Rencontres d’Arles Needs to “Up its Game”

Amos Gitai at the Eglise des Fréres Précheurs. ©Erika Gentry

The Rencontres d’Arles needs to up it’s curatorial game. This year’s A French School directed by Francois Hebel was a disappointment  but with a few gems below.

Sophie Calle’s “For the First and Last Time”. ©Erika Gentry

Given the ingredients of the Rencontres d’Arles, a quaint Roman town with a dedicated audience of experts and amateurs, potential exists for one rockin’ festival.  No matter the photography, visitors always amusé bien under the bath of a starry starry night with vin rosé flowing and social connections buzzing but the exhibitions themselves suffered from poor overall vision. This vibe ran throughout the festival with some exception, hurting the overall impression and reputation of the festival’s quality. On the street, one couple admitted that next summer they would be “going to Germany instead”. Even with the charm of Arles, The Rencontres, one of the oldest photography festivals in Europe is up against an increasing number of other European summer photography festivals popping up in other parts of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, etc.

Nuit De L’Annee showcases free nighttime projections works from editorial supporters but could also use better curation. ©Erika Gentry

Not since Nan Goldin’s super star presence as curator in 2009 has the overall quality of the festival been truly admired. It’s easy to suspect that a shrinking budget is part of the challenge for the Rencontres as the festival’s director is also its art curator.  Sizable attention on Arles’ very own Ecole National Superior de Photography “ENSP” could be seen as an effort to eliminate and simplify the need for international partners (last year’s Mexico pulled funding after Mexican/French political tensions) and make efforts to bring attention to the city and school itself. As a matter of fact, this year’s Rencontres was supported by one of the French presidents  “grand projects”.  Unfortunately, most people outside of Arles don’t care about distinguishing between the “French School” and just plain ole’ good international photography. Thus, the touted strength of the festival is also its weakness.  Focusing the majority of the festival on  photographers  from the “French School” should be questioned within the caliber of a worldwide photography festival. A smaller celebratory and finer exhibit of this work would  better serve visitors and ENSP alumni photographers alike.

The ongoing presence of the Magnum photography group, while always revered, can be considered somewhat predictable and an easy “plug-in” for this festival. Magnum talent is without a doubt delicious to view and the content well-organized, but already widely seen, packaged and ready with much of it available on the magnum website. This year, Magnum held its annual meeting in Arles, while I’m sure at the same time, striking a deal with the city for content/accommodation swap. Josef Koudelka’s works and public lectures were a rare treat – but one of the few really strong lectures in this year’s line up.

Les Ateliers – the main galleries at the Rencontres. ©Erika Gentry

While Magnum’s Josef Koudelka and Elliott Erwitt were the stars of the festival – these festivals should also serve to showcase more emerging talents, technological experiments  and contemporary points of view, which were severely lacking.  The only thing broaching these were this year’s “Discovery Award” nominees who’s nominators were a bit obscure as well. The below list indicates my pick of photographers to see but several of them are not necessarily “emerging” and already have fairly accomplished art careers leading one to wonder about the qualifications for this award.

So in conclusion – to go or not to go to Arles? Absolutely. But bring your mosquito repellent, critical sun cap, and voice your vote for real curators in 2013.

Zanele Muholi (South Africa) discusses her respectful portraits of South African identities in her work “So They Have Eyes To See”. ©Erika Gentry

Exhibition picks:
Amos Gitai
Josef Koudelka
Dorothée Smith
Sophie Calle
Muriel Toulemonde
Grégoire Alexandre
Vincent Fournier
Isabelle Le Minh

Discovery Award Favorites:
Jonathan Torgovnik (South Africa)** Winner
Lucas Foglia (US)
Hannah Whitaker (US)
Zanele Muholi (South Africa)
Chu Ha Chung (South Korea)
Hasan &Husain Essop (South Africa)

See Lens Culture’s slideshow of the work at the 2012 Rencontres.

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