Arles the fun of the fair

Photography has for years been going through growth pains as a result of the move to digital and Rencontres d’Arles, the annual festival dedicated to photography, has of necessity turned some of its collective attention to that.

For a show called From Here On, a group of industry insiders (including Martin Parr, the British photographer, and Clément Chéroux, head of photographs at the Centre Pompidou) select from the tide of pictures available online, reordering and editing accordingly. The results vary considerably in quality. The rising French photographer Thomas Mailaender is shown operating with coarse but pleasant wit. He has installed a group of some hundred images in a chicken run. It is hard to know which are the more bemused, the visitors to the show, or the chickens. Too much of this stuff culled from the internet is either pretentious or rude in a childish and predictable way, and that applies as much to this particular exhibition as to the festival as a whole.

In From Here On, most interesting among the rude series was a grid of dozens of found pictures put together by Frank Schallmaier. Taken presumably for dating sites, these show naked or near-naked men engaged in making the self-portraits they post online. Always done in the bathroom mirror, every one of them has his face blotted out by his own flash. The contrast is between the accidental anonymity that results from this incompetent self-portraiture and its perfect appropriateness in the context.

Arles is particularly good for that kind of experience. There are large numbers of shows, both in the official programme and in fringe events, that give pause for thought but would not justify a special trip to view. The special subject this year is Mexico and among a group of more meaty exhibitions is one that fits this see-once category. Daniela Rossell has made pictures of rich Mexican ladies in their own homes. The prints are terrible digital slush and the editing is poor but for the sheer assault on good taste, the show has to be seen to be believed. Kitsch doesn’t begin to cover the palate of the Mexican super-rich in this view.

In strong contrast is a terrific retrospective devoted to Graciela Iturbide. This charmingly sensitive Mexican photographer is always tagged as a follower of Manuel Alvarez Bravo but she has grown into much more. Starting as a plain ethnographic photographer, she has increased in range and resonance with every project. She is visibly interested in the culture of photography, while always varying her vocabulary to her subject. Her studies of great flocks of roosting birds, sinister and frightening, are deliberately in the manner of the ravens seen by Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase. Quite different is the little series she made when invited to photograph the bathroom of Frida Kahlo, which had been a long-closed part of the Kahlo museum. Kahlo’s genius is bound in with a lifetime of health problems stemming mainly from a bad bus accident when she was a teenager, and Iturbide’s careful navigation of her pain is subtle and graceful.

Iturbide’s show is, without question, one of the highlights of this year’s Rencontres d’Arles. Beautifully curated and produced, it does what a good retrospective should. It elevates Iturbide above the already very high status she had before.

Enrique Metinides is a veteran easily described in shorthand as a Mexican Weegee. He is a disaster photographer who stares death unblinkingly in the eye. Associated for years with the paper La Prensa, Metinides is certainly more than a ghoul and his pictures have both social and graphic strength. Sometimes, one of his endless catalogue of deaths is beautiful, as in a view of an unfortunate electricity worker electrocuted on a high-tension line, who stayed there, spread-eagled in the sky, anchored by his harness. Metinides often photographs the crowds at his accident sites and their strange relish of death is one of the puzzles in his work. So, of course, is ours, as we look at the pictures.

There is a strong exhibition devoted to the so-called “Mexican Suitcase”, a cache of Spanish civil war negatives by Robert Capa, his girlfriend Gerda Taro and Chim (David Seymour) that surfaced recently and have been well researched and shown by the International Center of Photography in New York. The “Suitcase” has caused a certain amount of excitement but its discovery points out once again how photography lags in scholarship behind other arts. Chim, in particular, is comparatively unknown, even though he was a founder of Magnum and a good trawl through the illustrated magazines of his time would certainly have shown just how excellent he was. Yet that research has had to wait until the chance discovery of one section of his relics. One image here, a view of a Basque fishing port by Chim, was of such tender complexity that I determined to see more of his pictures as soon as I could.

The focus on Mexico is a success, by and large, and is the core of the festival. But one exhibition consists of one single work. The contemporary Chinese artist Wang Qingsong has achieved some startling prices at auction and figured in several important shows. Until recently I was troubled a little by the excessive simplicity of his work. His practice is to make large tableaux, each with a relatively direct message, often about the collision of Chinese and western culture. Once grasped, there was no real reason ever to look again. They were posters, graphically pleasing but unitary. I had formed the view that Wang Qingsong was rather like old Chinese porcelain that was simplified for export. But he has now made a work that retains that poster-like directness but has shed any semblance of simplicity.

“The History of Monuments”, displayed in a church in Arles, is a frieze more than 40 metres long and more than a metre tall. It contains figures grouped to remake famous statues. Here is a “Victory of Samothrace”, there a Statue of Liberty. Three Graces, a Laocoön. Two different Davids (Donatello, Michelangelo). “The Burghers of Calais” ... Wang has used pleasantly silly props – the Laocoön, for example, wrestles with flexible tubes from vacuum cleaners, doing duty as snakes. His humour has always been a part of his armoury. The figures are human models and they take their positions in shaped holes cut in a backdrop to fit them. This gives the effect of relief: some are bas-relief, some stick forward a little more than that. Actors, props and backdrop are smeared and daubed in a variety of clays. Some have had limbs removed by digital surgery. The obvious humanity of the actors, photographically visible in staring white eyes that could not be camouflaged, makes a counterpoint to the history of representation in stone. Wang parses the piece by saying the Chinese are exhorted to learn from these classical western figures but can have no idea who they are or what they are held to mean. It’s a huge thing, physically and in the references it delights in, and marks a step change for Wang in intelligence and daring.

All in all, a super festival this year, varied (as it should be) but with proper high points too.

Rencontres de Photographie d’Arles 2011, (most exhibitions) to September 18,

Tracking talent

For the Prix Découverte (Discovery Prize), five curators (one of them a group this year) are invited each to draw attention to three less-known photographers: a splendid way of seeing work for the first time. Among the strong ones in 2011:

Raphael Dallaporta

A steadily rising French star, definitely one for collectors to look out for. An earlier series presented landmines as objects of great beauty, photographed as in a catalogue. Here Dallaporta shows aerial photographs of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. Equipping a drone to overfly with great precision, then processing the pictures with careful mapping software, Dallaporta quietly reminds us that Afghanistan has a long and important culture that reaches beyond the latest headline.

Jo Ratcliffe

When Ratcliffe was growing up in South Africa, Angola was known as the Border, and ordinary South Africans had not much knowledge of what was done there in their name. Some five years after the war, Jo Ratcliffe made quiet but hard-hitting studies of the marks left on the landscape by the years of conflict. Made in an exquisite register of black-and-white, these pictures linger long after they have been seen.

Jacob Nzudie

A street photographer who works in Yaoundé – not in the street, but in the aisles of a supermarket. His pictures (edited with the help of the Swiss picture editor Jean-Luc Cramatte) show privileged Yaoundé customers (the supermarket is reserved for those with money, expatriates or rare Cameroonians) seen as they want to be seen, surrounded by goods, the evidence of their success as consumers. A pleasant, even funny, series with serious overtones.

Minoru Hirata

A Japanese photographer born in 1930, but appropriately described as a “discovery” for most visitors to Arles. His best known work is on Japanese street performance art from the 1960s, but he has also made intense studies of the island of Okinawa, long given over to the US military.

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