Les Rencontres d’Arles – Serge Allaire, Arles in Black

[Winter 2014]

By Serge Allaire

Attending the inaugural week of the Rencontres is always a rather frenetic experience, with almost fifty exhibitions to see, as well as the associated programming and a three-day colloquium, not to mention the daily encounters and debates during which artists, curators, and critics comment on the exhibitions, and the evenings at the Théâtre antique. And then, there are the after-hours activities . . . 1

François Hébel, the director of the Rencontres, chose the theme of black and white for the event’s 44th edition. Starting from the observation that the aesthetic of black and white began to decline in the 1990s and almost disappeared during the first decade of the twenty-first century in favour of colour and digital photography, Hébel asked, “Where does black and white fit in today? Realism or fiction, poetry, abstraction, or pure nostalgia?” Some of each, one must conclude. It should be said that neither the colloquium nor the exhibitions satisfactorily answered Hébel’s question or delved into its implications.

The three-day colloquium that reinterpreted the question as Can we still conceive of a black-and-white aesthetic for photography? left me wanting more, as the speakers’ comments and hypotheses seemed only to lead back to common ground. The take­­­­-away was that the black-and-white aesthetic allows for greater abstraction and a distancing from reality, and is the expression of a poetic vision of the world from which colour would distract us. This is the dogma that Cartier-Bresson had espoused in the 1930s. The choice between colour and black and white thus remains an eminently subjective one for photographers and artists. What was glaringly absent from the colloquium was a reflection how decisive the evolution of the industry, the tech­nology, and the market have been for the place occupied by black and white today.

The same was true for the exhibitions grouped in four themes: “Them,” “Me,” “There,” and “Album.” At first glance, one was left perplexed at how exactly the choice of these themes contributed to the overall theme. And the catalogue did not provide much justification.

A reflection on the presence of black and white in the work of young photographers and on the reasons for their aesthetic choices would have brought the idea to into the present day. However, there was only one such young photographer included: Pieter Hugo, recipient of the Prix Découverte at the Rencontres 2008. Most of the exhibitions devoted to black and white presented images by photographers who were working from 1920 to 1980, from Jacques Henri Lartigue to Hiroshi Sugimoto and Daido Moriyama. That’s not to say that these exhibitions were uninteresting – far from it – as there were many retrospectives, some of them major ones. If the 44th Rencontres had particular merit, it was that it refocused attention on “the enduring nature of the masters of black and white,” as Hébel noted. In fact, due to its retrospective aspect, this year’s event must be considered a tribute to black and white.

The Importance of Retrospectives. First, I must mention the spectacular exhibition devoted to Hiroshi Sugimoto, an uncontested master of black and white. Sugimoto was being presented for the first time in France, notably through his breakthrough se­­ries Revolution, made in the 1980s to 1990s, on the theme of the sea and its vast horizons. There were also retrospectives devoted to photographers such as Sergio Larrain, Arno Raphael Minkkinen, Gilbert Garcin, Jean Louis Courtinat, and Gordon Parks, the first black photographer to join the Farm Security Administration and the team at Life. On display were thus a wide range of practices, extending from the socially engaged document to photojournalism, photomontage, and self-portraiture.

Sergio Larrain, a Chilean photographer having his first world retrospective, was without doubt the darling of the event thanks to the patient research undertaken by Agnès Sire, director of the Fondation Cartier-Bresson. The infatuation with this artist was confirmed by another retrospective devoted to him by FCB in Paris this autumn.

Michel Vandan Eeckhoudt’s exhibition Doux Amer stood out from the retrospectives because the selection of images displayed was drawn from his most recent publication (Delpire, 2013). A Belgian photographer with a background in the photojournalism tradition, Vandan Eeckhoudt offers a penetrating gaze at the human condition. Beyond anecdote and a preoccupation with the sordid side of life, his black-and-white images are based on a view of the animal world that sometimes betrays amusement, but is more often caustic, ironic, and focused on the tragic side of humanity.

Appropriation and Diversion of Images. In parallel with these tributes to the masters, one of the strong themes that emerged was the importance of the culture of appropriation and diversion of images gleaned from archives, collections, or the Internet. This issue was of obvious interest in 2011 in the exhibition From Here On, and several examples were also on view at the most recent Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal.

