The opening week of the Rencontres Photographiques – literally, “Photographic Meetings” – in Arles in the first week of July is the biggest annual gathering of fine art photographers in the world. Over the course of a few days, you can go to scores of exhibitions; meet hundreds of fellow photographers; and go to more vernissages (opening nights) than most of us can get to in a year.
Inevitably, quite a few of these exhibitions involve street photography to a greater or lesser extent. These range from whole exhibitions of both great and unknown street photographers past and present, down to individual pictures for sale at commercial galleries: individual pictures such as an original print of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s rue Mouffetard, the small boy with the bottle of wine under each arm. There is nothing quite like seeing an original print, especially if it is valued at many thousands of pounds, dollars or euros, unless it is seeing or perhaps even shaking hands with someone like the late Willy Ronis. My favourite picture in all the world is his Nu Provençale (Provençale Nude), formerly known as La Toilette (The Morning Wash). It is the most utterly loving portrait that I have ever seen. Google it. Admittedly it’s not actually street photography, but his street photography is pretty stunning too: classic French Humanist on the street and in the factory.
But you don’t go to Arles just to see street photography, or to meet street photographers. You go there to do street photography: to photograph people, yes, in the street. Or thereabouts: it does not do to be too prescriptive about what is actually “street”. This picture narrowly beat out a couple of others I took literally in the street outside Le Fad’Oli, the best sandwich bar in Arles. It’s a party in the courtyard of the ENSP, the École National Supérieur de la Photographie or National Superior School of Photography.
This sounds incredibly exclusive: the sort of thing where you need to know The Right People (With Capital Letters) on order to get an invitation. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need only to know where it is, and when; and this is all detailed in the (free) Voies Off guide that you can pick up at the Rencontres. It’s not even a question of gate-crashing: you just turn up. No-one questions you or demands to see your credentials. You don’t even need to have a pass to the Rencontres. One young photographer we know, we met when he was still a schoolboy looking for free beer: yes, there’s lots of free booze, be it beer, wine, pastis, or the kind of punch where it is probably better not to inquire too closely about the ingredients. There’s even orange juice and Coca-Cola if you want. He was more interested in beer, but he was also looking to meet other photographers. Just walk up to anyone and start a conversation: English is widely spoken if your French isn’t what it should be. If it doesn’t work out: well, talk to someone else. Or just take pictures.
On a good evening there will be three or four vernissages, and you can wander (or as the evening wears on, stagger) from one to the next. Although vernissages are named after the last, private view in 19th century art galleries, when the artists varnished their pictures either literally with varnish or figuratively with large amounts of absinthe, they aren’t all literally on the opening night. If they were, no-one would have time to do anything else on Monday or Tuesday, and they’d have too bad a hangover for the rest of the week.
Can I tell you what is going to be there? Not really, because the programme is released only a few days in advance, and besides, each year is so different that it is next to impossible to make generalizations. But barring mishap, when I get back I’ll do at least one more piece for Johnny right here on this site, and another piece on my own site with even more pictures. And if anyone is there this year, Frances and I will be doing portfolio readings with Voies Off on Thursday afternoon between 3 pm and 5 pm.
You can see more from Roger on his website – Roger Hicks