Awaydays in Arles

23rd September 2012

I have to admit to squeezing in another late summer cultural mini-break (see here for my Shakespeare trip last month). Last week I was in the French town of Arles for a couple of nights, catching the end of Les Rencontres Arles Photographie (it closes 23 September). Les Rencontres is the famous festival of photography that has been held in Arles each summer since 1970, and I have long meant to go. The smart thing to do is to be there for the opening week, when along with the various parties and talks, there are photographic projections in the town’s classical ruins. But that’s for another time – this year, my friend Michael Jackson and I grabbed the chance for a trip to the south just before the autumn set in. (Incidentally, that’s Édouard Belin above, receiving a telephotograph in 1920 – the relevance of this will become clear below.)

Even though some of the exhibitions had closed, we still felt that we saw a really rich range of shows – and for a day and a half we probably took in all the images we could comfortably manage. It is also the case that, as the director of Les Rencontres Francois Hébel told me, this is something of an eccentric year for the festival. The main focus has been the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie (ENSP), the French college of photography founded in Arles in 1982. Almost all of the shows have some connection with the school – and part of the impetus has been to discover whether the 640 or so graduates form in some way a French ‘school’ of a more abstract kind.

I do not feel qualified to make a call on that, but I do know that I saw some remarkable groups of photographs, among which were the following – the web means that you can make your own journeys through these bodies of work thanks to the excellent sites of each of these photographers.

• Marina Gadonneix: among other work she shows some beautiful single colour prints of the blue and green screens used in special effects filming to allow other images to be composited over them.

Go here for Marina Gadonneix’s website which features the photographs that so impressed me.

• Sébastien Calvet  presents photographs taken on the campaign trail with Francois Hollande, which have a wonderful wry sense of humour and which are almost like a slide-show version of The Thick of It. Many of these images were featured in Libération, and a selection of them is online at  Sébastien Calvet’s website – go to Images in the right-hand menu and click Pouvoirs.)

Also, for more of Calvet’s work, see his website here.

• Vincent Fournier shows a selection of wonderful images of space technology and robots, which are funny and oddly disturbing and strangely touching.

Vincent Fournier has a great website here, including a wide selection of work from the Space project.

• Sunghee Lee presents photographs of empty billboards, which are far more evocative and varied than such a bald description suggests,

To see some of these images, go to Sunghee Lee’s website here.

• Pétur Thomsen shows a group of photographs taken in Iceland exposing the scarring of the landscape by industrial processes.

Pétur Thomsen’s website is here.

• … and perhaps most remarkable of all are the portraits by Jonathan Torgovnik called Intended Consequences. In the photographers words, these are ‘a series of environmental portraits made in Rwanda of women that were brutally raped during the Rwandan genocide and the children they bore from those brutal encounters.’

The website for Jonathan Torgovnik is here; go here for a gallery of Intended Consequences and here for more, including a short film, about this extraordinary group of images.

The main shows at Arles are presented in an extraordinary delapidated locomotive factory – which apart from anything else I envied as a possible site for shooting one of our performance films. It’s a glorious extensive site with buidlign after building that has been given just enough retouching to make it a good place to look at exhibitions but still keep it wonderfully evocative of a former industrial age.

Elsewhere, there is a wonderfully stimulating show about the fashion model, Mannequin – le corps de la mode (the body of fashion, I guess). This is curated by ENSP graduate Sylvie Lécallier and successfully presents film and video elements alongside prints from the late nineteenth century to today (although irritatingly 4:3 films are shown on 16:9 monitors with the top and bottom of the frames cut off).

Particularly touching is a beautiful short sequence titled Twiggy in Paris, shot by Ronald Traeger in 1967 and made available by the French archive INA. The model rollerskates in sight on the Eiffel Tower – and it has a poignancy and beauty that is pretty special.Highlights among the still images are contributed by William Klein (the subject of a much-anticipated Tate Modern show this autumn; the link is to a Sean O’Hagan Observer interview – a wonderful gallery of images is here) and, perhaps predictably, Guy Bourdin (see here for details of an Illuminations film about Bourdin made in 1996).

Another excellent show is A laboratory for first time experiments, which has been drawn from the archives of the Société Française de Photographie. Here is the description of the SFP from the Arles website:

Established in 1854 and state-approved in 1892, the SFP is one of the oldest photographers societies still active and one of the most important private collections of historical photo-graphs in Europe. Bringing together objects, images, books, periodicals and handwritten documents, the collection, today listed a historic monument, was formed according to its member’s activities: technical, theoretical and visual experimentations. In fact, although these early photographers often patented their innovations, they more regularly made their discover-ies official by presenting them at the SFP, followed by the publication of an article in the society’s Bulletin and donations of prints and objects.

Here for the first time I encountered, along with numerous treasures from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French inventor Édouard Belin(above). In 1907 Belin invented a system for sending photographs over telephone and telegraphic networks. The process was apparently improved in 1921 to facilitate transmission of images by radio waves.

Included in the show is an undated manuscript, which is perhaps from the early 1920s, in which Belin predicted television in a quite remarkable way:

(…) and to reproduce distant events in perfected cinematography at the moment that they occur. It will amount to the more or less definitive elimination of distance. Life itself will, so to speak, be telegraphed in its reality from one place to another. The telephone carried the voice, the telegraph carried thoughts. All that remains is to see the interesting actions that occur beyond the horizon.


See Sean O’Hagan’s review of Les Rencontres for the Observer (he mentions Josef Koudelka and Sophie Calle shows, both of which had closed by the time we made it to Arles); there is also a related gallery of images. As far as I can see, no other mainstream British publication has reviewed the event.

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