Return to Arles

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by John G. Morris

August 2006

Arles is the mother of all photography festivals. It was founded 37 years ago by photographer Lucien Clergue and two other Arlesiens. Lucien was recently elected to the Academy of Fine Arts at the Institut de France, the first photographer to be so honored.

In 1980 I went to Arles to project the work and the words of W. Eugene Smith. You could have heard a pin drop in the great old Roman amphitheater. After we moved to Paris in 1983, my wife Tana and I went to Arles almost every year, the last time in 2002 when the great Czech photographer Josef Koudelka took over the town. Thereafter, it seemed, Arles to me was overshadowed by the photojournalism festival at Perpignan called Visa Pour l’Image.

ARLES, FRANCE: First-day audiences at the 2006 Recontres d’Arles festival of photography look at the exhibition of photographs taken in North Korea by Phillipe Chancel.

Dirck Halstead

Now Arles is back, stronger than ever under the direction of François Hebel and his guest curator, Raymond Depardon, the Magnum photographer and filmmaker. Depardon, the most prolific of all French photojournalists, assembled an incredible 50 exhibitions for this year’s festival including the finest show of classic American photography ever seen in France, drawn from museums and private collections. Raymond’s superb eclectic taste was evident everywhere as he brought together the worlds of photojournalism and art.

Depardon called on Christian Caujolle, the director of Agence Vu and France’s most beloved picture editors, to fill the amphitheater on Wednesday night despite the competition of the World Cup, which only delayed the program by an hour while France celebrated victory over Portugal in the semifinal. Christian first showed pages from Libération, the liberal tabloid whose founder, Serge July, gave him a free hand at the start. Unfortunately ‘Libé’ is losing money and July has just been kicked out. Caujolle then showed the work done by photographers for Vu, which was founded by ‘Libé’ as a press photo agency but now survives on print sales.

Caujolle, like the French weekly newspaper supplement Le Monde 2, tends to support what to me is the most aggravating aspect of contemporary French photography. “Tendance floue,” meaning intentional lack of focus, is not only a trend here but also the name of a group of photographers, 12 male and two female, who meet on Wednesdays to pursue their jovial joint objectives. They would drive most American editors crazy but I have to admit they have a lot of fun and sometimes produce something of real merit.

The most hard-boiled of editors, however, could only admire some of the work on display in Arles. One of the saddest stories of modern times is the life-and-death struggle of poor Africans to reach the promised land of Europe. Olivier Jobard of Sipa, a graduate of the national photography school called Ecole Louis Lumière, took his time and risked his life to document the travels of a young Camerounian who was determined, since he had nothing to lose, to reach Spain. It took him six months, passing through seven countries and braving the sea twice in a small boat (the first one perished) to reach his destination. He now works in a Paris warehouse for almost nothing but he’s one of the lucky ones. Jobard produced both a book and a powerful video from his stills, recording the voice of his subject, named Kingsley Abans.

ARLES, FRANCE: Crowds at the 2006 Recontres d’Arles festival of photography in Southern France.

Dirck Halstead

Several other exhibitions were remarkable. Susan Meiselas of Magnum showed huge duplicate transparencies of her color coverage of the 1978 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. With funds from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and others, she enlarged 18 of her pictures to mural size and installed them near the places where they were originally taken. An accompanying video showed the reactions, mostly positive, of those who now live there.

Cornell Capa’s pictures of the 1960 John Kennedy campaign and the 1961 Kennedy White House marked something of a milestone in political coverage. His pictures in the Oval Office show real meetings, not photo-ops. The exhibition, which originated at Cornell’s own International Center of Photography in New York, was shown in the Archbishop’s Palace, thanks to the U.S. Consulate in Marseille. Cornell himself could not attend, but the American contingent included David Alan Harvey, Douglas Kirkland and David Burnett, France’s favorite American photojournalist (he speaks French).

The pictures of Gilles Caron, the great French photojournalist who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, were juxtaposed with parallel coverage by Don McCullin, who came from England to honor his one-time colleague.

David Goldblatt, the veteran South African photographer whose exhibition in Arles was curated by Magnum photographer Martin Parr, showed the work of 11 books. He does not call himself a journalist, but nevertheless he has powerfully documented the suffering of black South Africans under Apartheid.

Books, rather than magazines and newspapers, are the publishing goal of so many photographers today. Some 400 books were submitted in the competition for Best Photo Book of the past year. In addition, booksellers lined the periphery of L’Espace Van Gogh, the hospital which once housed the great painter and now houses the Arles public library, not to mention temporary exhibitions. Apple conducted a workshop for their new picture-editing software named ‘Aperture’ in a room adjacent to the library.

This year, for the second time in Arles, Friday night was devoted to projection on 13 screens, most of them outdoors, by agencies and magazines, including The New York Times Magazine. All through the night, it was a Mardi Gras of photography.

Summer festivals are big business in France. The exhibitions at Arles, lasting until September 17, will bring in thousands of tourists and hundreds of professionals. At Perpignan, more than 2,000 professionals are expected to attend the festival’s opening week of September 4.

© John G. Morris

John G. Morris, who was Robert Capa’s editor at LIFE magazine on D-Day, has had a long and illustrious career in photojournalism. After working for LIFE in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, London, Paris and Chicago during World War II, he went on to become Picture Editor of Ladies’ Home Journal; Executive Editor of Magnum Photos; Assistant Managing Editor for Graphics at the Washington Post; Picture Editor of The New York Times, and the Paris correspondent of National Geographic from 1983-89. Morris is the author of “Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism” (University of Chicago Press, 2002). He lives in Paris.

Ed: John’s own work is showing at Visa Pour l’Image. He is featured in the current issue of British Journal of Photography

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