I experienced my first Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles a couple of weeks ago, and as I’ve been on holiday since then this is a belated attempt to corral my thoughts into some kind of sense.
I didn’t manage to see everything at the festival as timings conspired against me (I arrived the day after about 10 of the shows closed) but I bought the catalogue to get an idea of what I’d missed. In the end I think I’m only really disappointed in missing one show, Charles Fréger‘s Yokainoshima.
I am indebted to some Arles veterans – fellow student Helen, Gareth from OCA and their respective other halves – who provided advice, company and discussion that turned the trip into a kind of (very) informal study visit.
I’ll start with an overview of some of the themes that emerged for me before talking about the exhibitions themselves in a separate post.
The official 2016 festival theme is ‘Storytellers’. Some of the artists on show are undoubtedly telling stories in a traditional sense, while others demonstrate that this theme is sufficiently broad to be able to cover just about any kind of photography if you wanted it to.
Telling stories in an overt way, or at least giving the sense of narrativity in covering a subject, were shows such as Frank Berger, Nader Adem, Phenomena (a collaborative show about UFO enthusiasts), Lady Liberty and Swinging Bamako.
Taking a more ambiguous and often fragmentary approach to storytelling were people such as Guillaume Delleuse, Stephanie Kiwitt, Marie Angeletti, PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy and Eamonn Doyle. These works were more like connecting dots than reading a linear narrative, and not in a bad way – it’s good for the viewer to have some space to piece things together in their own mind.
The historic image
A surprising number of the exhibitions were, in one way or another, predicated on the use or re-use of existing images – there was a little less original contemporary photography than I had expected. There was a wide continuum of existing image use:
- Straight recreations of historic exhibitions (e.g. Peter Mitchell‘s A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission from 1979) and single-source magazine photography (Hara Kiri Photo)
- Retrospectives of particular photographers (e.g. Sid Grossman, Garry Winogrand)
- Curated trawls through themed archives (e.g. the Sincerely Queer collection of historic LGBT images, the Swinging Bamako look at 1960s Malian musicians)
- Appropriation, in particular the group show Where the Other Rests which is built entirely around “quoting, borrowing and re-using images” but also evident in a number of other works elsewhere such as in the Systematically Open?, Discovery Award and Tear My Bra (Nollywood) exhibitions
For the first three categories above I found myself trying to work out if my interest in the images was purely the historic detachment – any and all images of, say, 1940s New York can invoke an otherworldly fascination, for example – or whether the photographs themselves stand as interesting and thought-provoking regardless of age. To generalise, there was more of the former than the latter.
I also pondered the reasons why these particular collections were being presented at this time; is it because of some potential relevance to contemporary times? to re-evaluate works that are now seen in a different light? to show previously unseen archives? More questions than answers, certainly, but an interesting train of thought.
For the appropriation-based work, my question was whether the re-use or incorporation of the existing image(s) had genuinely created something new and interesting. Sometimes it’s the appropriation technique that’s memorable, other times it’s more that some individual images ‘work’ while others do not.
There’s a lot of appropriated image work that I admire, but overall I am a little concerned that the well of photographic inspiration sometimes seems to be running a little dry for some folk. I was left with the feeling that a lot of current practitioners are trying to push photography ‘forwards’ by reaching back into the past. It becomes quite self-referential. Photography about photography may be of more interest to other artists than to a wider audience?
One major takeaway for me was the variety of methods of displaying photography, and how the presentation method can greatly help (and occasionally hinder) the interpretation of the work. Four of the standout shows for me – Eamonn Doyle, Sarah Waiswa, Laia Abril and Fabulous Failures – presented their work in unorthodox ways, and it was part of their success. It made me think about how best to present my own work, beyond the printed-mounted-framed paradigm.
On the other hand, some of the presentation techniques in shows such as Peter Mitchell’s and Nothing But Blue Skies (art based on media imagery from the 9/11 attacks) went beyond thought-provoking into gimmickry, and actually detracted from the work in my opinion; sometimes a straight presentation of the images serves the subject matter best.
That’s it for the general observations – specific exhibitions will be covered in a separate post.