Arles 2008

After a while at Arles, you start to lose touch with reality and to see everything as pictures. Never mind the photographs at the literally countless exhibitions: the city itself becomes a parade of images. Shadows on the walls; people at work; graffiti; other photographers; warning signs; everything loses its everyday meaning, and becomes a sign, a symbol, a representation. There is a dreamlike quality to everything; you begin to understand why Vincent fell in love with the hard, clear Provençal light and painted the sunflowers, the starry night, and the Yellow House -- though the last is now a souvenir shop.

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From Roger's Health and Safety at Work series, Arles, 2008. Leica M8, 50/2.5 Summarit. At Arles you soon start thinking in terms of a 'Body of Work', and of course that implies a series. As we say, you lose touch with reality. But it is surprisingly enjoyable.

Admittedly, the dreamlike quality is aided and abetted by much else. For instance, for many photographers, Arles runs on rosé wine, and it is very easy to put away a litre or more across the course of the day; quite possibly before you sit down to dinner. Bull steaks are a common item on the menu: bullfights are still held in the Roman arena in the centre of town, though in the Camarguais variety the bull is not killed. The aim is to retrieve a cockade from between its horns, and a brave and resourceful bull may achieve star billing alongside the bullfighters. And where else are you going to find signs warning you indifferently about the proximity of a McDonald's, and the risk of wild bulls in the street? For that matter, where else could you see a dozen exhibitions a day, for several days on end, in venues as varied as ancient churches, the Communist Party headquarters, mediaeval cellars, an archepiscopal palace, a bank, and the former workshops (ateliers) of the French National Railways, the Societé Nationale des Chemins de Fer or SNCF?

corrugated chicken

What is more, everything is subjugated to photography. The old workshops, the Ateliers, are still criss-crossed with railway lines waiting to trip the unwary -- and the uneven streets of the 2,000-year-old city are not a lot better. This year, portfolio critiques were given at the Ateliers at long rows of tables laid end to end, like a surrealist works canteen where the only item on the menu is photography. No-one complains about being photographed: it goes with the territory, if you are in Arles during the Rencontres. And, as a fellow visitor remarked, you will never see so many Leicas in one place: they are quite possibly the most common 35mm cameras at Arles.






Actually, for complicated reasons explained in the press pack, it's a Hooded Merganser, a 'small duck with an impressive crown of feathers'. But every year, there is a more or less silly but highly distinctive symbol: one year a banana, another, a cat -- and this year we had already privately christened this one Superchicken before we read the notes. Les Rencontres Photographiques d'Arles -- literally, the photographic meeting or encounters of Arles -- were founded by Lucien Clergue in 1970. It is reputedly the biggest gathering of fine art photographers in the world. We have been going to it, on and off, since the early 90s. It's always more or less of a shambles from an organizational point of view; it can be unbearably pretentious in a way that only the French can achieve; and there is invariably a lot of dross mixed in with the genius. But in the words of Christian Lacroix, this year's guest artistic director, 'Arles is a city you do things for notwithstanding, and one I keep coming back to.'

For round numbers, think in terms of fifty to a hundred exhibitions, each containing ten to a hundred pictures. However you count it, there are many thousands of pictures. It is impossible to look critically at them all: you just get 'pictured out'. This is why it is as well to pace yourself, and to spend as long as possible at the festival. The whole of the opening week is ideal, arriving the Sunday night before the show starts and leaving on the following Saturday or even Sunday. Quite a few exhibitions are still being put up on the Monday, but there's still plenty to see, even then.

large heads and spectators

Large-head portraits and spectators

Pierre Gonnord lives and works in Madrid, and his stunning series of huge 'large head' portraits were for us the hit of a show that contained an enormous amount worth seeing. The exhibition notes refer to Caravaggio, Murillo and Velasquez, but these timeless faces also call to mind Dickens, Rembrandt, Mayhew and the Bible. Gonnard himself writes of trying to photograph the unclassifiable, timeless individual to suggest things that have been repeated over and over since time began. This exhibition was at the old SNCF workshops (Ateliers).

