ARLES 2014 in brief

I again made the photo-pilgrimage down to Arles in the South of France where the Open College of the Arts were due to meet for a couple of days. This time there was a gathering of only 8 students, seven of whom were male. Last year there had been about 20. This seemed unfortunate as the study visits are free (one has to make one’s arrangements for travel, lodging and eating) and offer guidance to the student around what is a huge festival in which there are over 50 exhibitions to see.

I arrived a couple of days before Gareth Dent (CEO of the OCA) and two tutors, Sharon Boothroyd (who happens to be my tutor at present) and Keith Roberts (who I had met at Liverpool a year or so before) because I wanted to see more of what was on show.

On my first afternoon, I went to the Bureau DesLices to see the exhibition of Chinese photobooks assembled by Martin Parr and Wassinklundgren that is due to be released as a book. There were also other exhibitions to see here (5 in all) and although the OCA group were due to visit they never did; I neglected to blog about this thinking I would be revisiting and finding there to be too much to consider. After this, I saw a film about Van Gogh which was moving.

On the second day, I visited the Lucien Clergue exhibition. He is a master of black and white as well as being one of the founders of the Arles festival that has been running annually since the late 1960s. There were a lot of naked breasts in this exhibition and I got teased a bit when I had dinner that evening with some other OCA students who had also come early. There were also a lot of naked breasts in the exhibition showing postcards from the colonies (one of the exhibitions I had seen on the previous day) which lead onto a quite intense debate on the nature of colonialism yet what do those of us born after the colonial era really know of such times?

The day before the OCA visit, a few of us went to see a number of exhibitions that were not on the OCA agenda. These included a number of portraiture exhibitions by photographers Denis Rouvre (one of the best exhibitions I saw but hampered by my lack of understanding of the French language), Patrick Swirc and Vincent Perez. There was also an exhibition of work by promising students and we went out of town to see exhibitions at the Abbey of Montmajour In the late efternoon, I went to see a film about Vivien Maier, the nanny in America (her family were originaly from France) who took lots of photographs that were of high quality but were only discovered by chance after her death. In the evening, there was a meeting of the OCA group (minus a couple of students) over dinner which I arranged.
The OCA study visit began with a visit to The Walthur Collection at Espace Van Gogh which was followed by a chat over coffee and then the W.M.Hunt Collection. The OCA staff encouraged us to approach the exhibitions in a definite way by considering the significance of strategy in the work we saw as well as the importance of presentation. The first relates to the way a photographer might approach his subject (this was very evident in Erik Kessels presentation of Dutch documentary photographers).

In the afternoon, we saw more art orientated work which I have to admit I did not feel very inspired by although I liked it; tutor Sharon Boothroyd later interviewed the photographer sometime after our visit. This was followed, after a welcome recreational gap, by dinnner in the evening at Le Blanc Mule which I found a bit dull; the band was noisy and the conversation seemed to be taking place around the other end of the long 15 strong table.

On the second day we limited ourselves to Les Ateliers (about to be converted into an Arts centre), starting by seeing the documentary work put togeher by Erik Kessels who had exhibited at Arles in 2013. There were also a lot of photographic books to see that had appeared over the year and were stretched out over a long table.

The second part of the morning was devoted to a review of Prix Pictet winners (I liked all the work and was interested to see Nadav Kander’s work) and for me, the surprise of this year, the Surrealistic masterpieces of Chema Madoz.

Our final visit, in the afternoon, was to The Discovery Award that featured a number of photographic exhibitions; we were asked to choose our favourite and mine almost a forgone conclusion (I had seen the Yellow River exhibition in Beijing) did win the award which I was glad to see as it did strike me as exceptional. I would like to have seen more work but decided to get some lunch (I had spent too much time with Chema Madoz!!)

On the final evening, we had a social on the terrace of the hotel; nuts and beer and choccy biscuits. I fell asleep at one point! There was some conversation.

A final dinner with fellow students at the Actes Sud restaurant by the river where thousands of mothlike insects swarmed at one point. The next morning a complimentary coffee and a walk to the station for the journey home. Richard, a fellow student, was there also Gareth, Keith and Sharon from the OCA; a pleasant end to a pleasant trip in which we got to see an awful lot of extremely good work.

I did buy a few books. One of Raymond Depardon’s exhibition of First World War monuments (the exhibition had closed and it seemed a good example of a typology and how an accomplished photographer dealt with it), a book of the Lucien Clerge exhibition (it seemed like a slice of photographic art history) and also a book about Van Gogh that examines the places he painted and shows photographs of them alllongside the paintings. Other books that also interested me were a collection of Chema Madoz (a rather large expensive book), the collection of photographs from Denis Rouvre’s exhibition as well as the definitive book of Karl Blossfeldt’s work. It is not just the lure of Amazon offereing cheaper deals, there is a limit to the amount I can carry home while many of these books are French editions and English editions might be available.

There is talk of next year but with the poor student turn out this is in question. Unfortunate because the festival is a great learning experience.