Les Rencontres Arles Photography 2013 – Part Two

Posted on August 1, 2013


This is my second post setting out my thoughts on my trip to Arles. The previous post is here.

I indicated this post will cover my impressions of Pieter Hugo, Marion Gronier, John Davies, Wolfgang Tilmans and Gordon Parks along with my thoughts on the nominees for the 2013 Discovery Award.

Pieter Hugo – There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends (Atelier de la Chaudronnerie)

Hugo’s project is a series of about 50 portraits of his friends in South Aftrica. In some cases several portraits of the same subject are included. The prints are quite small – I would guess about 11×14 inches and they are presented in an irregular array on the wall. All are head and shoulder portraits and in most the subject confronts the viewer head on. Where several portraits of the same subject is presented they are arranged in a row and each portrait shows a different perspective – head on, profile, 3/4 view facing left and so on.



The work was made digitally and Hugo has presented the images in black and white. In post processing he adjusted the colour channels to darken the pigment (melanin) in the sitter’s skin.  White subjects become dark skinned. The message is clear – all races are the same under the skin.

Hugo’s is an interesting an novel way of drawing attention to the issue of racial discrimination. However, I am not sure it really worked for me.  Race is about much more than just the colour of the skin and the project runs the risk of trivialising the subject.

Hugo himself never thought that this work would be exhibited at a major exhibition. It is much more understated than his usual fare of large scale colour photographs.

Food for thought here. I liked the idea of using digital with a purpose. It shows a clear linkage between concept and medium. I believe Simon Norfolk did something similar for his portraits in his work ‘Burke & Norfolk’.

Another point of interest was that Hugo’s artist statement invited feedback from those viewing the photographs – I might just do that.

Marion Gronier – The Glorious Ones (Salie Henri Comte)

Gronier’s is a series of portraits of circus artists taken against plain backgrounds. The artists are pictured immediately after performing in the ring. This work was of particular interest to me given that my self portrait series ‘I am an Ironman’ was conceptually similar. In both cases the subject is distracted, as they had been emersed in another activity just before the portrait was made.

There is no sense that these professional artists are posing. Many have a dazed look about them and some stare wild eyed at the viewer. The portraits have a raw intensity about them. I found them compelling.

Les glorieux 01 © Marion Gronier

Les glorieux 01 ©Marion Gronier

All of the portraits are head and shoulders with the subject arranged frontally. Some of the portraits have a blue background, others red, both have a shiny texture. All are cropped square. Curiously, some are framed using a window mount, others without. These differences in background  I assumed was because the artists were from different circuses. This worked well and served to show that the images were not just made by lining up people outside a studio.  The differences in the framing however, I found perplexing. No explanation was given and I assumed it was done for decorative purposes. If so I am not sure it was such a good idea as it diverted my attention from the portraits themselves.

There was an excellent video of Gronier at work – the portraits were made whilst she held the BMW Residency at the Musee Nicephore-Niepce. She had to undertake a project during this residency and the video shows how she went about developing her ideas. She made a false start with an idea of making portraits of participants at Bals Montes (Travelling Dances?), before going on to work with the circus artists.

The video showed her making the portraits. She is in a cramped corner of the circus tent. She used a tarpaulin background and two continuous lights with very little diffusion. (The lighting is quite hard and this works well as it is consistently applied and adds to the raw intensity of the portraits). Gronier states that she likes her work to have some rough edges as this adds to their authenticity.

She worked with a handheld twin lens reflex.The negatives were scanned and the prints were digital c-types. The subjects were seen to walk out of the ring and directly into her makeshift studio.

There were some interesting learning points for my own portraiture work. The rough edges to the lighting and the background certainly worked well with these portraits. It accentuates the intensity of the gazes and reflects the urgency with which the portraits were made. This is a good example of how to manage the process of producing photographs to reinforce an underlying concept.

Her ups and downs when searching for a project idea confirmed my view that I need to remain flexible when developing ideas. On the other hand her persistence and consistency of approach once the concept had become clear is a good example of how to ‘get the job done’. The only downside for me was the unexplained variations in framing of the images….

John Davies – France England (Atelier des Forges)

For some time now John Davies has been a one of my favourite documentary landscape photographers. Almost all of his work is in black and white. He uses a large format camera. His statement which I took from his website summarises his approach:

In recent years I have drawn inspiration from issues relating to my surroundings and conditioning. Initially I develop an interest in documenting aspects of my immediate social political landscape. These concerns often reflect a national if not international significance. I am not so much interested in entertaining an audience or providing vehicles for escape but in delivering a highly crafted detailed image conveying a sense of reality. A reality that shares a recognition of aspects of urban living. But importantly, making images of a landscape that attempts to question our acceptance and perception of the inevitable consequences of living in a post imperialist society and within a post industrial landscape”. John Davies – November 2011.

His photographs most often show layers of urban development and is a kind of landscape which, borrowing a term from Mikhail Bakhtin (often quoted by Simon Norfolk), might be described as a ‘chronotope’ – a place that allows movement through space and time simultaneously. (see here).

France England is a sizeable exhibition and takes the form of a retrospective. In the first part the photographs are all of urban scenes from England which according to the artists statement are ‘Visual Stories about social and political process, change and transformation’. Viaduct, Stockport 1986 is a good example of his work:


Viaduct Stockport, 1986 ©John Davies

Viaduct, Stockport 1986

Here in one photograph one can see a Victorian railway viaduct and mill, a canal which may predate these, and in the background modernist office architecture. On the bridge a present day train speeds by. Davies’ photographs reveal layers of urban development and expose in many cases the haphazard nature of urban planning.