A great risk, though, is trying to see too much, too quickly. You just can't do it. As we say, you're soon 'pictured out'. That's why it's a good idea to spend as long as possible at the Rencontres. Intersperse the visits to the galleries with other things: leisurely coversations over carafes of wine, meals, even a siesta. In 2008, we spent far less time than we should have at the show: only three days. This was because we had left our hotel bookings too late, and therefore had to stay at an hotel that was further from the heart of Arles and over twice as expensive. Nearly three times as expensive, in fact.

This is why we have booked in for a full week next year; or at least, we hope we have. One of the great problems with the (lack of) organization at Arles is that the dates of the festival never seem to be known until ridiculously late, so you can't book a hotel a full year ahead.



Electrical sockets, SNCF Ateliers



Yet another example of seeing pictures everywhere: Roger shot this with the M8 and 50/2.5 Summarit that Frances had just bought. He then sharpened it rather more in Adobe Photoshop than he normally would, because that seemed to him to represent the subject best. Even so, it would probably have been a better picture in 'real' (film) black and white.

bulldog head sockets

A surprising number of the exhibitions at this year's Arles were what might be called 'catalogue' or 'visual list' photography, such as Charles Fréger's mesmerizing series on uniforms: a technically highly competent exploration of a theme, rather than the kind of technically shaky photography (distressingly common some years at Arles) that disappears up its own bum.

There are after all some ideas that just about every photographer explores for a while: blur-plus-sharp, camera shake, very big prints, very small prints, weird colours (such as you might get from cross-processing or outdated film), the determinedly everyday, the determinedly repulsive (drug addicts living in squalor are the standard cliché here) and so forth. Any of it can be made to work, but when you can clearly see that the photographer is more hung up on the technique or concept than on the picture, you feel like telling them, possibly with the aid of a megaphone, "For heaven's sake, learn to take decent snapshots before you start trying to use an 8x10 inch camera, or to make prints the size of a wall."

wedding pics

Two exhibitions in particular stood out for unjustifiably oversize pictures: the Patrick Box series on salt production at the Musée d'Arlatan, and Peter Lindberg's Arles Beauduc... 1990/2007, at the Eglise des Freres-Precheurs. Box would have done better with more pictures, much smaller than he chose: they were perhaps 2x3 metres or 6x10 feet. Lindberg's show seemed to be based on the premise that any picture can be made interesting, if you print it big enough. Well, it can't. The few good pictures in the exhibition would have been good at any size; the remainder would have been equally bad at any size.

But then you think of Gonnord's monster portraits, and you see how a great picture can survive at any size; though it is hard not to suspect that they would be just as good at a quarter of the size, or less.

To return to the point about visual lists, some exhibitions were literally catalogues, especially the one of copyright registrations for clothes from the grands couturiers, while others were explorations of perhaps overly familiar themes, such as Jean-Christian Bourcart's collection of hundreds of wedding photographs: almost all pedestrian, and gaining little or nothing from being collected together.




The Most Beautiful Day of Life, Christian Bourcourt (see above)

Then you start to ask yourself: what is the difference between a catalogue and a picture story? And you realize that the answer is very simple: it's art. A good enough photographer can turn a catalogue into art; an uninspired photographer can turn the most fascinating subject into a dull record.

A lot, too, depends on your own tastes. One person might be fascinated by by the subtle variations in Vanessa Winship's portraits of Turkish schoolgirls at the Ateliers, while another might see them as dully repetitive. What is the nature of repetition and variation? And you'd need to be pretty keen on horses to appreciate the whole of the Alfons Alt exhibition (Ateliers again) 'L'Académie du Spectacle Equestre de Versailles' What is the relationship between subject matter and the interest a picture holds for you?

girl, wall, itlian pics

Girl with Mimmo Jodice exhibition in background

Neither of us is ever comfortable about photographing others' works, even to praise them, simply because the quality seldpm does justice to the original image. But Mimmo Jodice's big, square black-and-whites of Italy were a great pleasure, even though neither of us is much of an Italophile. This is at the Ateliers again.

