Rencontres des Arles, 2017

29 July 2017

SIG: Documentary

This review provided by Mark Phillips.


The “Rencontres”, is now in its 39th year and runs until September.  In parallel, the “fringe event”, Voies Off has further exhibitions, some running through July and August. During the opening week  there were 40 exhibitions at Rencontres and over 140 exhibitions and pop ups at Voies Off.


Once again I visited the Opening Week, as this offers more events in Voies Off, plus evening events at Rencontres. It is much busier than later in the year, but it is nothing like the over crowded money machines in major London exhibitions. The numbers and events also give the place a real buzz.


This year I thought I'd highlight three things: my personal favourites, those I really disliked (and why) and the big disappointments. The headline is that there is much to see for those interested in documentary photography.   There are major exhibitions of Latin American and Iranian photographers, plus work from several well known photographers and upcoming talent.


The highlights:

A big highlight, for me, was Joel Meyerowitz’s talk on the opening week.  He is still full of energy and enthusiasm. He provided well over an hours entertainment as he traced his photography and work from the start until now. The talk encompassed many classic images and a few rarely seen. By contrast his exhibition was one of the bigger disappointments (see later).


Michael Wolf - with a major exhibition covering many of his main works.   It included early black and white documentary, classics such as Tokyo Compression and his work in Major cities. Wolf’s key 21st-century theme is “life in cities”, as observed in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Chicago. Also included was The Real Toy Story installation (2004), featuring over 20,000 plastic “Made in China” toys found by him in junk markets and second-hand shops in the United States. Amid this overwhelming array of mass-produced stuff for kids, he adds portraits of Chinese assembly-belt workers producing toys to satisfy the manic worldwide demand for cheap goods. 


Gideon Mendel is a London based South African photojournalist and documentary-maker. He focuses on dealing with the most pressing “issues of the time.” In his latest body of work, “Drowning World,” he addresses issues about climate change and, in particular, rising sea levels around the world, capturing impact in terms of floods. The project began in 2007, and has transformed from literal interpretation to a more humanist perspective, showing home owners in flooded homes and their artefacts damaged by floods. It is both poignant and powerful.


Jacob Aue Sobol, the Magnum photographer, who’s work is deeply personal, had an exhibition “With and without you”, in Voies Off, covering his work for the last 20 years, since he death of his father.   it is described as “a compilation of all the projects that he has made and that his father never got to see.”  Born in Denmark in 1976, he studied at the Fatamorgana Danish School of Art Photography. On graduating he went to live a settlement in Greenland, and mainly stayed with his Greenlandic girlfriend Sabine and her family for the next three years. The resulting book, Sabine, was published in 2004, and nominated for the 2005 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. The space he occupied, in Rue de Arenes, was also used by several of his mentees to present their work, including Meg Hewitt, Australian born photographer showing, “Tokyo is yours”, images from Japan that owe much to the influence of Trent Parke, Sobol and Daido Moriyama.  Sarah Michelle Riisager, with personal images also from Japan and Natnada Marchal, Sobol’s printer, who showed images captured on instant film (Instax, Leica and Lomo). This was a superb example of what can “pop up” in Voies Off, the fringe event.


Alex Majoli, another Magnum photographer, was offered the opportunity to do whatever he wanted with Olympus’s latest camera, the OMD EM-1 Mark II. The resulting exhibition focuses on the project “Theater and Reality”, addressing the role dramatization in reality. It uses choreographed and created images to depict in a documentary style the contradictions and tensions rocking Europe’s identity, in three main themes: the rise of the far right; migrants and refugees; and how Europe welcomes them.


Guy Martin, a U.K. Photographer, living in Turkey, exhibited “The Parallel State”, which took the  New Discoveries Award in 2017. On 20 April 2011, Guy Martin was seriously injured in a mortar attack while covering the conflict in Libya. Two fellow photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed, and it was a year before Martin could walk again. It was another six months before he wanted to take pictures again. The title comes from a term coined by American historian Robert Paxton to describe organisations which exercise soft power, promoting the prevailing ideology. It is also used by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to mean something quite the opposite – the power of those acting against him and his rule. In either interpretation it speaks of an influence, and of the power that happens before force. Martin uses multiple approaches to address a complex topic. Listening to him talk at one of the exhibition tours, I was impressed by the depth of investigation and the diversity of images.


