Back In Black

Fred Ritchin files a dispatch from Les Rencontres d’Arles.
black and white photograph

Sergio Larrain, Main Street in Corleone, Sicily, 1959. © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

Sitting under a hot sun at one of the several outdoor cafés in the Place du Forum, surrounded by photographers, curators, tourists, and an occasional waiter, one cannot but reflect on the recent changes in the world of photography through the lens of this pioneering festival—now over forty years old. While there are numerous exhibitions saluting older or deceased (nearly all male) heroes from the field (Gordon Parks, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Daido Moriyama, and Sergio Larrain, among others), there are comparatively few shows that give a sense of the medium’s possible futures. It feels, in a sense, like a convention of nineteenth-century oil painters—this is, after all, Van Gogh territory—who are still confused and somewhat in shock over the invention of another new medium (in their case, photography) that challenges the primacy of their own. This year’s theme, in fact, is “Arles in Black,” a nod to the glory days of black-and-white photography of the last century, a moment when photographic artists and documentarians were clearly ascendant. (It may also be, unconsciously or not, a title that acknowledges a certain amount of mourning.)

There are highlight exhibitions, including a nostalgic, finely curated display of photographic albums by Erik Kessels (much more interesting than an adjacent room containing one day’s worth of photographs uploaded to Flickr, a conceptual piece which he had previously shown at Foam in Amsterdam); the superb Gordon Parks retrospective, situated at a distance from the town’s center in the old Atelier area, which forcefully documents decades of American racism and also his varied gifts as an artist; and a viscerally disturbing, well-printed black-and-white standout show of photographs by Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, which explores the acute, rasping agony of animals in captivity and the simultaneous spiritual decline of humans.

One of the best of the outdoor evening projections, a group project called Transitions that focuses on the deteriorating social landscape in South Africa, features work by a dozen photographers (half South African, half French and Belgian). It was at times extraordinarily moving in its depiction of the havoc caused by fracking and gold and diamond mining, including the dislocation of entire mountains in search of precious metals. Raphaël Dallaporta’s zig-zagging color aerial photographs made with a drone and Alain Willaume’s eerily compelling, subtle images of dust storms were standouts, as were Zanele Muholi’s color images of young South African women at a Zulu ceremony. Unfortunately, the prints hung on the wall from the same project looked more like a school exhibit, lacking the grandeur and the tonalities of the images projected onto the large screen.

color photograph

Zanele Muholi, Untitled, 2013.

Alfredo Jaar’s retrospective felt somewhat dated: critiquing Newsweek and Life is less pertinent than it once was, given the diminished stature of these and other magazines. Nonetheless, it emerges as one of the only thought-provoking, politically engaged exhibitions at the festival. Located in a medieval church, the Église des Frères Prêcheurs, Jaar installed the work so that there remains something of the sacred about it—a welcome change from the commercial underpinnings of the gallery. His public conversation about the media landscape with veteran curator and writer Christian Caujolle needed to be amplified with many other such conferences engaging the changing contexts for photography.

The star of this edition of the festival is undoubtedly Chilean photographer and Magnum member Sergio Larrain, who had largely disappeared from public view for many years. Upon his death a few years ago it has become easier to display his work, both his photographs and his mystically oriented notebooks. It is a confused legacy—he comes across as both a passionate seeker of peace and enlightenment and a bit of a self-involved crank. His decades-old black-and-white photographs from Valparaiso, Chile, and elsewhere remain powerful, lyrical depictions of the spiritual life of people who happen to be poor. But featuring him for three straight evenings during the nighttime projections in the outdoor ampitheater may have been too much. His rediscovery is more than laudable, but so many issues he raised are being pursued by others who might also have benefitted from the spotlight of the stage.

A highlight: running into a young Dutch woman who is part of a group of five embarked on a project to diminish the number of images in the world. It is called “ED: Restoring the Value of Photography Through Editing.” They are planning to present the results of their endeavor this September at Unseen, the Amsterdam festival. Surrounded by the fifty exhibitions on view here and the many young artists showing portfolios, their project gives one pause: in our media-saturated world, less may well be more.

The exhibitions at Les Rencontres d’Arles run through September 22, 2013. For more information, click here.

black and white photograph

Anonymous photographer, undated. Included in Erik Kessels’s exhibition Album Beauty.

Sergio Larrain: Photographs by Sergio Larrain will be available in Fall 2013.