What about ordinary pictures of an extraordinary event? Jean-Michel Vecchiet's 'Exodus' at the Capitole was a collection of pictures taken by people who sailed to Israel to help found the new state, plus a few who survive to this day. Historically fascinating, but unless you know who the people are, the old photographs are no more than a collection of dull snapshots. And in order to appreciate to the full 'Les Insoumises' -- portraits of courtesans of the Second Empire, together with extracts from their police files -- you would need a depth of interest in that period that neither of us possesses.

Or to return to the theme of bleakness and mundanity, there was an exhibition of Françoise Huguier's explorations of a communal apartment block in St. Petersburg that could easily have been unredeemed misery. But it wasn't. It was about real people, people you can identify with, not people who are plunged unto misery of their own choosing and seemingly proud of their degradation. Another question: what's the difference?

found pictures

Found pictures

Somewhow, we managed to lose whatever information we had gathered on this exhibition (in the Ateliers yet again) so we can't remember the name of the compiler. Whoever he was, we recall that he compiled it from photographs found in the street. Some are fragmentary; some are mutilated; some were clearly just thrown away, while others probably represented a real loss to their owners. There were many hundreds of images. In one sense, it was far too big. In another, its size was its success. Every now and then, you would find a photograph that resonated with your own life: an old identity shot, a picture of a lover with whom you had broken up...

Or for a completely different set of questions, there was the Paolo Pellegrin exhibition of war photography: moody and stirring, when you could see them, which wasn't very often because they were in glazed frames and so badly lit that most of what you saw was reflections. Why exhibit pictures in a way that places such a barrier between the picture and the viewer?

Then, yet another pair of contrasts. Grégoire Alexandre's '?Was it a car or a cat I saw?' was enormously amusing (and technically superb) and reminded Roger of the post-shoot pictures we used to take at Plough Studios in the 1970s, when the props and models were there, the picture was in the can, and we could just play around a bit. The big difference was the skill with which his pictures were executed -- exactly the same skill as the formal advertising shots -- but the playfulness and the fun were just the same. Tim Walker's 'Images du Pays des Merveilles', by contrast, just looked as if someone with a surfeit of money had thrown wads of cash at their photography. The ideas were entertaining, and superbly executed; but at the end of it all, both of us summed it up in the same phrase, "photography for rich twits."

samuel fosso

Self portraits by Samuel Fosso

When Frances said, "He's an actor who didn't want to learn the lines," it was meant as a compliment. Samuel Fosso from Cameroon has taken an extraordinary array of self-portraits over the years, as a wide variety of different people. Some are simply but brilliantly amusing -- like his self-portrait as a pirate, not seen here -- while others raise questions about identity, common culture and indeed the extent to which photographic technique shapes our expectations.

The way in which Arles raises questions (and sometimes even answers them) are perhaps the main reason we keep going back. We have a theory that most photographers care more about their own work than anyone else's. If they didn't, after all, they might as well become collectors, rather than photographers. Arles is, therefore, an incredibly rich source of ideas. Not copy-cat ideas: if someone has already done something brilliantly, there is not much future in trying to imitate it. Rather, ideas about what moves you personally: what you like and dislike, and why you like or dislike it. It can also provide ideas about what to avoid: things such as narcissism, or being a 'one-trick pony' with a single idea, repeated too often when it wasn't all that clever in the first place.

The second reason is, of course, the simple pleasure of looking at the photographs. Some years, this pleasure is much greater than others, and there is always a countervailing disgust at some of the stuff that is on show. For an example of pictures that were fun to look at, but absolutely nothing to do with the kind of stuff we want to photograph ourselves, there were Bob Giorgi's superb nudes (Graphistes Associés, Place Louis Blanc). As we said to him, it is impossible to look at his pictures without smiling: they lift the heart.

It would of course be invidious to cite an example of the pictures that make you think, "How can someone like that get an exhibition, when there are so many better photographers in the world, including myself?" On the other hands, it is perhaps legitimate to cite Paolo Roversi's work as a mixed bag: brilliant photographs of his cameras, but we were not taken with his portraits. When you are looking at a beautiful teenage nude, and one of the first things you notice is that she has a 'lazy' eye that makes her slightly wall-eyed, there has to be something wrong with the picture. But if we reviewed every exhibition, good and bad (such as the stunning Avedon exhibition) this module would go on forever.