Masahisa Fukase, Fukase: The Incurable Egoist, is the first European retrospective of his work, covering all the major projects of this innovative artist. There are images from he famous Ravens and Family, and later works including Bukubuku, self portraits taken underwater in the bath, with Private Scenes and Hibi.


Matthieu Pernot, The Gorgans, is a sensitive documentary of a family of travellers, local to Arles, which were taken over a twenty year period. The exhibition recreates the circumstances of each member of the family, and recounts the story that they wrote together, face to face, then side by side, using Pernot’s images and family album pictures.


Looking for Lenin, a project by Niels Ackermann and Sebastien Gobert, explores “decommunisation” in the Ukraine, with images of the once iconic busts and statues of Lenin, sometimes used as garden ornaments or converted into Darth Vader or discarded in waste skips, as potential and confusing perspectives of the emerging views of a post Communist world.  Time reduces even the “great”!


Paz Errazuriz, A poetics of the human, which covered the work of he Chilean photographer, who began her career under Pinochet’s dictatorship. She used black and white portraits to denounce the dictator, as well as the dictates which condemned individuals and groups to the margins of society. Her curiosity for the human race and he margins has many parallels to the work of Diane Arbus.


Iran: year 38, is an exhibition by 66 Iranian photographers, cover work from the Islamic revolution in 1979 onwards. The exhibition introduces those who are shaping the image of Iran today. It includes a very diverse mix of photographers, artists and filmmakers portraying a country still caught up in revolution and war, but also fast-changing beyond. Images, photojournalism, documentary or art are seen as visual poetry.


There were also interesting documentary exhibitions on Kogis Indians, immigrants trying to cross Libya, the impact of Monsanto and Swiss motorbike gangs.


The low lights:

Annie Leibovitz had a massive exhibition, taking up almost one complete hall in the Ateliers.  In fact it had too many images, it probably ran into thousands.  There were a few iconic images, but they were countable on one hand, in a sea of mediocrity. For many of the images the only merit was that they were of celebrities, photographically they were dull, plain dull.  The one non-celebrity project was shot in the middle east in the 1980s, but this was visually weak compared to the work of recognised documentary photographers, such as Magnum photographers.


Always the sun from Dune Varela, winner of the BMW Residency at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, was visually uninspiring, mixed with meaningless hyperbole. Equally uninteresting and visually unappealing was the Kate Barry exhibition, outside Arles at the Abbey of Montmajour.


Flux Feelings, which presented the photographic creativity of Luxembourg (!), was also big on narrative and lacking visually. It also seemed fixated on the word “topography” the relevance of which escaped me, as many images had little to do with the shape or contours of the earth. In my opinion, another example of over intellectualising.


The big disappointments:

As previously mentioned, the Meyerowitz exhibition.  It covered his early work and, in my opinion, was not well curated.  Even Meyerowitz, in his talk, acknowledged that some of the images had not seen the light of day before, it is clear to me why.   They are far from his best!   Having said that, if you are there, it's worth a visit.


Blank Paper: Histoires du présent immédiat [Stories of the Immediate Present], which features recent work by Julián Barón, Ricardo Cases, Federico Clavarino, David Hornillos, Alejandro Marote, Óscar Monzón, Bernardita Morello, Miren Pastor, Michele Tagliaferri, Fosi Vegue and Antonio M. Xoubanova, at the offbeat Ground Control space in Arles. Images from the six-member collective are intertwined with those from teachers and alumni from the eponymous school. It is described by some as “cutting edge”, but probably owes more to the process and narrative, than to the visual impact of the images.


Urban Impulse, a large collection of Latin American documentary photographers, was interesting from a historical perspective, but visually weak.  Out of hundreds, only one image stood out - the “nailed fish”.


Finally, Cosmos, the book festival, was less well attended and less active this year, probably through no fault of the book publishers or the visitors, but Rencontres’ organisers had also created pop up book events elsewhere, so this has the effect of diluting the main event.  Still interesting to visit, to meet a few people and make a few purchases!


The Rencontres de la Photographie, in Arles, is on until 24 September.


Voies Off, also runs until the same date.