July 5, 2013 6:22 pm

Picture imperfect

This year’s Arles festival features fine examples of photojournalism and photography – but raises questions about the wider role of art
‘Rome, 1959’ by Sergio Larraín©Magnum

‘Rome, 1959’ by Sergio Larraín

Silk banners hang like battle trophies from the bare medieval walls of a church, bright shifting colours against the plain stone. Others are draped over the shoulders of mannequins, looking like ecclesiastical vestments of a peculiar restraint and elegance. These are colour studies by Hiroshi Sugimoto, abstract harvests of wavelengths through a prism, and one of the great displays of this year’s Rencontres de la Photographie at Arles.

Photography online

Photograph by Luc Delahaye

The Prix Pictet, the international award in photography and sustainability that features some of the world’s finest photographers, made two news announcements this week at the Rencontres d’Arles. The theme of its fifth cycle – following Water, Earth, Growth and Power – will be Consumption. And from May 2014 the prize is to be presented in partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The Financial Times has been the Prix Pictet’s media partner since its inception in 2008.

One small trouble is that they drive a wedge through the chosen theme of the festival this year, which is black-and-white photography. They’re not all that abstract either. As well as colour studies, the Sugimoto works are also silk scarves produced by Hermès Editeur, and available through their website at $7,000 each (editions of seven). This is not a lot for a Sugimoto, and you’ll have to be quick if you want one.

This beautiful display sums up a number of questions that one can ask at (and about) the Arles festival. Where photography stops; what the relations are or should be between an art festival and the commercial entities that thrive on that art, and so on. A family of such big questions obtrude themselves perhaps more forcefully than in most years of the festival.

A giant Wolfgang Tillmans show is a litmus test of the festival audience. Tillmans has photographed – apparently indiscriminately – subjects that include Heathrow airport, computers, Dubai, astronomy, water, China, a toucan ... He supplies an ostinato in a number of recurring themes: the sharp angular cut lines of modern car headlamps, for example. Several of his abstract “Silver” studies are included, prints deliberately developed in poorly cleaned chemicals. These are an invitation to reflect on the older, vanishing physicality of photographs, anchored in the reactions to light of various salts of silver. Tillmans is inquiring into what makes any view of the world a specific view, testing to destruction the old axes of interesting/not interesting or good picture/bad picture.

The old photo crowd can’t stand this kind of thing: you can see them rattling through the exhibition, giving up almost as soon as they come in. As it happens, it is far from Tillmans’ best. There’s a silly vanity to the ridiculous scale of the pictures and a braggadocio about the whole show that the more thoughtful Tillmans of 10 years ago never allowed himself. The contemporary art crowd, on the other hand, doesn’t mind that it’s not very good. Here are two ways of reacting to photographs, meeting in Arles. But Tillmans’ is still a mighty challenging inquiry to pursue. It is, it goes without saying, in bright colour.

It is also the exhibition variant of a book (Neue Welt) that has already been published (Taschen). This, too, has been a recurring sub-theme of the festival at Arles for a number of years. Almost every show is an incarnation of a book. I wish curators could show more courage. Soon there will be no need to come to the festival: a good computer trawl through lists of books will bring an interested person up to speed. If the pictures in a show are digital prints off the same machines as the smaller ones in the book, and if the selection in the show merely reprises that of the book, then there is really no great reason to see the show. This is a problem that will not go away.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Hermès silk scarf©Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Hermès silk scarf

The director of the Rencontres d’Arles is a former employee of picture agency Magnum, and even if the festival routinely has, in my view, too large a number of exhibitions of the works of Magnum photographers, some of the standout shows are nonetheless from Magnum people. Sergio Larraín was restless, a traveller, more than vaguely spiritual – a photographer from the same mould as Bernard Plossu, politically engaged yet an outsider. He died in 2012 having not really found his niche as a photojournalist, and having returned to his native Chile. He used a lovely variation between blocks of heavy black to provide the structure in each picture, against a velvety ground in a register of pale greys. Two different styles of printing happily coexist on each print, and they have a soulful quality that suits the subject matter of social deprivation and the struggle for a decent existence. I had never seen before a wonderful view of a street in Rome (in 1959), complete with Vespa, taken from the level of a piece of litter in the gutter.

If a show merely reprises a book’s selection of the same digital prints, there is no great reason to see it

Alfredo Jaar is another Chilean, a conceptual artist whose particular inquiry is often about the media. A major group of works at Arles includes “The Sound of Silence”; it dates from 1995 but still offers one provocative way of thinking about the effects of photographs. It is a film, shown in a darkened room that one approaches after being briefly blinded by a huge bank of some 200 or more fluorescent lights. The film is blunt and frightening and tells of the life and death of Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. It asks big questions about the relationship of photographs to the lives they affect.

Arles is crowded with fine things of that kind, and not a few are as strong and upsetting as Jaar’s film. There is a thought-provoking current of vernacular photography, from the careful collaged reworkings of John Stezaker to the products of Middle Eastern studios recovered by the Arab Image Foundation and Erik Kessels’ mining of old family albums and of Flickr. The playful self-representation of Gilbert Garcin, who makes absurd existentialist situations somewhat in the manner of the great French cartoonist Sempé, is not exactly vernacular but has an endearingly direct approach to its message.

Car headlight (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans©Wolfgang Tillmans

Car headlight (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

The Discovery Awards for younger photographers are disappointing this year, but include a frightening set of unknown pictures from the events in Turkey surrounding the Kizildere Massacre (late 1960s to early 1970s). Arno Rafael Minkkinen is an artist who uses his own body in interventions in the landscape – including such things as burying himself in snow – all originally in reaction to being born with a cleft palate. Pieter Hugo (who is South African) shows digitally altered portraits in which the colour of the skin is made uncertain.

This edition of the Rencontres d’Arles is bursting with good stuff, and offers many invitations to think as well as to see. A good app now usefully guides visitors.

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Les Rencontres d’Arles 2013, France, until September 22

www.rencontres-arles.com

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