This was my first visit to Arles and, based on this visit, something I hope to repeat. I arrived early Thursday afternoon and so had a bit of time to wander around and have a look at the town. I was struck by the narrow streets and the range of buildings and the vibrancy of the place.
On Friday morning we met up at Espace Van Gogh, and were advised that the timetable had been revised somewhat following what I imagine must have been a fairly hurried tour of the exhibitions by the tutors the previous day. As it turned out, I thought the revised timetable worked well with a structured look at relevant (and sometimes humorous) exhibitions.
We looked first at the Walter Collection with its heading of Typology, Taxonomy and Seriality. Works illustrating the Taxonomy (defined in the exhibition as “the science of classification, most often applied to biology for the systematic arrangement of hierarchies of living plants and animals) aspect of this exhibition included Karl Blossfeldt’s photos of plants; the Bechers shots of water towers, engineering plants and structures and J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere formal shots of stunning hairstyles
Typology (defined in the exhibition as “conceptual categories based on the general ideas used to sort a large body of information. Such groupings, or types, may be tied to a single attribute or to several characteristics not necessarily the most important ones.”) was represented by the work of August Sander and Richard Avedon’s The Family. I thought it was interesting that within both series there were individual shots that for me stood out. In the former case the “Berlin Coal Carrier” is a stunning image with the subject stepping out of an internal frame within the shot. In the latter there were various subjects clearly not enjoying this particular photo shoot and it is a real insight into the ruling class of the USA at the time in that, within that class, how under represented women and black people were.
As can be seen from the photos above these collections are grouped together so the viewer has to work to pick out individual items, even though in some cases (to this viewer at least) individual shots did stand out both in terms of recognition of faces and attitudes!
A totally different set or collection was W M Hunts collection (and a random one at that) of group photos. As Mr Hunt himself says in the introduction to the collection “These are bizarre, enigmatic visual matrices of information that we can attempt to decode many ways. I like when the blacks and whites play against each other in some sort of unique pattern, literally like a musical staff with notes. Think of these as visual arpeggios. This is jazz.”
We then went on to the exhibit by Mazzacio and Drowilal, winners of the BMW Photographic Residency at the Musee Nicephore Niepce. Possibly going against the views of the tutors on this one, I did not find this at all appealing. Yes there was some humour in the exhibits (skid marks on toilet paper?) but the whole thing seemed to be a bit too clever without saying much. The statement in the notice that “They no longer need even to take photographs” kind of summed up to me in that arbitrarily sticking lots of other peoples shots on a beach scene was, to me, both lazy and too contrived and similarly the reference in the notes to “the decisive moment was to me very wide of the mark. There was no decisive moments here – just a display of graphic art not really saying much about celebrity/lifestyle among other things. I suppose the argument goes well how else would you make this sort of statement and to be truthful I don’t know, but I came away thinking that this did nothing for me.
Of much more interest was Hikari by David Favrod, a photographer with a Japanese mother and a Swiss father, exploring his heritage (in particular the recollections of his grandparents) with some thought provoking and clever mix of photos and graphics. The contrast for me to the previous exhibition could not have been more marked.
For an interesting explanation by the artist see here:- https://www.lensculture.com/articles/david-favrod-video-interview-david-favrod
The final exhibit that day was a display of the massive images by Vic Muniz comprised of hundreds, possibly thousand of bits of photos skilfully assembled to make a composite image. Housed in the Eglise des Trinitaires it was possible to view these pictures from a distance (to get I thought, their full impact) as well as close up.
The next day we met at the vast engine sheds. My understand is that these are going to be demolished which is a shame as they are marvellous venues. The first thing you see is a long row of hundreds of photobooks:-
Unless you have several weeks to spare you are not going to have time to study all of them so it was a question of dipping into them when the schedule permitted it.
We were there not to look at these books but the exhibitions the first of which was Small Universe curated by Erik Kessels who describes it thus:-
THE DUTCH NEED TO DOCUMENT
The Dutch are among the tallest people in the world, yet they live in one of the world’s smallest countries. Cities in The Netherlands are crowded, houses are small and personal space is hard to find. People and other people’s stuff always surround the Dutch. They are hardly ever alone. In a place where horizons are limited, people make their own: creating new vistas based on their immediate surroundings. Obsessively zooming in on all the little details that make up their small universe. Because, of course, the more you zoom into the world at a micro level, the bigger it gets.
The first example of this is Erik Fens’ pictures of cars outside his apartment (and I thought this tied in quite nicely with the Typology of the previous day) taken to incorporate a reflected tree.
This was followed by what I considered the wittiest of the exhibitions I saw at Arles, a set of four series by Hans Eijkelboom, including one that dates from the 1970s when he apparently went to a group of houses, rang the doorbell during the day, with the housewife answering and he asked if he could make a photograph of the family with him instead of the father. The resultant shots d he looks as if he’s the father in every picture.
In another series, letters were written to girls he used to go to school with, asking what they thought had become of him. Following the replies he dressed himself up to match these descriptions.
In the following exhibition was the contrasting set of photos of a lady called Esher, an apparently prolific collector of clothes, by Milou Abel taken as the relationship between photographer and subject grew in trust. Taken over some years I liked the mix of sizes of the shots on display and the random placing in terms of time.
Another series that harked backed to the Taxonomy/typology exhibits was Melanie Bonajo’s self portraits of her in tears. The idea was, I think, better than the execution in that I felt the sheer number of shots somehow lessened the impact.
I enjoyed Hans Van Der Meer’s clinical shots in his series The Netherlands Off the Shelf and the Ikea like catalogue of municipal fitments.
We then went on to see a selection of artists in Prix Pictet: A Retrospective including Mitch Epstein, Benoit Aquin, Luc Delahaye and Nadav Kander among others. It was the latters series on the abandoned soviet cities that I was struck with most.
Following this there was some light relief in the work Chema Madoz, with his witty monochrome prints giving some very amusing visual puns.
Our final viewing was of the contenders (and winner) of the Prix Decouverte – the Discovery Award andwe were asked to nominate our own winners. My choice was Will Steacy’s Deadline his series on the decline of the Philidelphia Inquirer which I found to be very moving and had some terrific portrait work.
The winning series by Kechun Zhang, The Yellow River Surging Northward Thunderously were also very good, a series of desaturated large scale prints of the river, its environs and users were to me very evocative and almost ethereal in their presentation.
So that was it for Arles in 2014. I am really hoping I can make the 2015 trip (assuming there is one) as there was a lot to enjoy and savour. I can still recall easily a lot of the shots I saw which I would suggest is a testament to the image’s power.