The third reason we go to Arles is that we always seem to get an unreasonable number of good pictures ourselves; pictures we can use on the site, in books and magazines, as well as for reports like this one. Of course, 'good' is always a subjective term, but we're happy with them, and enough other people seem to like them that we're happy with that too.




Girl with map


Trying to find all the exhibitions in Arles is next to impossible, even with the crib sheet. With only three days to spare, we didn't even try. But all over the city -- this is in the Ateliers again -- there are people puzzling over maps and lists of exhibitions. This picture is, incidentally, a tribute to the contrast of Frances's 50mm f/2.5 Summarit, which Roger had on his M8 at the time.

girl through door

The fourth reason is meeting other people, in wild variety. This year, for example, one of the most interesting photographers we met was Charlie Lemay. His digital constructions, on a photographic base, are fascinating and hallucinatory. They are so heavily manipulated and assembled that they are a considerable distance from straight photography, yet he has a genius for retaining the essentially representational nature of the medium. His work can be found on It isn't just photographers, though: there are editors, and gallery owners, and collectors, and of course people who review portfolios.


Portfolio reviews

All kinds of people -- fellow (but better known) photographers, book and magazine publishers, potential clients and more -- review portfolios during the opening week. Before you book a review, you might care to look at a module about portfolio reviews which deals with our own experiences on the other side of the counter.

Fifth -- let's be honest -- it's just that Arles is a nice place. It's beautiful; it's relaxed; it's reasonably affordable (there's more about that below); it's awash with photography and photographers; and if you are travelling with a non-photographic companion, there is plenty to see and lots of shops. As we are not shoppers, we can't comment in their quality, but from the look of it, even the most dedicated devotees of designer labels were not disappointed. And of course devotees of Vincent Van Gogh will have plenty to entertain them.

On a bad year, it's true, it can be stinking hot, and as already mentioned, the organization of the festival itself (or rather, the lack of it) can drive you crazy at times. Also, with the strength of the euro in July 2008, it wasn't as cheap as it was. If you book the right hotels, long enough in advance, and can live without air-conditioning, swimming pool, parking or elevators, you can still find rooms for 40 euros and under, but with credit-card or debit-card rates of exchange at the time, even 40 euros translates to over $60 or maybe £35. Our room at the New Hotel Camargue was 110 euros a night, albeit with air-con, pool, parking and a lift.

bar du thym

Bar du Thym

The Bar du Thym, under new management a few months before the Rencontres, is conveniently situated on the rue de la République between the Place de la République and the Espace van Gogh. It is almost opposite the Musée d'Arlatan and all but next door to St. Anne's Church, which this year was host to a wonderful collection of still lifes from Vogue magazine, past and present. Half a litre of rosé was a bit under 5 euros (just under £4 or around $7.50) and they do excellent sandwiches at the same sort of price. We ate and drank there a lot.

At dinner time you can reckon on 12 to 15 euros for a decent main course at dinner, or 7 to 10 euros for a meal-sized salad. One of the best meals we had was a grilled magret de canard (breast of duck) at the Hotel Voltaire (in the Place Voltaire, conveniently enough) but some people might find the concept of duck cooked rare to be a bit demanding. Never mind: they also serve bull steaks, cooked however you like, and the proprietors (Corinne and Jean-Pierre) are really nice people. And they do salads, too...

Admission to the Rencontres itself in 2008 was 40 euros (no concessions) for an unlimited access ticket, valid for the entire summer: multiple entries to all exhibitions, unlimited access to guided tours. The All Exhibitions pass for July-August is poor value next to that at 35 euros (concessionary price of 26 euros for the unemployed, students, groups of 10 and up, and FNAC card-holders) as it only allows one entry per venue. If you are there in September, when the vast majority of the exhibitions are still up, this drops to 26/21 euros, and a one-day pass (multiple entries and one guided tour if wanted) at any time was 26/21 euros. Admission to individual venues is free in some cases (including all or almost all private exhibitions), but otherwise ran from 5 to 11 euros: very poor value next to a pass. Under-16s and Arles residents have free admission to all exhibitions.

