The Five Must-See Shows at the 48th Rencontres d’Arles

From photojournalism to fine art photography, here are our top selections for the festival.

Armando Cristeto, PolyMarchs, Las noches del reventón series, Mexico, 1985. Image: ©Armando Cristeto, courtesy Toluca Fine Art.

Forget Burning Man, the festival to hit this summer has got to be the 48th edition of the inimitable Rencontres d’Arles. The illustrious photography festival—the world’s biggest—opens today in the small post-industrial town of Arles in the South of France.

Every summer since 1969, Arles has surveyed contemporary photographic creation and practice and become a yearly meeting place for all genres of the medium, from photojournalism to fine art photography. But it’s not just photographers being celebrated at Arles, as the festival provides a unique platform for the entire photography community, including curators, researchers, and collectors.

Publishers get a look in with Arles Books, and this year, gallery owners are given their moment with the New Discovery Award for a nominated artist under 45 whose work they reckon deserves the attention of an international audience.

This is the third year the festival runs under the directorship of Sam Stourdzé, successor of Magnum Photos veteran François Hebel, whose 13-year tenure as director transformed Arles from a small festival on the verge of bankruptcy to what it is today.

The festival is now more popular than ever, and with last year’s edition managing to break the 100,000 visitor mark the question on everyone’s minds is whether 2017 will live up to its forerunner. To keep up the momentum, Arles is expanding, with 113 more artists exhibiting than last year, all together showcasing the work of 250 artists in 25 locations.

The festival’s numerous venues definitely add to the excitement of Arles, as visitors making the rounds can only guess what nook of the town they’ll be immersed in next. The town’s mayor, Hervé Schiavetti, remarked aptly that the variety of exhibition sites adds to the festival’s “magic.” Will Arles take you to one of the sites created specifically for this purpose? Or will you find yourself creeping through one of the town’s 12th-century chapels? It might even be one of the town’s post-industrial buildings such as the new Émile-Combes Boulevard sites, converted from derelict urban structures.

Elsewhere, in the Parc des Ateliers, visitors can check the ongoing progress of the LUMA Foundation’s €100 million resource building designed by Frank Gehry, situated in the defunct 1840s rail-yard set to open in 2018.

Wondering what you should be looking out for? Photographer Roger Ballen’s advice to artnet News reader is, “I think people have to make the effort to find photographs that have a deep effect on their sense of self.” Here’s our selection of five shows that might do just that:

1. “Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography (1960-2016)”

Billy Hare, Lurin, Lima, (1981). Image: ©Billy Hare, courtesy Toluca Fine Art.

Carlos Somonte, Untitled (Sara Hernández Franco), Internos series, Mexico, (1997). Image: ©Carlos Somonte, courtesy Toluca Fine Art.

Paolo Gasparini, Mujeres, Periodo Especial en Tiempo de Paz, La Habana, (1991). Image: ©Paolo Gasparini, courtesy Toluca Fine Art.

As 2017 is France-Colombia year, Latin American art steals the focus in the festival’s LATINA! sequence, the counterpart to last year’s AFRICA POP. Hubert Védrine, president of the festival’s board of directors, has emphasized the role of the Rencontres as a site of openness and exchange, and 28 artists will use the festival to speak about Colombia’s uneasy road towards peace.

Of the four shows dedicated to Latin American art, the one to look out for is Urban Impulses, featuring hundreds of images from the excellent Letitia and Stanislas Poniatowski Collection. These photographs, in all their diversity, express the inherent contradictions in a region being acted on by disparate and competing cultural forces: the pre-Hispanic world, the post-colonial experience, and capitalist society.

2. “The House of the Ballenesque,” Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen, Nursery Room “The House of the Ballenesque” (2017). Photo: Marguerite Rossouw.

Roger Ballen, Artist Room, “The House of the Ballenesque” (2017). Photo: Marguerite Rossouw.

