Rencontre d'Arles

Various Venues

The Rencontres d’Arles was the first—and for many years the foremost—of the international photography festivals. Since its founding in 1970, the annual exhibition has had its ups, downs, and periodic reshufflings, accelerated in recent years by the photography boom in the arts, the market, and the media. Three years ago, newly appointed director François Hébel promised a “change in scale”: more exhibits, more events, more prizes, more private sponsors—and more photographer participation. For this thirty-fifth anniversary, Hébel went a step further, inviting photographer Martin Parr, a longtime friend and collaborator from Magnum Photos, to guest curate the bulk of the official program.

Parr’s curatorial choice, not unrelated to his “conceptual documentary” stance, emerges quite clearly in the catalogue, where he flags “the ability of photography to catalogue objects, places and people.” This approach was impeccably translated into twenty-five subexhibitions catalogued under the headings of “Contemporaries,” “Rediscoveries” and “Vernacular Photography” (one of Parr’s passions), all installed by Parr himself.

It would be unfair to deny the interest of a number of individual shows—among my official favorites were Hans van der Meer’s double series of soccer matches, “Dutch Fields,” 1995–97, and “Football on Stage in Provence,” 2004, and Raphaël Dallaporta’s “Antipersonnel,” 2004, chillingly aestheticized photos of landmines from around the world (both in the “Contemporaries” category). The “Rediscoveries” included festival cofounder Lucien Clergue, an internationally renowned photographer who hardly needs rediscovering but was rendered a marvelously unconventional homage through Parr’s presentation of Clergue’s own photographs and books, artworks acquired from friends named Picasso, Cocteau, and Cartier-Bresson, letters from the likes of Jean Renoir and Edward Steichen, and all sorts of memorabilia from thirty-five years of Rencontres. But the cumulative effect came perilously close to that of a cabinet of curiosities.

Parr’s were not the only official exhibitions, and the “Institutional Partners” and “Other” sections were hardly short of original approaches. One example was the fine-tuned, moving show of “Unfinished Works” cocurated by Hébel and Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. But where the spirit of the mythical Rencontres of the past really made itself felt was in what Arles veteran Corinne Mercadier dubbed the “Out” section (as opposed to the official “Off,” initiated in 1979). Architect Sylvie de la Dure worked with four photographer friends to transform her Provençal dream house into an exhibition space, where, for example, Mercadier (who was “On” in 2003) taped a miniretrospective of her ethereal reworked Polaroids directly to the walls of the living room, divested of all but a piano for the occasion. Yet another noteworthy group of friends, brought together by Mireille Loup, mounted two different exhibits, one in a trendy home-decoration boutique that swallowed up their work and the other in a neighborhood art school that imposed nothing but the nostalgic sights and smells of its premises. In fact, this “nothing” turned out to be the ideal setting for one of the most interesting works to be seen, On, Off or Out: Virginie Balabaud’s Le Grenier et ses secrets (The Attic and Its Secrets), 2000. Installed in a musty storage room, this video slide show presented photos of the personal effects found in the attic of a French psychiatric hospital—clothing, eyeglasses, papers, watches, plus the ominous hand-sewn sacks used to accumulate them. For as Balabaud, also a psychiatrist, explained in a voice-over, until the mid ’70s, patients’ belongings were confiscated at the time of their internment. Far from offering a catalogue, these “object witnesses” confronted viewers with an unrelenting litany of dispossession. As Mies van der Rohe might have said, least is most.

Miriam Rosen