For fifty years, the Rencontres festival has turned Arles into a world capital of photography. An unmissable event for image enthusiasts, it is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with no fewer than fifty exhibitions, on view until late September. Discussions at a pub, emotions sparked by a unique show, fascination exerted by a single photograph: here is the story of our week in Arles.
Let’s begin at the end. It’s Saturday night, July 6, 2019. The first week of the festival is drawing to a close amid thunderous applause at Arles’ ancient amphitheater. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the festival, the artistic directors thought big: they invited a dozen authors to a special evening entitled “Live Magazine.” The idea is that each guest tells a brief story, something amusing, something touching. A series of short narratives makes the audience laugh or sends a shiver down their spines. A journalist has just described how he infiltrated North Korea posing as a Belgian entrepreneur and chocolate producer. A Vanity Fair editor recounted how she scoured 1980s’ Who’s Who of a small French commune looking for a photo of the first husband of Brigitte Macron. An architect talks about how he invented a system capable of digitizing archeological sites around the world in 3D, and how much the site of Palmyra in Syria, where he worked, was devastated by ISIS. A woman testifies to the pervasive fear in Chechnya which she has devoted her life to investigating. And then there’s Stephanie and Marcia. Stephanie is a journalist. She used to live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she enjoyed going out to the opera. After the economic crisis struck the city, the state ceased paying the salaries of the opera musicians and dancers. One lead dancer moonlights as an Uber driver; musicians do odd jobs. The star dancer, Marcia, was forced into exile in Austria in order to continue working. “There you have it!,” Stephanie exclaims. And we find it hard to believe. But here she is, dancing before us on the stage of the amphitheater. It is an incomparable moment of grace that vanishes in the blink of an eye…
We can see that we can be fifty years old and still be very young!
This may have been one of the most beautiful sights of this five-decade Festival dedicated to photography: a woman forced to leave her country dancing to remind us how fragile culture is and how much a body struggles to convey it... Without a doubt, this has been one of the most beautiful gifts of this edition of the Rencontres de la photographie. “Surprise” is a key word of Sam Stourdzé’s, the Festival director since 2014. Tonight has fulfilled all expectations. But surprises have abounded throughout the festival, which offers a lively program combining documentary photographs, multimedia images, and experimentation. “Half a century of presence makes you feel ambiguous,” admits Sam Stourdzé. “You feel so much like a counter-institution. We want to think outside the box. We were afraid that this anniversary would mummify us a little. But in fact, we can see that we can be fifty years old and still be very young!” The last sentence slips out in a mischievously self-satisfied manner. And Stourdzé has good reason to be satisfied. Within five years of becoming the director, attendance at the Festival increased by 70%. It rose from 84,000 visitors in 2014 to nearly 140,000 in 2018. How does he explain this success? “It’s always difficult to try to understand why,” he says. “Maybe our emphasis on the unexpected is working. What is certain is that 70% of our audience returns from one year to the next. This ensures our constant renewal.”
“A crazy idea”
For Anne Clergue, the daughter of one of the three founders of the Festival, the city itself has contributed to the event’s continued success. “The light, the song of the cicadas, the beauty of the Rhône,” she enumerates. There is no better home for her father’s “crazy idea,” as she puts it. The photographer Lucien Clergue founded the Rencontres d’Arles with the historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette and the writer Michel Tournier, because they realized that this new twentieth-century art had no event to celebrate it. Ten years earlier, Lucien Clergue had gone to New York and had seen that Americans held photography in much higher regard than the French did. The idea of organizing an event took root. All that remained to be done was to bring together the right people and dare to try. Very quickly, the Rencontres became a required event for photographers. Pierre-Jean Amar, historian of photography and photographer, documented this ascent. A great friend of Willy Ronis, he photographed him showing his images to Marc Riboud, who was organizing an internship for young photographers in the 1970s. “At the time, you didn’t have to pay to show your portfolios to established photographers the way you do today. We did it in the street, on the pavement,” he says with a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. “I showed my images to Ansel Adams, for example. He told me he would have liked to take a few like mine.” There can be no greater reward for a young photographer.
Above all, Pierre-Jean Amar insists, “In those days, what was fundamental was being able to bring together people who did not consider themselves to be great artists.” When asked if people nowadays get too big for their shoes, he retorts: “you mean for their espadrilles?” He laughs, but the observation is sour. Amar thinks that the Festival has lost a little of its soul. It is hard, if not impossible, to meet artists today. “I regret this star system a little bit, but it’s normal that things evolve,” he notes philosophically. Another man we spoke to thinks that the Rencontres are no longer what they used to be. His name is Virgil; he is 59 years old and serves coffee to the world’s greatest photographers who frequent his corner café. Poised behind the counter of “Mon bar” at the Place du Forum, he arranges beer glasses on a tray while saying that the world does not end with the Rencontres. To our reply, “Doesn’t the festival bring a bit of sparkle to the town?”, he counters, “Doesn’t it sparkle enough with the amphitheater?” We note he wears a t-shirt with the picture of a red bull: bullfighting is another passion of Arles...
“It’s national heritage. A thousand-year-old city. The amphitheater. A magnificent Romanesque cloister….” Mayor Hervé Schiavetti’s eyes light up when he talks about Arles. For him, there is no better place in the world to welcome photographers. He offers us a drink at the Nord Pinus Hotel and tells us how he discussed the future of the Festival with Lucien Clergue in his office a few years ago. The number of exhibition sites has multiplied over recent years, and the mayor’s energy has had a lot to do with it. As the Festival director Sam Stourdzé assures us, Hervé Schiavetti knows how to sustain this event, and it will take further support to carry on this great adventure. Construction sites loom large before the two men; next year the Luma Foundation site will completely open to the public. For the mayor, what is certain is that there is always something to see. If you’re coming to Arles and haven’t yet heard about the Festival, Hervé Schiavetti has one piece of advice: “Enjoy!”
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin