Photo © Graciele Iturbide, from her exhibition at Rencontres d'Arles

London-based writer Julian Lass filed this report on this year’s Rencontres d’Arles.

The Rencontres d’Arles 2011, the annual photography festival held in the South of France, wrapped up its professional week on Sunday July 10. This year, work by Mexican photographers, an exhibition of artists who use photography in their work and several multimedia and web-based pieces are highlights of the professional week, along with the usual offerings of portfolio reviews, vin rouge and pastis amid the city’s windy streets and outdoor cafes.

This year’s Discovery Award, which comes with a prize of €25,000 ($20,000), was given to South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse for their collaborative documentary project Ponte City, a representation of the 54-storey tower block, Ponte City, in Johannesburg, the tallest residential building in Africa. The result is shown in Arles with a giant, backlit Perspex tower, made up of hundreds of pictures of the residents, doors, windows, and televisions. “Working with somebody else has been very new for me,” said 30-year-old Subotzky, a Magnum photographer, “but it’s been very rewarding.” Their work, and all other exhibitions at the Rencontres, are on display through September 18.

The Discovery Award exhibition also showcases the work of 14 other photographers, nominated by four curators and the arts group Le Point du Jour. One of the nominators is Simon Baker, curator of photography at the Tate Modern, London. “Something that Arles is really good for is it allows you to show a piece in depth,” said Baker, whose exhibition at Arles highlights conceptual photographers. “What I wanted to do here was to draw out the relationships between different kinds of documentary practice.”

One of Baker’s nominees, Mark Ruwedel, is exhibiting a series in the Award that depicts abandoned doghouses. “ ‘Dog Houses’ has this brilliant sense of humor,” said Baker, “and conceptual photography, on the whole, doesn’t engage with wit.’ Another of Baker’s nominations is the young Lithuanian photographer Indre Serpytype. Her 1944-1991 shows homes in Lithuania that were appropriated by the KGB for interrogation and torture centres. After recording her search for the houses based on photos she’d found in an online archive, she then commissioned models of the houses and rephotographed them. Her thorough and fascinating documentation of this three-stage process excited Baker.

Arles is not just about the Discovery Award. Giulietta Verdom-Roe, a photographer from Scotland, said: “What I love about Arles is the variety of work. One minute you’re looking at something that is quite photojournalist, and the next minute it’s artists using photography.”

The exhibition “From Here On” is showcasing artists working with photography and the internet. Among the works in the exhibition, Claudia Sola’s multi-media piece “Being There” was much admired. ‘It’s eight minutes long,’ says Anna Stevens, from London, who is a co-writer of a photography blog, Contact. She liked it so much she watched it twice. “It’s a critique of the rubbishness of culture. But you come away from it thinking that that’s because we’re human and we’re also sentimental and silly.”

Photographer Armando Ribeiro, from Portugal, is a founding member of the photography ASA collective based in London, and agreed with Stevens: ‘I loved it. In opposition to pretty much everyone in that [From Here On] show, she actually had something to say about herself.’

But Yasmina Reggard, an independent photography curator from France based in London, preferred another internet-themed show: the exhibit of three photographers nominated for the Discovery Award by Chris Boot, executive director of Aperture Foundation. Although his nominees aren’t photographers in the traditional sense, they all probe the use of images on the web and community sites in subtle and suggestive ways. Artist David Horvitz, for example, explores, without any sense of being patronizing, how internet forums tend to formalize photography according to an amateur-photography aesthetic. Horvitz is refreshing for his enthusiasm and simplicity. Reggard, for example, liked him, “because he opens his work and shares it,’ she said. ‘He delights in how the web works.”

Several Mexican photographers are exhibiting at this year’s festival, among them Enrique Metinides, Dulce Pinzón and Daniela Rossell. But Armando Ribeiro enjoyed Graciela Iturbide’s retrospective the most, which was exhibited in a former cloister. Alinka Echeverria, who divides her time between Mexico and London, felt inspired watching an exhibition of films by cameraman Gabriel Figueroa, all projected inside a church. ”I spent hours looking at it,” she said. “It’s in an amazing setting.”

Maya Goded’s show is divided into two parts: Lipstick, a slideshow about prostitution on the Mexican border that was commissioned by Magnum Photos, and Land of Witches, a personal project Goded made at the same time. Sophie Gerrard, a photographer from Edinburgh, thought it was the best exhibition she’d seen in ages. “It tells you that your personal response to a commission is also a legitimate project,” she said. I was upset to find the Goded slide show wasn’t working when I went to look, which is also what happened at Pinzón’s quirky The Real Story of the Superheroes slide show, which shows Mexican immigrant workers in New York are dressed in superhero costumes. Maybe it was just me, but in a small, black-curtained room with the temperature reaching the nineties, you don’t wait long for it to be fixed.

For a few, Arles is as much about showing work as it is about seeing it. Attendees pay €300 [$415] for 10 reviews.
Louise Clements, senior curator, co-founder and director of the biennial Format Photography Festival at Derby, UK, gave portfolio reviews this year. “I’m seeing all kinds of ways of working this year,” she said, “Home-made pin-hole cameras, high-end digital, HDR, and 3D now as well. People are showing work on iPhones, iPads, but they’re also bringing along original collodion plates and silver gelatin prints made in bedroom darkrooms.”
–Julian Lass



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