In this perspective, artist Raynald Pellicer’s exhibition À fonds perdus presented some of the images brought together in a book published this year, Version originale, la photographie de presse retouchée (La Martinière, 2013). This book was the fruit of three years of research and acquisitions – a hundred press photographs published between 1910 and 1970 by American dailies such as The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and The Detroit News. The photographs were reframed and retouched by hand with gouache, China ink, or grease pencil before publication by the illustrators. Beyond the events that they show, these images are evidence of a trade and a production process of for media images that have now disappeared, as Photoshop has taken up the torch.

Studio Fouad, Beirut, and Van Leo, Cairo presented a collection of portraits made by two of the largest commercial studios in the Arab world, now bequeathed to the American University in Cairo. These hand­coloured images also testify to the old procedure for manipulating black-and-white photographs by adding colour.

Also working with collections of found images, John Stezaker is a British artist associated with conceptual art and the New Image movement, who, unlike Pellicer, pays attention to photographs found in works not meant for posterity – portraits of movie stars, postcards – and transforms them with manipulations, cuts, and collages that are distantly related to surrealist montages and whose titles accentuate their strange nature.

In parallel with these tributes to the masters, one of the strong themes that emerged was the importance of the culture of appropriation and diversion of images gleaned from archives, collections, or the Internet.

The importance of the archive and the collection is also marked by the significance accorded to anonymous photographs in the tireless work of collector Erik Kessel. Like an ethnologist, Kessel has for years collected photographs from family and wedding albums, amateur photographs, and “failed pictures,” which he publishes through his own publishing house. This year in Arles, he paid tribute to these anonymous photographs in a playful installation, Album Beauty. It is, he writes in the catalogue, “through meticulous and deep examination of these photo albums that something is incidentally revealed other than the quest for perfection or normalcy. It is in their faults that their beauty is hidden.”

The strong trend toward appropriation and the interest in the album were confirmed by the awarding of the 2013 Prix Découverte to two young women, Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Rosezeen Quéré, who jointly produced an installation titled Vies impossibles et imaginaires, featuring images found in family albums, fabricated photographs, and recorded interviews. As if it were a novel – somewhere between documentary, fiction, and theatre – the artwork tells the story of four Palestinian-Lebanese sisters separated by fate and then reunited.

Several exhibitions, although completely outside the scope of the theme, were remarkable, including those by Alfredo Jaar and Wolfgang Tillmans. Jaar’s work, focused on the status of the image in the media, is so well regarded in Montreal that a number of his works have been featured in various editions of Le Mois de la Photo. The exceptional nature of his participation in Arles involved the presentation of a selection of major works taken from the retrospective exhibition presented in Berlin in 2012.

Three large galleries in the Ateliers were reserved for Wolfgang Tillmans, who presented part of his most recent publication, Neue Welt [New World] (Taschen, 2012). The exemplary nature of this presentation was due to Tillmans’s unique ability to contrast the installation possibilities of the exhibition space with the linearity of the space of the book. On the wall, the images, very different in terms of size, types of hanging, subjects, and textures, force the viewer to travel, skimming if not touching, the surface of the world. In fact, the challenges of this transposition of images from the book space to the exhibition space are sufficiently rich to be in themselves to be an excellent theme for a future Rencontres.

Although the treatment of the main theme this year seemed disappointing in several ways, the event nevertheless had the merit, in addition to the tributes paid to black and white, of offering an overview of the major trends in contemporary prac­tices. I noted, in passing, that a number of the exhibitions were inspired by recent publications or exhibitions. Others offered a fresh look at the history of photography, such as the exhibition of the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue. Organized in collaboration with the Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue and Maryse Cordesse and titled Bibi – his first wife’s name – the exhibition focused on Lartigue’s production in the 1920s. Histories of photography have gotten us accustomed to assessing Lartigue’s images one by one, for their snapshot quality. Here, the exhibition puts into context the editing of these images, accumulated as if they were a diary of daily life, an album whose organization he was constantly reshuffling, playing at being a writer who was constantly reinventing his narrative line. The value of the exhibition is that it puts into perspective the narrative and autobiographical dimension of Lartigue’s body of work.

Certainly eclectic, Les Rencontres d’Arles 2013 also had the merit of offering multiple points of view, without regard for hierarchies.  
Translated by Käthe Roth

1 In addition, for the last two years, a multimedia platform, the Médiathèque, has also been set up to rebroadcast the major events around the Rencontres – artist interviews, exhibition visits, public debates and lectures – and to thus constitute the archives of the event’s high points rencontres-arles-photo.tv

Serge Allaire holds a master’s degree in art studies from the Université du Québec à Montréal, where he teaches art history and history of photography. An exhibition curator and researcher, his published writings are devoted to photography, issues in art and mass culture, and discourse analysis.

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