The Bottom Line

Insh'Allah, we'll be there again next year, which gives you some idea of how we feel about the place. Yes, it has its problems, but it's a fairly bad year where you think "That's it! I'm never going to waste my time here again!" Even then, the odds are that two or three years later, you'll relent, and go back, and wish you hadn't missed the intervening year(s). We hope that this has given you some idea of why it's worth going; you can now either return to Events or look at some more pictures (with captions) which may explain still more about what Arles is like.

yellow sunshades


On the other side of the rue Gambetta from the rue de la République is the rue des Porcelets, where there are normally several exhibitions and a lot of people -- locals as well as photographers and non-photographic tourists -- sitting around café tables: always a good idea in Arles.

place du forum



Place du Forum

For reasons we do not understand, almost all streets and squares in Arles have two different names. This is now the Place du Forum, because the Roman forum did indeed once stand here; but it used to be called the Place des Hommes. These bits of Roman masonry are incorporated in the Hotel du Nord du Pinus; which we cannot help translating, totally inaccurately, as the Hotel of the Northern Penis. It's rather flashy and up-market nowadays, unlike when we stayed there in 1984.


Dr. Kaufmann presenting a cheque to Reporters Sans Frontières

Dr. Kaufmann (left) is the owner and CEO of Leica, and here he is presenting a cheque for 24,000 euros to the organization which strives for press freedom worldwide. The money came from the auction of the first production M8 Leica. Leica's presence at Arles varies in magnitude, but they are normally there, and they also announce the results of the Prix Oskar Barnack for outstanding photography.



Graffiti, Ateliers SNCF

By and large, we loathe graffiti -- but in Arles, a surprising amount of it comes close to art.


woman photographer 1


Each year, there seem to be more women photographers in Arles. This may be because it is about pictures, not about equipment.


woman photographer 2


On the other hand, she was unusual in that she was using a digital camera: film cameras probably outnumber digital two-for-one at Arles.


look books

Look books

The whole purpose of guest curators is that the curator should put his -- thus far, not her -- stamp on the show. Understandably, therefore, Christian Lacroix (a native of Arles) laid a heavy emphasis upon fashion. 'Look books', as their name suggests, summarize the 'look' of a new season's show. On this occasion, though, we cannot help feeling that photography took second place the desire to create a visually striking display.


photographer arlatan

Photographer, Musée d'Arlatan

Yet further illustration that photographers at Arles are not all men. This vision of elegance -- the hat, the high heels, the flattering shorts -- is using a 'real' camera, not chimping at the back of a digi-compact.


gallery attendant

Exhibition and attendant, Espace Van Gogh

It can be hard to resist photographing the attendants, guards, call them what you will; they provide a contrast of life among the immobile pictures, and an organic form next to the formal frames.


couple on dais

Couple on dais

Sooner or later, you have to stop: not just to rest your weary feet, but to try to absorb some of what you have seen. Otherwise, you just overload your eyes and brain.


sunlit house

Sunlit house

Even non-photographers take lots of pictures in Arles: it's that sort of place. But people have to live there too, hence the traffic signs and electrical cables.


girl and pillar

Ateliers SNCF

The Ateliers are so huge, and there are so many exhibitions, that they are rarely crowded -- yet thousands upon thousands of people visit them every year.


out of focus

Out of focus

Towards the end of the day, you may start to feel like this yourself. Indeed, you may start feeling like it ever earlier as the show wears on: this was Day 3 for us, just after mid-day. Roger had just been photographing a detail of some shadows on a stairway when these people caught his eye -- but he was so tired he forgot to focus. Never mind: it's quite an interesting picture anyway, taken with a Leica M8 and 50/2.5 Summarit.


bar du thym, wine

Bar du Thym

And if exhaustion doesn't do it; well, maybe the rosé will...

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks