Les Rencontres d’Arles 2015–some reflections

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Interior – Parc des Ateliers, Arles

I spent last week in Arles, during the latter stages of the annual photographic festival.  Some of the exhibitions closed at the end of August; others on 6th September; but the majority remain open until the coming weekend.  Outside of the holiday season and in the context of these reductions, one might assume it would be quiet.  Broadly speaking, it was, but since the schools are back, there were occasional tides of young people, one of which beached itself for some time across the floor of the Lisa Barnard exhibition in the Prix Découverte, having a full class conducted by their teacher!  The peace was also disturbed later in the week by the Feria du Riz which, despite the name, has more to do with bull-fighting than rice.  Bulls being driven through the streets by Les Guardians (Camargue cowboys) and stunningly loud music across the town centre until the early hours – but, actually, a wonderful little old city, with some serious (and expanding) cultural activities.  It was a marvellous week.

… and so to some highlights from the exhibitions; and a few critical views as well.  Looking for highlights, it’s hard to get past the two big US photographers on show – Walker Evans and Stephen Shore.  The former was a slightly different take on Evans, partly curated by David Campany, and focusing principally on his magazine work.  Many of the classic Evans images/series were for magazines, of course, and here they were displayed in the original magazines, also in many cases as prints, but most interestingly, also as ‘blown-up’ versions of the magazine pages, unframed, in high-contrast, pasted on the walls.  It worked really well – for me anyway – the full-bleed, high-contrast, pasted presentation made for a poster-like temporariness that linked well to their original purpose; but it also gave them an added presence (aura?) and had the practical benefit that lots of people could look/read at the same time.  One was reminded that Evans did just about everything, photographically, that there is to do.  The accompanying text in the articles, often his own, was ‘of its time’, the great modernist American vision, but I detected occasional signs that his tongue might have been in his cheek, at times.  Not when he was railing against modern design it wasn’t, though.

The Stephen Shore was a major retrospective that is touring the world over the next eighteen months to two years.  A wide-ranging show, it included work from his early teens to a recent series in Winslow Arizona, from 2013, incorporating (I think) all of American Surfaces and Uncommon Places (and some workbooks from the latter).  Just seeing the whole range was interesting in itself, but the show was well-presented, with supporting curatorial notes that were informative but not over-bearing or excessively prescriptive.  The movement from black and white to colour, to black and white, then back to colour (digital) was neatly explained – largely, Shore feeling he’d done that and wanted to do something else, which makes good sense.  Seeing all the work together emphatically brings home his sensitivity to, and experimentation with, the camera’s particular ways of ‘seeing’.  I liked the last two sentences of the note below, which accompanied the most recent Winslow series.  Shore has been working extensively with digital cameras and these notes seem to strongly refute the idea that this has to mean the photographer must automatically be working quickly and not in the thoughtful and contemplative manner some think is only achievable with film!

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Whatever the camera/process, the artist/photographer is the one determining how the image is made. Speaking of which, here is another artist who works slowly and painstakingly with digital processes.

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Facades, Markus Brunetti, Arles 2015

Markus Brunetti has been working exclusively, for ten years, on a series of huge images of the facades of prominent European religious buildings.  Clearly influenced by the Bechers, Gursky etc, he (with his partner) has carefully photographed and re-photographed, piece by piece, compiling monumentally-sized digital images, which have been ‘cleaned’ of all traces of wear and tear, bird droppings, graffiti, and whatever else might get in the way of a hyper-real outcome that presents the buildings with a perspective and a presence that no one has ever actually seen except in these images.  It’s a superb demonstration of the photographic images ability to play on the unconscious eye, so that there is a sense in which this is what the buildings ‘really’ look like – yet they never have and never will!  I really enjoyed them.  They are very seductive, beautifully printed, so that the viewer is drawn into the detail, all of which is there, as if the stones and carvings had just been placed there yesterday.  Yet at another level, they are utterly meaningless!  They only really tell us that Brunetti (and his team) have spent days and days making them; they have no other purpose than the spectacle of their own ‘madeness’!  Now, where have I made those kind of comments before? Here, of course, when I was looking at the work of Thomas Demand.  There is a video about the work here.

Moving on to something that left a less positive impression but could be interpreted as comment on the effectiveness of the photographic image – Heavens, by Paulo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti.

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This is about tax havens and their significance in the global economy.  There is a good video of Woods talking about the show here.  Before I launch into my ‘critique’, let me stress that I am no fan of tax havens, global capitalism, or the blatant exploitation of the ‘have-nots’ by the ‘haves’.  Nor do I have any problem with the extensive piece of investigative journalism that these two have undertaken.  I do have reservations, though, about its effectiveness as a photographic/art exhibition and, to an extent, with its presence in this important international festival – in the form it takes.  Is it a piece of good documentary photography?  I would say ‘possibly not’!  These are – as Woods says in the video – glossy, large-scale images, making use of the aesthetic of the global corporation, often featuring prominent bankers, government officials etc.  And if you just look at the images, that’s what you see (again, as Woods says).  It’s only when you read the detailed captions at the side of the image that you understand what’s going on.  So, one might argue, what is the point of the images?  What do they add to the message?  So one might interpret the show as a critique of the documentary image and it’s effectiveness in the 21st century.  Though I don’t think that was the intention!  I’m tempted to copy their caption style with something along the lines of:

Two contemporary documentary photographers travel the world, visiting remote tax havens where the wealthy and the corporate deposit and structure their finances so as to avoid or minimise the tax they pay.  They create large-scale glossy portraits of some of the key ‘players’ in their playgrounds, print them very big, and present them at an international photography festival in the South of France.  They are on show there for two months, seen by thousands, and in the meantime, nothing changes!

OK, not entirely fair, perhaps, but that was my reaction to the show.  Without the text, it was meaningless; without the images, it might still have worked!

I saw much more – interesting ‘emerging’ artists and the ‘dummy’ books, too.  But this will suffice for a main post on the subject.  I’ll return to the books later, in the context of the Textbook project.

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