Still Meets Moving Image: The 54th Annual Les Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival [VIDEO]
By Michael KurcfeldSeptember 1, 2023
CHRISTOPH WIESNER, the recently installed latest director of Les Rencontres d’Arles—Europe’s preeminent international photography festival—introduced the first program organized under his aegis by asserting that the art of photography is “a seismograph of our times” that “capture[s] our world’s state of consciousness.” In its 54th annual edition, this prestigious festival offers a vast and kaleidoscopic range of visions and perspectives, past and present, that together conjure an image-based description of what our river of humanity values and confronts at this moment in time. Almost every subject under the sun is addressed in exhibitions mounted in this Provençal town’s churches, museums, medieval chambers, and repurposed industrial spaces, and unpacked in panels and at celebratory opening-week evening gatherings in its Roman amphitheater.
As one takes in the exhibitions—both large and intimate, personal and political, classical and cutting-edge—the most prevalent thread of this edition emerges: photography as related to cinema. Here are some of the key shows among a dozen others that deserve honorable mentions.
AGNÈS VARDA: This influential and much-adored French New Wave film director, who passed away at 90 in 2019, was also an avid and keen-eyed photographer who instinctively and symbiotically fused the two mediums in the course of a career that deftly blurred the line between fiction and documentary. There are tandem displays of her work at Arles this year. The main one links her photographs to her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1955), displaying her tightly composed, storyboard-like studies of the film’s cast and setting, the small eponymous fishing village near Sète in the South of France where her family sought refuge during World War II. The film is both an invented double love story and an intimate yet unsentimental portrait of that milieu and its actual denizens. Varda’s photographs schematize them as much as the film animates them, in domestic and fishing scenes as well as such local-color folk pastimes as water jousting. The show suggests that Varda’s photographic imagination was what led her to sensitively innovate in the film medium even before New Wave pioneers like François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol got around to it.
The other exhibition was curated by art-world Svengali Hans Ulrich Obrist to honor his longtime working friendship with Varda (on view at the LUMA Foundation’s eccentric tower, designed by Frank Gehry). It includes photo works related to Le Bonheur (1965), Varda’s scandal-inciting film about adultery that foreshadowed the sexual revolution of the late 1960s; and a life-size greenhouse—Cabane de cinéma (“Cinema Shack”), one of a series of artful installations she made almost entirely of film strips of her own films. Also on view at LUMA is the triptych and installation titled Patatutopia that she created for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, which whimsically exalts the sprouts and roots of heart-shaped potatoes. “I celebrate the resistance of this vegetable,” mused Varda in characteristic reverence for earthy realms—which led to her 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I. (From the festival catalog: “The film dealt with the act of recovering, collecting, recycling, and giving new life to discarded objects and food, reflecting Varda's own process of capturing moments of life.”) She continued, “I have the [utopian thought] that one can see the beauty of the world in a sprouted potato.” One contrasts this blithe paean to the lowly tuber to Arles’s homeboy Van Gogh’s lugubrious The Potato Eaters (1885).
GREGORY CREWDSON: No photographer comes closer to the elaborate production feats required by location moviemaking than Crewdson, who often employs more than 100 crew members to stage his meticulously constructed scenes, distilled to haunting large-scale still images. Each picture is a puzzle of personal memory, even trauma, that he expands and freezes into elegiac reveries on the desolate suburbia and backwater communities not far from his Connecticut base (he teaches at Yale). These dour images, exquisitely detailed, are a proxy for the America of withered dreams and soul-crushing isolation. The Arles retrospective covers the most potent series of his three-decade career—the trilogy of Cathedral of the Pines, An Eclipse of Moths, and Eveningside. Viewers see what appear to be dramatic film stills of mostly paired or solitary figures idling in natural terrain or nondescript hamlets, mournfully lit by streetlamps, affectlessly perched in or near vehicles or in front of drab main-street vendors, peered at through shop windows, languishing in lackluster houses—feckless souls in sullen settings. Yet Crewdson sees in all this gloom an almost spiritual glimmer, transcendent moments caught in enigmatic tableaux that seem fleeting but that crystallize a redemptive wisdom about the human condition, or rather its Middle American version.
WIM WENDERS: In 1976, this esteemed German film director (Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas; Buena Vista Social Club) shot The American Friend, based on a 1974 novel by Patricia Highsmith. Like Varda, Wenders was also enamored with photography, though at that time the device and format of choice was the Polaroid camera because of its ability to immediately produce shots of the sets during production, to be used for continuity. This instantaneity foretold the mass utility of today’s smartphones, with a crucial distinction: this analog ancestor made relatively durable printed objects, many of which are on display at Arles. Wenders also shot between takes, and we see the film’s two leads—Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz—as intensely focused figures not only in key scenes but also in unposed, off-duty moments. In one scene, Hopper, as Tom Ripley, even enacts a kind of suicidal ritual of shooting himself repeatedly with a Polaroid camera. Also of interest is a medium whose unalterable square aspect ratio reframes that of the film in relation to which it is made to work, arrests its temporal momentum, and places it on walls to be contemplated as memory, film history, directorial nuance, character study … and art.