Roger Ballen, detail in Fire Room of “The House of the Ballenesque” (2017). Photo: Marguerite Rossouw.

The work of South African photographer Roger Ballen will certainly be a highlight. His installation titled The House of the Ballenesque offers an immersive experience, with the Maison des Peintres becoming a microcosmic version of the artist’s mind, with each room representing a key tenet of the Ballenesque aesthetic.

Speaking to artnet News, Ballen explained, “The House of the Ballenesque provides a parallel reality to my photographs. This space seems to be a location identical to where many of my photographs could have been taken and as a result expands the authenticity of both aesthetics.”

Ballen’s installation is particularly relevant given the abundance of contemporary photographic production and the short attention spans of a contemporary audience. These days, in order to stand apart, it has become imperative for artists to find innovative ways in which to present their photographs.

“I cannot think of any photographer who has been able to link the reality of an installation with that of his photographs,” said Ballen. “When my photographs are shown with my installations as well as my videos the Ballenesque aesthetic is transformed to another level,” he added.

Among other things, festival-goers will be trying to understand how the landscape of contemporary photography is shifting given technological advance and the rise of the Instagram generation. When most people carry a camera with unlimited storage capacity and can quickly edit and upload images, the “decisive moment” can easily get buried in the feed.

On this point, Ballen agrees. “I have never been a person concerned with means, rather, I have always sought the end point. I am most focused on the impact of an image on a person’s subconscious mind and whether that image remains ingrained. I think the problem photography is facing is that there is such an overabundance of photographs that it is increasingly difficult for strong lasting imagery to be noticed.”

3. “The Gorgans,” Mathieu Pernot 

Mathieu Pernot, The Gorgan family, Arles, (1995). Image: ©Rencontres d’Arles, courtesy of the Éric Dupont gallery.

In the realms of documentary photography, Arles local Mathieu Pernot presents his artistic and humanitarian work on Roma communities, begun while he was still a student in the 1990s. The exhibition presents his continuing focus on the Gorgans, a Roma family who have been settled in France for over a century, as seen above when he first encountered them in 1995. Below, grown up grandson Giovanni is pictured with his family in 2015.


Mathieu Pernot, Giovanni, Arles, (2015). Image: ©Rencontres d’Arles, courtesy of the Éric Dupont gallery.

4. Gideon Mendel, “Drowning World”

Gidéon Mendel, Jeff and Tracey Waters, Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, UK, February 2014, from the Submerged Portraits series. Photo: ©Rencontres d’Arles, courtesy of the artist.

Elsewhere, the stunning photographs presented in Gideon Mendel’s solo exhibition, Drowning World, explore the personal impact climate change has on human lives. Mendel’s intimate portraits of flood victims in his Submerged Portraits series, capture them in calm conventional poses within the unsettling context of catastrophe. His haunting Floodlines series homes in on the marks left by floodwater in domestic spaces and in Watermarks, he presents distorted enlargements of water-damaged photographs.

5. The Specter of Surrealism

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), ca. 1935-1936. Image: ©Jean-Claude Planchet, courtesy of Adagp, Paris.

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), ca. 1935-1936. Image: ©Jean-Claude Planchet, courtesy of Adagp, Paris.

Finally, as part of the Centre Pompidou’s 40th anniversary celebrations, the institution’s photography office curator Karolina Lewandowska and collector Julie Jones are presenting an exhibition entitled The Specter of Surrealism. Including works by Hans Bellmer, Erwin Wurm, and René Magritte, the exhibition puts forth the notion that the strategies of Surrealism are often at work in photographic practice by placing the disparate artistic projects in dialogue with one another.

“Surrealism is still alive, even if it sometimes leads its life underground—this is a conclusion we can come to by looking at contemporary photography, or more broadly, photography after 1945,” said curator Ziebinska-Lewandowska.

The 2017 edition of the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles takes place from 3 July – 24 September, 2017.


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