The exhibition is located in two rooms. One for his work in England and the second for France. In his French work he focusses mostly on less populated areas which have a direct connection with the land. It is as if he is showing how sparsely populated France is compared to England.

This exhibition is well worth a visit – one of the highlights for me. Davies has been one of my influences in my East End London project – a project which has been dormant for a while but which I hope to restart as part of the OCA Your Own Portfolio course I am about to begin.

Davies dedicated the exhibition to Gabriele Basilico, an Italian urban landscape photographer and contemporary of Davies (and another favourite of mine). Basilico died of cancer earlier this year.

Wolfgang Tilmans – Neue Welt (Grand Halle des Ateliers)

Billed as one of the star attractions Tilmans exhibition commands a very large exhibition space. Neue Welt (New World) is a series of photographs which lay out his vision of the world today through photographs taken during his travels.

The images are of vernacular urban scenes and details from everyday life. Tilmans directly controls how his work is shown at his exhibitions. He sees this as very much part of his creative process. I saw his work during my visit to Frankfurt last year (see here). Many of the photographs on show in Arles were also in the Frankfurt exhibition.

Tilmans made the photographs with a digital camera. All are in colour. They are presented in many different sizes of prints – from small A3 size to billboard size occupying an entire wall. It is very difficult to understand why Tilmans has presented the images in the way he has. Photographs from different locations are mixed up, as are the image sizes and arrangement. It is as if Tilmans is pointing to the ubiquitous nature of the photographic image these days. His style of presentation also echoes the nature of the image content. The photographs are unframed and hung by attaching bulldog clips to the corners and suspending them from cord attached to the clips at the top.

Tilmans work was not for me. I found the images very repetitive and dull…there is a limit to how many photographs of the front headlight of a car I can take! Many others will disagree with me I am sure.


Wolfgang Tillmans – Phare de voiture (b), 2012. Avec l’aimable autorisation de la galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne.
Headlight (b), 2012. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Gordon Parks – An American Story (Magasin Electrique)

This is a major retrospective exhibition for Parks who was the first African American photographer to join the Farm Security Administration and who went on to become a staff photographer with Life Magazine.

The exhibition presents a broad range of Parks’s work, reflecting his photojournalistic background. Hard hitting reportage campaigning in the struggle for racial equality is mixed in with fashion shots and celebrity portraiture. I much preferred the former. For me this diluted the impact of Park’s serious work.

Most of Park’s iconic photographs are black and white but rather curiously the image which most grabbed my attention was a small colour print of an African American couple sitting in their front room.

©Gordon Parks Foundation

©Gordon Parks Foundation

This simple image says so much. It is from a series entitled ‘Segregation in the South’. This image seems to me to ask the question ‘Why are these dignified people not valued as members of American society’. The couple sit in their Sunday best as if ready for church. The room looks basic but it is tidy and well looked after. The family photograph on the wall signifies perhaps that several generations of their family have lived in America. They are dignified, unassuming, upstanding members of the community, yet they are not seen as equal members of society. For me this simple low key portrait is very powerful.

This exhibition is well worth a visit.

Rencontre d’Arles Discovery Award (Atelier de laMechanique)

The Discovery Award is given to ‘a photographer of artist working with photography whose work has recently been discovered or deserves to be.’  Nominations are made by a distinguished panel, generally the directors of major galleries worldwide such as Brett Rogers the director of the Photographer’s Gallery in London.

In total 10 photographer/artists were nominated. I am not going to run through each of them rather my intention here is to make some observations about the nominees as a whole. The most striking feature was that the six (out of ten) were working with alternative photographic processes or found images or in some cases a combination of the two. This included wax paper negatives, wet collodion, collage, expired photographic paper and camera obscura. Only two of the nominees presented work which could be classified as Modernist documentary (black and white, humanistic reportage). Both of these were Russian.

It seems that many aspiring artist/photographers are seeking to distance themselves from the world of digital images. I can relate to this but at the same time I believe that the medium used should support the concept behind the work rather than being a goal in itself.

What impressed me about the use of alternative processes was how it can transform how the viewer perceives the content of the image. Of the work on offer, I was most interested in Martin Becka’s ‘Dubai Transmutations’. This series is essentially a documentary of the urban landscape of what is perhaps the world’s most modern city, Dubai. The photographs were taken with a 40×50 cm view camera on a wax paper negative. The resulting images do not look like Dubai today. They have the feel of something from the past. They challenge the viewer’s perceptions of time – the photographs appear historic yet we know that they are not. They reveal how easy it is to mislead the viewer by the way a subject is represented.

Dubai Transmutations ©Martin Becka

Dubai Transmutations ©Martin Becka

The winners of the award were Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Rozenn Quéré’s who used found photographs of one family to create a modern ‘myth’ of the Palestinian diaspora. The layout of this work was extremely interesting. The photographs were in family portrait size frames and placed on a series of pedestals around the gallery space. Recordings of conversations and such like were played with the sound seeming to come from small radios which were part of the exhibit. Fellow OCA student John Umney has presented an excellent review of the exhibit here.

Concluding Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Arles. Compressing everything into one day was too ambitious given the sheer volume of work on show, but I still got a lot out of it. The event demonstrated the sheer breadth of photographic practice on offer in today’s world and in this sense it was very inspirational and exciting….can’t wait to go again next year….