SCRAPBOOKS: The introductory text of this mesmerizing exhibition describes the photo-laden scrapbooks used by artists and filmmakers as “hybrid objects, both diary and photo album, sketchpad and imaginary atlas.” The vivid collages on display, in page-by-page constructions, are a kind of visual version of automatic writing—channeling in edgy random grids of printed flotsam and memorabilia the meditations of artists in the midst of more formal creation, mostly for the big screen. The overall effect is almost voyeuristic, as if we’re peering into private journals meant to be off-limits to the public eye. Agnès Varda again appears at Arles here, with her collaged celebration of Jacques Demy’s filming of La baie des anges in 1962, the year they were married. William S. Burroughs, Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Derek Jarman, and other avant-garde filmmakers appear, along with writers and artists, in a form that can seem more intimate than the works for which they’re best known. For the fact of their spontaneity, irreproducibility, and noncommercial impetus, as marvels of serendipity and creative whim, these paste-up albums feel like fragile artworks, as they expose internal process and personal reflection, shreds of autobiography from a predigital era.
JACQUES LÉONARD: It may seem a leap to include this French documentary photographer, born in 1909, but he worked on filmmaking (as an editor at Gaumont Studios in Paris) for many years prior to producing his most important series, and one of the best shown at Arles—over 3,000 photographs of the nomadic Roma people living in the hilly Montjüic region of Barcelona between the 1950s and ’70s. Arguably because of his trained editor’s eye for discerning and selecting key moments in active sequences, Léonard’s shots of that community are as captivating, and definitive, as those of his more famous counterpart Josef Koudelka, the Czech French photojournalist who immortalized Roma communities around Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Léonard’s humanist oeuvre was almost inevitable: his father had been a Roma horse dealer, and Léonard married a Roma woman who was an artists’ model based in Barcelona, which afforded him unusually unguarded access to the sequestered lives of that particular society. His candid black-and-white shots of daily chores, pastimes, and cultural textures, along with often poignant portraits of families and individuals, push the images past frank documentary realism into an ennobling memorialization.
Three other shows are worth also highlighting:
CARRIE MAE WEEMS: Weems’s 35-year-career, much of it represented or alluded to in this massive multimedia exhibition mounted by the LUMA Foundation in a section of its cavernous Parc des Ateliers space (which used to be a train maintenance facility), is impossible to sum up in a paragraph. Beginning with her first significant piece—a series of candid photos of her own family conjured as a means of debunking an infamous 1965 racist theory by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (working under President Lyndon Johnson)—Weems works through one real-world iniquity after another. She has industriously interrogated racial issues in the United States—and the lived Black experience—in so many uniquely eloquent ways, using photographs, text, fabric, video, installation, dioramas, sideshows, and found images, that her evolving project The Shape of Things, central here, has become monumental in scope and technical wizardry. Ranging in scale from the intimacy of the Kitchen Table series to a seven-part multiscreen “Cyclorama” that commands an entire gallery, Weems’s work slyly confronts political, social, and personal realities—along with elegant homages, such as one for the recently deceased Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor—with manipulations of media and material, both vintage and new, that usually leave viewers profoundly moved and enlightened, and art-world accolades pouring forth.
SAUL LEITER: In 1946, Leiter moved to New York from Pittsburgh to become a painter. But the same found urban poetry that compelled fellow street photographers Robert Frank and William Klein seduced him into switching from brush to camera. He brought to the field a painter’s eye, however, and both his monochrome and later his color images veer further toward lyrical abstraction than those of his photographer cohort. Even as he embraced fashion photography for three decades, he rarely stopped producing obliquely composed and tonally emphatic images as an indefatigable flâneur about town. His subjects—unaware pedestrians and slivers of cityscape—were often fractured by radical framing into ambiguous planes and accents, sometimes leaving entire sections of flat black up against suggestive strata of urban life. When on the prowl, Leiter was more interested in discovering unique interplays of pure pictorial elements than in capturing odd or resonant human drama as in most street photography. In an entirely different vein, Leiter shot portraits of friends and family, and with his women subjects in particular, he had a knack for conveying their natural sensuality, even while opting for arresting angles. Also on view alongside his photographs are at least a dozen of Leiter’s small abstract paintings, in a pastel palette that Pierre Bonnard would have loved.
CHARLES FRÉGER: If there were an award at Arles for the most vivid anthropological gallery of Indigenous costumes, Frenchman Fréger would ace it. His series on the religious attire found around the Indian subcontinent, titled Aam Aastha, is part of his ongoing series on masquerades around the world. As anyone who has traveled in India knows, there are countless sects, and most employ devotional rituals to worship a seemingly infinite pantheon of gods and goddesses. These are duly hallowed by the fabrication and wearing of elaborate costumes worn by holy men—swamis and sadhus—who visually incarnate the deities of their respective religious groups. The sacred performances in India’s temples and shrines flow outward into the country’s photogenic streets, their saturated palettes coloring so much of daily life that most well-traveled photographers revel in spending time there. Fréger’s larger project seeks to reveal and celebrate what he thinks of as the “social skins” of humans around the globe, which offer clues to each society’s tensions and hierarchies. As described in the introductory text of this latest work, these exuberantly flamboyant creations are set against “a political background dominated by a Hindu Nationalism that tends to homogenize traditional practices.” Seen in that light, the theatrics of faith amount to acts of resistance and self-preservation.
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2023 runs through September 24.
Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist, originally from the print world, but since 1990 working in electronic media. He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Featured thumbnail: Carrie Mae Weems, from The Shape of Things, 2021, exhibited at LUMA Arles.
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