I’ve written rough notes for all of the shows I saw in Arles this year and intend to go back and edit that post into some kind of coherent order, and add in some photos that will help future me remember what I was talking about. However, I am suffering from the very first-world problem of insufficient upload speed on my holiday wifi so that will have to wait until I get back home.

In the meantime I have been thinking a lot about why I found this year’s festival so underwhelming. The answer to this is emerging after reflecting on what I was impressed by, what I wasn’t, and my reviews from previous years when I felt much more inspired.

What follows here is a short summary of the 2018 exhibitions I rated highly – but first my overall reflections on what I think it all means for my evolving photographic education and tastes.

Insights

Bluntly, for me there was too much documentary photography this year and not enough fine art / conceptual / innovative photography. What I’ve loved about previous trips to Arles has been seeing new things, having my visual and conceptual horizons expanded. This year was very skewed towards ‘photographs of interesting subjects’ rather than ‘interesting photographs’.

The 2018 festival selection helped to solidify a theory that’s been bubbling away in my mind. Much as I dislike generalisations :-) I’m coming to the conclusion that…

  • Documentary photographers show you what they’ve seen
  • Art photographers show you how they see the world

I’m increasingly much more interested in the latter. The bodies of work I’ve engaged with most this week have been the ones where a sense of artistic vision is discernible. Too much of what I saw was just ‘content’.

Highlights

René Burri: The Imaginary Pyramids

Salle Henri-Comte, Arles

What I loved about this small but perfectly-formed show was how it gave a sense of how Burri saw the world. Basic premise: he returned from seeing the pyramids in Egypt obsessed with the triangular form and started seeing it everywhere. It’s such a simple obsession, observing and isolating a particular shape. It felt relevant to what I’ve been doing with lost gloves.

HOPE, a Collaborative Perspective (group show)

Foundation Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, Arles

In particular I was impressed with the main installation, 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. He got villagers and newcomers to work together on huge tableaux sets full of narrative allegory. The complexity of the images led to a complexity of production that had the two communities working closely together – so making the art was making its own message, as it were.

What I loved about this was simply how it is a positive, hopeful story, rare for work that covers this kind of subject matter. Willocq is optimistic, not angry, and that comes through in the work. It’s a different way of looking at the situation for sure.

1968, What a Story! (group show)

Croisière, Arles

Various takes on the 1968 civil unrest in France and elsewhere. The two that interested me were the police archives, especially the aftermath shots – very different to the usual kinetic but often clichéd riot photos – and Marcelo Brodsky’s overpaintings of protest photographs with additional layers of emphasis and text. These two afforded me views on the subject that I hadn’t seen or considered before.

Christophe Loiseau: The Right to the Image

Croisière, Arles

Narrative-infused portraits of prisoners based on notions of self-image. It’s difficult to get a sense of individuality from single images of people who are primarily identified by their status as prisoners, but Louiseau’s work is a triumph.

There’s a quiet power to these images that evokes the interior plight of the incarcerated more than stark documentary photography of prison conditions.

Géraldine Lay: North End

Croisière, Arles

Lay, a French photographer working in the UK, uses an outsider’s eye to paradoxically paint an unnervingly familiar picture of life in British cities. Part street photography but more low-key and poetic, it reminded me in turn of Saul Leiter and Eamonn Doyle. She has a knack for making the everyday look special.

One thing that gradually emerged is how similar life in Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and London is; it takes a visitor to point out how much places have in common, despite the residents’ assertions of their distinct characters.

Todd Hido: La Lumière Sombre

Palais de Luppé, Arles

A small set of portraits with lighting inspired by classical European paintings, plus a few landscapes similarly built around distinctive lighting conditions. I freely admit that I loved the portraits of a particularly photogenic female sitter, not simply for the beauty of the subject but the mastery of composition and lighting by Hido. He had a good subject and shot her superbly.

No profound insight, just magnetically attractive pictures. 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 his working environment, there are quite a few candid portraits interspersed with quotes from McQueen.

There’s a morbid curiosity in gazing at the portraits, 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 great loss to the world. Ray does a superb 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 original 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: the massive crowds mourning 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 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.

Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale

Eglise des Frères Pêcheurs, Arles

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 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. Probably the highlight of the festival.

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. It’s fascinating to see so much development in a photographer’s style.

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.