In 1997, photographer Martin Parr, best known for turning his lens on the holiday behaviours and eating habits of his fellow Brits, set out to document the vacationers at Benidorm, Spain’s largest beach resort. He published an artist’s book using a found souvenir photo album to display his glossy snapshots of sunburned tourists. Parr showed photos from this book, and decades’ worth of other seaside photographs, one evening in July in the ancient Roman theatre in Arles, where, from July to September each year, the entire town is taken over by photography exhibitions in nearly every available space. This edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles featured 35 solo and group shows, plus countless collateral events, lectures, a film programme, student work and a photo book expo.
Parr’s focus on beach photography was apt for this year’s festival, which, though it claimed several thematic strands, coalesced largely around the figure of the photographer as travelling documentarian, ethnologist and anthropologist – or, taking the less generous view, the photographer as tourist. Two of the headline solo shows – Parr’s ‘MMM’ (with musician Matthieu Chedid) and Stephen Shore’s retrospective – celebrated photographers who have traversed their home countries (and journeyed abroad) for decades, capturing the contemporary vernacular – Parr with a more acerbic wit toward his countrymen (here, in photos of sunburned tourists printed directly on the fabric of beach chairs), Shore with an increasingly formal eye toward surveying American landscapes. Shore’s comprehensive survey at Espace Van Gogh (the hospital where Van Gogh resided after severing his ear, which overlooks a garden in which tourists avidly take selfies today) spanned early photos he took as a teenager to his most recent series in Winslow, Arizona (2013). The collection revealed Shore’s sustained dedication to documenting (even celebrating) the fading surfaces and everyday, overlooked corners of America.
Given that Parr and Shore (who both advocated colour photography and everyday aesthetics before they were popular in art photography) have become part of the photo mainstream, it felt somewhat retrograde for this festival to be celebrating such canonized figures. Likewise the figure of the roving photographer, travelling to exotic locations to document a culture’s strange and foreign ways, which permeated many of the individual shows, felt outmoded. ‘Las Vegas Studio: Images from the archives of Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown’, a display of the sociological and architectural research materials collected by the architects and their students on a 1968 trip (forming the basis of the seminal 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas) was stretched rather thinly into a conceptual ‘anti-aesthetic’ photography show in the Grande Halle, with some images so diffuse you couldn’t discern their subject matter, while others homed in on details like the types of light bulbs and typefaces on casino signs.
In the Cloître Saint-Trophime, an unexpected stand-out exhibition was ‘Martin Gusinde: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People’, which displayed the research of a German priest who lived with the indigenous people of South America from 1918 until 1924, taking intimate portraits of local shamans and medicine men, their families and living quarters, ceremonies and rituals. Among the images was a photo of Gusinde himself, squatting in full ritual markings with wire-rimmed glasses, beside two members of a local tribe, which felt like a family portrait rather than a colonialist selfie. Accompanied by his journals and thorough captions, the show was equal parts informative and formally strong, highlighting Gusinde’s genuine sensitivity and curiousity rather than the perceived exoticism of his subjects. In comparison, Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin’s contemporary noir cinematic photos in their dual show ‘Congo’ – presented as monumental, panoramic installations – cast the region and culture as a stage for a potential aesthetic drama, and highlighted the distance between the photographers and their subject.
Gusinde’s show was serendipitously paired with Paolo Woods & Gabriele Galimberti’s ‘The Heavens, Annual Report’, a parallel, but contemporary, attempt to visualize remote, little-known geographic regions and subcultures: in this case, tax havens, where businesses and individuals shelter trillions of dollars offshore. The series features striking single images of people living in the slums of Grand Cayman, businessmen floating in swimming pools overlooking Singapore’s skyline and mansions in Jersey, paired with captions that reveal facts, figures and anecdotes about the pervasive and insidious nature of this highly secretive world.
While all of these exhibitions offered views onto remote or little-seen territories, or new perspectives on well-known ones, 10 out of 12 of the major solo shows were by white men (not to mention a lecture programme dedicated exclusively to Roland Barthes). There were few representations of new approaches to photography, women photographers or image-makers from other geographic centres. There was no sign, for instance, of an emerging generation of photographers trained at Bard College by Shore himself. The photo world is sometimes accused of clinging to traditions, or of lagging far behind in approach compared with other visual arts and, despite its popularity, a festival like this one only served to reinforce the old tropes.