to the more interesting (/freaky) 21st century stuff. Chips implanted under skin, prosthetic colour detectors, cryogenics and more are subjected to Gafsou’s cool, scientific gaze. It’s certainly a fascinating area, and he photographs the subjects well, if slightly clinically (which maybe suits the material). It’s one of those projects where the subject matter itself is the star and the unshowy photography puts the subject front and centre.
Paul Graham: “The Whiteness of the Whale”, Eglise des Frères Prêcheurs
Three bodies of work by a British photographer who moved to America and did the classic ‘outsider’s view of a nation’ thing. Only after taking in all three projects did I realise what is distinctive about Graham’s work: it’s not predominantly about single images or broad narratives, rather somewhere in between: he makes you look at the relationships between small groups of images. It’s the juxtapositions, or the sequence, or the ‘spaces in between’ that makes his photographs engaging.
I was partly familiar with the first set, American Night, as the ones where he deliberately overexposed scenes to almost white, the features of buildings and people barely discernible. It is only on seeing a wider set of images, where these are interspersed with vibrant full colour images of middle class houses that you realise that the bleached-out shots are only half the story: he’s making a point about class inequality. With that context, the set can be read in a very different way.
The second set, A Shimmer of Possibility, shows groups of five or six images taken with a particular subject, often close in space and time, such that it resembles a kind of photographic comic strip, or maybe a small horizontal contact sheet. He eschews the idea of a decisive moment by evoking the more fragmented sensation of seeing and noticing. These sets of images form little vignettes, with a sense of narrativity but not necessarily an actual coherent narrative. You feel as though you’re getting a much more rounded sense of the subject than you would with a single image. It’s a fascinating way of working, and I wonder why more people don’t do it (I vaguely remember Elliott Erwitt doing a similar thing some years ago). The one thing about the set that I found slightly problematic is that Graham tended to hone in on vulnerable people on the streets; such work always makes me feel a little uneasy regarding notions of privacy and dignity. However, given social inequality is one of Graham’s stated interests as a photographer, it’s hard to see how he could make his work without including such people, so one can only hope that he deals with them in as ethically sound a manner as possible in the circumstances.
The most recent project, The Present, takes the ‘related images’ idea in another direction which I found slightly harder to get into – but once the details of the images unfold, they really worked for me. For these he shot on busy New York streets and groups together the images in twos and threes. The pairs usually reveal a juxtaposition or a common thread (e.g. man with pushchair / old lady with walking frame; Sikh with turban / Jew with skull cap; man with eyepatch / man squinting; etc) in the same spot in the frame that highlights that we have more in common than that which divides us. It’s inevitably more shallow than the ‘Shimmer’ project though: it skims over the surface of a scene to show how much ‘we’re all the same’, while the previous series gave more of a sense of individual character. The shots have a great kinetic energy, as though the constantly-moving city is a character in itself. The groups of three images in the same spot seem more to me to be about a brief sequential narrative than a comparison, and I must say are a little less effective for it.
Overall I came away with a positive impression of Graham’s body of work. He is, in subtle ways, experimenting with how people engage with photographs. I think some viewers could skim past his images without seeing the nuances, but those who stay to look at the photos for a little longer do get rewardeD.
Laura Henno: “Redemption”, Commanderie Sainte-Luce, Arles
A little like I said earlier about desensitisation to suffering and oppression in foreign countries, I confess I am also am increasingly ambivalent about projects investigating ‘outsider subcultures’ in otherwise affluent western countries. I know that’s harsh, but the practitioners I’ve seen doing this kind of work over the years rarely seem to find any new ways to tell their stories, adding to the sense that you’ve ‘heard this one before’ (last year’s Les Gorgon by Mathieu Pernot may be the only recent example that stood out). I think I’m suffering from documentary photography fatigue!
With that as a preamble, Henno’s images of families living in camper vans in Slab City, California are interesting enough, nicely shot with sometimes wonderful west coast light. It’s certainly better than the similarly-themed Rémi Fernandez work elsewhere in the festival, but that isn’t high praise. I just want photographers, if they insist on doing projects like this, to reach beyond the ‘poor people living in shitty conditions, they’re real nice folks though’ clichés.
Véronique Ellena: “Retrospective”, Musée Réattu, Arles
I wasn’t aware of Ellena before, a real gap in my knowledge now I’ve seen her body of work. She has worked in a variety of styles over her career, and while this eclecticism generally works in her favour, the early works are quite uninspiring – naturalistic but posed scenes from day-to-day life. She got much more interesting when she got more focused on less everyday concepts.
She did a series on homeless people, The Invisibles, what would normally sound like a gritty documentary photography project but in her hands became something more ambiguous. She photographed rough sleepers fully covered by bedclothes, head obscured, on the steps of magnificent buildings. The aesthetic is almost architectural: one has to scan around the image to find the human subject.
Zia Maggiore is one of a few projects she did based on family homes, this one of an Italian aunt. Some of these are so minimalist as to be almost abstract, with blocks of pastel colours. She used vintage photographic techniques to produce the vibrant negatives of Les Clairs-Obscurs. She turned one of her floral photographs into a stunning wall-sized stained-glass window.
Aside from the early work, Ellena has largely steered clear of human subjects, focusing on places and objects. One of her projects is food still-lifes, for example.This is where my interest in her work lies. I’m increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of how to photograph object, particularly found objects, in their natural environment but in an aesthetically effective way. I intend to research her work a lot more.
