Arles, France

Rencontres d’Arles

Various Venues

Notwithstanding the proverb, French photographer-filmmaker Raymond Depardon is a prophet in his own country. Among the awards he has accumulated are the Grand Prix National de la Photographie and two Césars for his documentary films, not to mention the Order of Agricultural Merit. If one of the rare honors missing from his CV is an exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival, this is not for any lack of opportunities but because, as he puts it, “I’m someone who’s more passionate about books than exhibits.” Or at least until this year, when Depardon received the offer he couldn’t refuse: to serve as guest curator of the venerable festival’s thirty-seventh edition. While this curatorial debut did not include his own work, the ambitious program he put together—thirty-seven exhibits, plus three evening events—turned out to be a remarkable self-portrait in the third-person plural. True to the show’s tongue-in-cheek title, “So French,” alluding to the American reaction to his “impressionistic” approach, Depardon offered the public what might be described as a rigorously subjective selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century photographers based on the openly avowed criteria of friendship and filiations.

At the heart of this venture was the section entitled “Traveling Companions,” featuring the work of people with whom he has shared life, love, and photography in his multiple incarnations as photo-reporter, paparazzo, war correspondent, founding member of the Gamma agency and longtime member of Magnum Photos, filmmaker, and inveterate traveler and Africa buff. In all, eleven photographers, one graphic artist (the late Roman Cieslewicz, faithful designer of his film posters), and one unclassifiable figure on the French photography scene (Christian Caujolle, pioneering photo editor, critic, curator, and founding director of the Agence VU and its gallery). Three of the women in the group responded to Depardon’s invitation in strikingly original ways. Dominique Issermann, the renowned fashion photographer and portraitist, created a hypnotic installation in the darkened interior of a fifteenth-century church, where her black-and-white photos, removed from their original contexts as ads or illustrations, were projected onto two boxlike sculptural screens rising up from the floor. Conversely, Susan Meiselas’s Reframing History, 2004, placed her celebrated photos of the Nicaraguan insurrection of 1978–79 in their contemporary contexts in the form of semitransparent banners that were set up, billboard style, near the sites where they were taken. Twelve of the banners were presented at Arles, along with an AV installation juxtaposing footage from the various sites in Nicaragua where they were placed and the wide range of reactions this tangible evocation of the past elicited. And artist Sophie Ristelhueber transformed an apartment in the Banque de France’s recently vacated official residence into the scene of Eleven Blowups, 2006: true/false views of bomb craters digitally recomposed from Reuters rushes from Iraq and her own photos of warscapes taken over the past decade. “Blown up” to poster size and pasted onto the fading paisley wallpaper, these iconic images, eerily devoid of media blood, gore, and bystanders, confronted visitors not with photographic records of events, much less an exhibition, but with eleven mental windows on the seemingly eternal violence of the world.

A historical section devoted to (Depardon’s) “Influences” paid a blockbuster tribute to the American documentary tradition with more than two hundred prints culled from French collections. In the third section, “Photographers of Society and Politics,” the centerpiece was David Goldblatt’s first major exhibition in France, which, curated by Martin Parr in his inimitable picture-gallery style, packed the nave and chapels of a seventeenth-century church with photographs and visitors alike. In the case of younger “social and political” photographers whom Depardon chose to showcase, the affinities with one or another aspect of his own work were clear, but these did not necessarily make the photos convincing. In a notable attempt to free the photo essay from the wall, nine photographers presented multichannel projections, with some exceptional results, notably the pieces by three different members of the Tendance Floue (Blurry Tendency) collective: Gilles Coulon (on the Bamako gab sessions known as grins), Olivier Cullman (on first- and third-world couch potatoes) and, above all, Meyer (on itinerant digital film screenings in West Africa presented as an ingenious projection of projections). Past masters in the art of visual narrative, they made the most of the format to express the mixture of revolt, poetry, and self-doubt common to Depardon and his traveling companions—three qualities that are indispensable to prophets, in their own countries and elsewhere.

Miriam Rosen