2009 is the 40th anniversary of Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie, which runs from July 7th to September 13th, when photography envelops the ancient town in the south of France. If you’re a die-hard photography fan, you can partake in over 60 exhibitions that are located in an incomparable setting of 12th century churches and former industrial buildings. From what we could see, just about every free wall in Arles included some form or shape of an official or a fringe photographic exhibition: posters, stickers, invites to vernissages, etc.
My friends and I attended the Opening Week’s events, at which the great and the good of the art, editorial, and documentary photography from across the globe traditionally gather in Arles. During those first few days were scheduled symposiums, workshops, special exhibits, book signings, night-time screenings and portfolio reviews. A couple of my friends registered for the portfolio sessions – a series of 20-minute discussions with curators, agency heads, and photo editors – where the artists benefit from a critical assessment of their work, as well as advice and contacts that may potentially lead to exhibitions or publications. One came away with possible gallery leads and the other sold a piece of artwork on the spot. The week presents a wonderful opportunity for any aspiring photographer: it’s both a celebratory and educational promotion of photographers & creative photography, against an inspiring and inherently theatrical Roman backdrop.
The festival’s highlight, the ‘Night of the Year’ (‘La Nuit de l’Année‘) took place in the Parc des Ateliers, the area of the former SNCF railway workshop, located in the heart of the city of Arles. On 15 screens and building façades that you could visit in any order were projections presenting the best photography of 2008-2009 from the top dailies, magazines, and agencies. It was a festive atmosphere and along with hundreds of other photography aficionados, we walked the site and viewed arresting images of war, of intimate moments, of fashion, and contemporary portraiture. Under the night sky, in open-air spaces, we thrilled at the dramatic images one after another. Of particular interest to me was a documentary on Nan Goldin, an American fine art and documentary photographer and the Principal Exhibitor for this, the 40th anniversary year. Although renowned & highly controversial, I personally hadn’t heard of her until this week and was intrigued to hear her story of photographic journeys into the hard-drug and drag subcultures of Boston and then NYC.
For some it was a long night of music, and sharing, of discussion and business networking. For us, it was a cold night and we didn’t last long. No matter what anyone says, you can overdose on photography. I was feeling the effects of the week’s visual overload.
On the last evening of the Opening Week, we attended the special event in the Théâtre Antique / Amphithéâtre, a Roman theater founded by Augustus in the 1st century. Squeezing our way through the bottleneck at the gated entrance, we made it in and ascended the crumbled steps to some small seats just underneath the stars. It was an Awards’ Night revealing, among others, the winner of the many artists who competed for the important Discovery award. Following the speeches and accolades was a 700+ picture slideshow of Nan Goldin’s photos, her work being a major influence on contemporary photography since 1987 when she shocked and delighted viewers with a visual diary on intimacy, drugs and violence. A huge crowd showed up on this night for her screening, which was accompanied by beautiful yet sorrowful music of the Tiger Lilies band that gave a (seemingly never-ending) screen-side performance.
Personally, I would have been fine with just seeing half the images.