Galerie Huit Arles: If Walls Could Talk

An interview with founder, owner and curator of Galerie Huit Arles, Julia de Bierre

Situated within a late 17th century mansion, in the historical centre of the UNESCO world heritage site of Arles, lies Galerie Huit Arles, which has been at the heart of the town’s photography scene since its inception in 2007. This is no mean feat. The small Provencal town is home to Les Rencontres d’Arles, the world’s first and foremost photography festival.

The doors of the gallery open onto a neo-classical salon, its painted and gilded panels displaying a changing selection of modern photographs, before moving across a series of artfully decorated rooms, stylistically spanning several centuries. Julia de Bierre, Galerie Huit Arles’ owner, founder and curator, has always ensured she exhibits an array of high-profile works on the gallery walls. Soon after opening, she presented the V&A Museum’s Theatre Department exhibition of photographer Simon Annand’s ‘The Half’. She has shown a number of photographic installations, including that of Matthias Olmeta in the below-stair vaults, and series such as Clementine Schneidermann’s ‘I called her Lisa Marie’, and Vee Speers’ 2017 ‘Dystopia’ show. The gallery’s artist-in-residence programme has also hosted many remarkable photographers, including Minnie Weisz.

OpenWalls Arles is a great opportunity for both emerging and established photographers to exhibit their works on these illustrious walls. We spoke to judge and host Julia to get a sense of the gallery, the award, and its theme.

Galerie Huit Arles

Can you tell me about Galerie Huit Arles?

In 2007, I was fortunate to find a semi-ruined 17th century mansion right in the historic centre of Arles, with an extensive ground floor ideal for art exhibitions, and rooms above for artists’ residencies. At that time, there were very few independent galleries in Arles, so it was pioneering work. Now, the town absolutely buzzes with art galleries, both permanent and pop-up. My gallery specialises in photography, and its summer programme coincides with the world-renowned photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Over the years, the gallery has built a solid reputation for its careful selection of artists – both established and emerging – and the quality and originality of its hangings and installations. The diverse salon settings create an inspirational and convivial atmosphere, and we encourage visitors to take time to interact with the work.

Why did you select Arles as the location for your gallery?

My photographer friends – including the late Lucien Clergue, co-founder of Les Rencontres d’Arles – had already given me a taste of the Arles magic back in the 1980s and ’90s. As a heritage conservationist, I was also attracted by Arles’ UNESCO World Heritage site status. The possibility of a sophisticated yet bohemian lifestyle, in the heart of sunny Provence, with a growing number of culturally and ecologically aware inhabitants connected to the LUMA Foundation was also a great pull. The only real downside to Arles is the occasional mistral wind!  

What is the atmosphere like there during Les Rencontres d’Arles?

The immensely influential Rencontres d’Arles summer festival, founded in 1969, is the highlight of the year. Public and private spaces all over town are devoted to disseminating the very best of world photography, through exhibitions, workshops, conferences and projections. The opening week in July is especially intense, as the Who’s Who of the photography world descends on Arles to participate in this extraordinary celebratory event. Arles is largely pedestrian, which also gives the festival a delightfully human-scale touch, just right for spontaneous networking and late-night partying.

Why did you choose to host OpenWalls at Galerie Huit Arles?

I have huge respect for the British Journal of Photography. It has really stood the test of time, recognising the need to evolve within the rapidly changing photography scene, whilst also retaining its integrity and core values. It’s the magazine I use to stay photographically tuned-in. It widens my horizons and pushes me to explore images and ideas that I might miss if left to my selective, gallery- honed aesthetic.

One of Galerie Huit’s specifics is an openness to artistic exploits. Hosting OpenWalls is an exciting opportunity to create an outstanding curated exhibition in an unusual setting. And as a rare British national in Arles – albeit Malaysian-born and French by marriage – I feel it particularly apposite to be hosting in partnership with the BJP, which is British-based and yet the most global of photographic magazines.

What are you expecting the response to be to the theme ‘Home & Away’?

I think that the response to the theme of ‘Home & Away’ will reflect all the qualities, and possibly contradictions, of the BJP readership: talented, informed, curious, conventional, cutting-edge, international or home-grown, and numerous!

What sorts of images do you hope to see?

Since I’m a member of the Jury, I prefer to remain silent about the images I hope to see. When sitting on the jury of photographic competitions, I’m continually astounded by what can be produced by the medium – intellectually, aesthetically, and technically. Of course, it’s always a bit heart-breaking announcing the winner when several proposals fit the bill.

What advice would you give to photographers submitting their work?

Follow the submission guidelines to the letter. If sending several images, make sure it’s a cohesive body of work and in sequence. An artist’s statement invariably needs careful editing.