Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Most people attribute this to Mark Twain, but it was probably his friend Charles Dudley Warner who actually said or wrote it. Either way, when it comes to street photography at the Rencontres Photographiques at Arles, almost the exact opposite is true. A lot of people do it, but hardly anyone talks about it. It’s just not a phrase that’s much used in France. Here we prefer “reportage” or “humanist photography”.
Arles 2017 was a very good Rencontres, with a very high overall standard: much higher than in several recent years, though perhaps with fewer great stand-out exhibitions. This may have been because exhibitions which would have stood out in a lesser year weren’t quite so dramatically better as they might otherwise have seemed; though with over 200 exhibitions listed by the Rencontres proper and Voies Off, which is the (rather bigger) “fringe” festival, to say nothing of dozens more that weren’t listed, Frances and I probably didn’t see much more than half of them. We may simply have been unlucky.
On the other hand, as well as a very fair dosage of street photography, there was still plenty of stunning stuff. You need a very narrow definition of street photography to exclude for example “street photography in India” (Sandra Dubout – Google her because her web site is not up yet) or “photography in streets and bars and other public places” (Etienne Racine’s Contrastes Andalous, www.etienneracine.com) which included one of my favourite pictures in the entire Rencontres) or even for that matter Michael Wolfe’s often people-free pictures of Hong Kong, www.photomichaelwolf.com, seen above in the Église des Frères Prêcheurs. You’re not supposed to take pictures of the, um, pictures, but…
For that matter, Lea Lund’s photographs of her muse Erik K – for me, possibly the finest exhibition of the whole Rencontres, and easily in the top 5 – are more than arguably “street”, especially the series of pictures of Erik in Paris Metro stations. Who says, after all, that you can’t use models in street photography? Go to www.lealund.com.
Another important component of “street photography” in Arles is pictures that are, literally, on the street: pasted to walls, with or without the photographers in attendance. Examples include Marian Adreani, Jerry Webb, and (as far as I can tell from my notes) Nico-Varansi, for whom I cannot find a website. The sheer intensity of photography at Arles, let alone street photography, is at the limit of endurance. If this sounds impossibly luvvie and precious – how can a photography festival compare with a war or a pentathlon or even a very long hike? – then consider that there is an element of “all or nothing” in it; or at least “nearly as much as you hoped to do” versus “nothing like as much as you had hoped to do”. There’s just too much to cover in a single week: and at that, there’s a limit to how much more you can stand. If the opening week were to be extended to two weeks, life would be impossible save for the very rich and those of uncommon intestinal fortitude.
To quote photographer and gallery owner Tina Schelhorn, “When you first go to Arles, you imagine it is about the exhibitions. Then you realize why it is called Rencontres, ‘meetings’. The most important thing about the Rencontres really is meeting people, especially other photographers.” Go to www.bphotorobert.com to see the work of someone we met while having a picnic on a park bench.
Tina is, therefore, absolutely right. The Rencontres are about people, ideas and inspiration. And so we’ll be there again next year, If the Gods are Wiling; and our hard-pressed feet and knees will show their age even worse, a year on; and it will still be worth every moment and penny.