Arles Day 1 tuesday 2nd september 2014

The first exhibition I choose to see is the exhibition of Chinese photobooks. Not only hqve I recently been to China shortly before leaving, I heard Martin Parr talking about this exhibition in Bristol at the photobook week-end; I am also interested in the photographic representation of China that seems to have had more than its fair share of propaganda both for and against.The Chinese photobook exhibition shows different kinds of representation both political and non-political in intent.

One buys a ticket for this exhibition in The Bureau DesLices. On the fourth floor there is a cafe and a small bookshop and when one buys ones ticket, one is also given a light that one needs to negotiate the exhibition space that covers four floors which are largely in darkness. Five exhibitions are included which is too much to take in but I managed to see all of them in the 2 or so hours I spent there.

The Chinese photobook exhibition is fascinating. Not only does one get to see the actual books carefully protected in glass cases, there are also videos of some books so one is able to read them although the time allotted to each image is controlled and generally, one does not get more than a second per image which is not enough to fully absorb them. However, one does get a feeling for the books and their overall lay out. In other rooms, pages have been photocopied and blown up large so that one can see a selection of pages and enjoy them as art works on a wall.

The books vary enormously. There are photobooks by early Chinese photographers and by foreigners who visited China and spent time there. Some of these are little more than books of tourist snapshots showing prominent places yet there were made before tourism reached China and one can feel the wonder if not awe foreigners felt in the lovingly put together collections. Henri-Cartier Bresson was one of these visitors and this is an intriguing example of his work as well as an insightful view of China embelished by text from a Chinese authoress.

There are also books that clearly emphasise the political nature of photography and exploit it to its full extent.  Here, there are images of great political leaders notably Mao-tse-tung and images of the great social change they inspired. It is interesting to note that in some of these photobooks, the images of certain politicians have been removed following their fall from power.

This exhibition deserves more attention and this will be possible once the book containing its work is published.

There were two other exhibitions that also dealt with China. One showed Claude Hudelots collections of large panoramic formal group portraits of people. These exert a fascination on the eye even if only because there are so many people to see and examine. I was left wondering about the photographic technique employed in making these highly informative social documents.

Another exhibition shows a photo novel about a group of Albanians who visited China in the days of Mao. This was a puzzling array of images which purport to show a meeting between peoples of two communist countries.

The two other exhibitions had nothing to do with China directly although Bons Baisers des Colonies that show collections of native women from colonised countries does contain images of Chinese women. The emphasis here is on the subtle exploitation of women by colonialism when postcards were made so that those in the colonies could send back images of the women under their dominion; the fact many were scantily clad and erotically pictured underlines not only the male gaze that produced them but also a disrespectful attitude. Of course, it is too easy to get this out of perspective since not all post cards were of native women (we are not told of the percentage that were) and the curator does nothing to give an idea of the extent of this preoccupation presumably because she wants to us too see colonialism from a female perspective for a change. Some colonialist men set up with these local women and this is perhaps a more positive side to colonialism where subjects tended to be made unwelcome in their own countries occasionally brutally so. This exhibition left me thinking. I did not want to nod in agreement with the obvious message it conveyed which felt some what prudish, too one sided. Colonialists produced all kinds of photographs not merely candid views of women. It was excellently presented by curator Safia Belmenouar.

The final exhibition was a collection of objects that feature photographs. These belong to an American woman Daile Kaplan and was titled, Pop photographica: Images and Objects.

After seeing these exhibitions I visited the cinema at Actes Suds to see a film about Van Gogh, the Dutch painter who lived and painted around Arles. The blog is here