Alfred Latour: “Framing his Time”Musée Réattu, Arles
Latour was a real renaissance man, known mainly as a painter and graphic artist, he was also a skilled photographer, and for a while was Paris correspondent for an international press agency. He had a great eye for composition, and many of the photographs here could have been taken by Cartier-Bresson or Doisneau. That’s the problem, though – any good photographer working in Paris in the 1930s is going to invite comparisons, and Latour is certainly competent but not superior to what has been shown by others a thousand times. Good work but not distinctive enough given his era and milieu.
“Grozny: Nine Cities” (group show), Monoprix, Arles
Three female photographers give their views on life in Chechnya a decade on from Russian bombardment. To be honest, my comments on the Turkey group show broadly stand here: I’ve got documentary photography fatigue. They could have swapped some of these images with the Turkey show and you’d struggle to notice. The subject matter is similar and the photography style is, in most cases, indistinguishable.
This notion of geographical interchangeability is something of a theme I spotted this year, though I’m unsure how intentional it might be: some projects overtly cover this notion in their core concept (Marseille/Jericho, Kopiec Bonawentura), while others seem to do it less consciously (Géraldine Lay), while others still seem to suggest a dialogue between two projects (RFK Train / Yo Soy Fidel, Pillar of Smoke / Nine Cities).
Michael Christopher Brown:“Yo Soy Fidel”, Monoprix, Arles
Brown followed Fidel Castro’s funeral cortège from Havana to Santiago and photographed mourners en route. Comparisons with Paul Fusco’s RFK Train work just a mile or two away are inevitable so I may as well tackle them head-on. The mood of this is quite different: Castro was elderly and infirm and his death was not a shock to anyone, so the mourners generally look respectful, loyal and thankful rather than shell-shocked by a sudden assassination. But it is an intriguing contemporary counterpart, not least because Castro’s life straddled the two events, and the Kennedys and the Castros were familiar with each other. One day they will make a good ‘in dialogue’ double exhibition.
Discovery Award (group show), Ground Control, Arles
The premise: 10 photography world names (galleries, curators, critics) each propose an emerging practitioner – or in one case a duo – representing contemporary photography. One gets selected for a grand prize. To be honest I thought this year’s selection was lacklustre. I’ll give most of them a sentence or two each…
Christto & Andrew’s “Encrypted Purgatory” is a series of highly surreal staged images with little apparent connection or meaning – a snake on a keyboard, a goat in chains – accompanied by an artists’ statement that could have been produced by a random sentence generator. Self- consciously wacky upper case ART.
Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s “Sparks” addresses the conflict in the Ukraine but she manages to find a less obvious approach than most, making this a kind of aftermath-portrait hybrid, featuring the young men sent suddenly to war, but only after they’ve been back home several months. The dark images suit the subject matter. Alongside the portraits are photos by the soldiers but with dead comrades obscured by gold leaf. Thinking back, this may be the most successful body of work in the Discovery Award show.
Anne Golaz’s “Corbeau” is essentially a documentary photography project on a farming family, but the artist’s statement makes a case for a grander narrative of “disappearance and remembrance”. (A running theme in this show is how people can get an exhibition at Arles off the back of a mediocre set of images and a high-concept artist’s statement that justifies it as an overarching artistic strategy…).
Anton Roland Laub’s “Mobile Churches” is an astonishing story – how Romanian churches escaped demolishment in the 1980s by being picked up and moved off main streets – that just doesn’t work photographically. The very idea and the original plans tell almost the whole story. Photos of the churches behind newer buildings just don’t do the crazy history justice.
Paulien Oltheten’s “La Défense, the Venturing Gaze” is yet another example of a set of random images corralled together by a pretentious artist’s statement. “She goes to parks, plazas, and the streets of big cities for direct observation, finding unique activity, repetitive gestures, odd objects, or design elements there.” – well, that simply describes street photography as a genre. Did she buy this artist’s statement off the internet? (yes, I’m getting grumpy now). I really don’t mind ambiguous but unconnected photographs, but please stop trying to make them sound more profound than they are. You just end up sounding silly.
Sinzo Aanza’s Allegory Trial is a part-sculpture, part-photography work on stone breaking by the Congo river. The sculpture part works better than the photos, which were garishly oversaturated to the point of hurting your eyes (perhaps his intention). One interesting aspect was the presentation, with the photos all overlapping each other and the viewer encouraged to interact by lifting them to see what is underneath. And while I’m chuntering about artist’s statements, this one made me laugh with its vague intention of “saying something about society”. Aim high, dude.
Ali Mobasser’s “The Pieces of my Grandfather’s Broken Heart” has a surprisingly literal title, featuring as it does a large image of his grandad’s actual heart from an operation. Apart from that twist, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill found family archive project. My favourite images by far were the damaged negatives that turned into psychedelic abstracts.
Monica Alcazar-Duarte’s Ascension is about the future of astro-science. A handful of photos, distinctively presented in a darkened room in circular frames, but you can see the whole thing in less than a minute. I liked the photos I did see, and the presentation, but it was just so small it left me nonplussed.
Chandan Gomes’ “People you May Know” wins this year’s ‘but is it photography?’ award from me. A guy starts an online friendship with a stranger, they get on well, they share secrets about mental health problems, then cybersex, then fall out. The presentation is a series of screenshots of Facebook Messenger conversations, interspersed with a handful of photographs apparently exchanged online. It’s not clear how much is true and how much is fictionalised. It’s all very contemporary but it’s closer to scrapbooking than it is to photography.
Thomas Hauser’s “The Wake of Dust” is one of those projects that takes an incredibly obscure way of making photographs and makes that the main point of the work. But I’m not massively impressed by technical curios like this. Hauser uses printer toner powder on degraded halftone prints. These “muted and textured temporal stratifications” look… dusty.