A Postcard From Arles

© Niko Djavanshir

© Niko Djavanshir

Pool parties, guerilla galleries, and pitchers of rosé. This year, we attended the opening week of the 49th edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles. Here’s what we saw.

The first thing to note about the annual pilgrimage to Arles is that you will bump into everyone you know. Queuing to board the plane at Luton airport, I spot several colleagues, some people I have never met but have spoken to over email and then looked up on LinkedIn, and even the father of a childhood friend. This sets the tone for the rest of the festival. By day two, I expect the sound of familiar laughter at the end of each winding Provençal street.

Les Rencontres d’Arles is a special event in the lively photography calendar. Regarded as the biggest and best-respected photography festival in the world, it’s a time to celebrate photography in all its forms, to reunite with old acquaintances, and to make new ones.

Our first day begins with a casual stroll around the streets, marvelling at details like doors and shutters, which are all strangely compelling, perhaps because we have seen them immortalised so many times in Van Gogh’s paintings. We wander into the Église des Frères Prêcheurs, where Paul Graham is exhibiting ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, a show encapsulating three bodies of work made in the United States between 1998 and 2011. Through huge, overexposed images and full-colour photographs, Graham captures the parts of people’s lives that often go unnoticed, giving way to questions surrounding socioeconomic divisions, and the overwhelming vastness of America.

© Bryony Fraser

One of the themes of this year’s festival is ‘America Great Again!’, which considers America through foreign eyes. Photography heavyweights Robert Frank and Raymond Depardon are both exhibiting seminal work in the Espace Van Gogh, the hospital Van Gogh was treated in after he cut his ear off, which is now a library and exhibition site. Frank’s ‘Sidelines’ charts aspects of 1950s poverty-stricken America, showing images that shocked the world on their initial publication. Depardon’s politically-charged exhibition takes place upstairs, with his photographs documenting the Democratic party from 1968 and beyond.

We end our day at the Women in Photography event at the Hotel du Forum, hosted by TJ Boulting’s Hannah Watson. It’s a celebratory affair, culminating in several glasses of prosecco and a dive bomb into the pool.

Continuing a focus on the tumultuous year of 1968, on the second day we take off for one of the festival’s main exhibitions, ‘1968, What a Story!’ at Croisiére. The extensive show includes images from the Paris police archives, and Marcello Brodsky’s ‘The Fire of Ideas’ series, providing insight into the social, cultural and political context of this seismic year. We sit down afterwards in the main square, to contemplate the days’ activities, and to consume several well-deserved scoops of ice cream.

In the afternoon, we take a look at Jonas Bendiksen’s exhibition ‘The Last Testament’, which chronicles seven men claiming to be the Messiah. René Burri’s ‘The Imagined Pyramids’, is more conceptual, and records Burri’s infatuation with pyramids and their geometry. Seeing his work, and tendency to capture a glimpse of these shapes in everything, for the rest of the day I find myself spotting them too.

© Bryony Fraser

Beyond the main exhibitions, there is Voies Off, an alternative festival that has been running alongside Rencontres for the last 23 years. Open well into the night, shows are held in adhoc buildings dotted throughout the town; Irena Jurca’s work, for example, is being shown in an estate agency, and each night at midnight, the Cour de l’Archevêché turns into a dance floor in honour of the festival.

An unexpected highlight of Arles is the group of widely-unknown photographers who descend on the streets, travelling from across the globe with glue, rolled-up posters, and a paintbrush in hand, and emblazoning their work on the walls. The outcome is a mix of two-foot tall portraits at every street corner, and serene landscapes dotted around the squares. For a month each year, Arles is transformed into a vibrant public art exhibition.

Our trip wouldn’t be complete without going to see Julia de Bierre’s Galerie Huit Arles, which lies next to the impressive amphitheatre. We arrive just in time for her cocktail party, where we find a flurry of guests eating canapés and admiring the Rococo guest’s salon, adorned with Erin Gilat’s unsettling still lives. We take a moment to digest our surroundings; the warm French country kitchen, high ceilings, and panelled walls, where we will be hosting our first OpenWalls exhibition next year.

There is never enough time to see everything in Arles, and suddenly I have run out of time to catch all of the exhibitions and talks on my list. At the end of our third day, with blisters, mosquito bites, and rosé swimming in our veins, we board the plane home. Ending the festival as it began, I find myself sitting next to an old photography teacher on the journey home.  

By Sarah Roberts

© Bryony Fraser