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A week in Arles
William Stewart  ~  July 10, 2017  

A week in Arles, of photos, among ancient stones, stories, the heat in the height of summer amidst the fields and the light of Provence. Les Rencontres de la Photographie is a festival, a meeting place for photographers, of many years, from a small, revolutionary, beginning to an international festival, all within the confines of a city that dates back, and is still peppered with the vestiges of, Rome’s presence in Gaul and overlays of medieval church and fortifications on those foundations.

The exhibitions pepper the city, taking residence for over 2 months in spaces around the old town, some in small churches, some in the remnants of the Espace Van Gogh, the hospital of his recuperation, and others in the SNCF sheds, enormous spaces on the outskirts of town. The highlights for me are the night presentations in the Antique theatre, under the stars, on the big screen, to hear photographers tell their stories, describe the context of their images: this year Joel Meyerowitz, a NY photographer who now lives in Italy with a lifetime of stories and images, Annie Leibovitz of Rolling Stone and US pop-culture, and in stark contrast to an American view, photographers from Iran (Year 38, 66 photographers in total), predominantly women, share their stories from the revolution to the present. Perhaps what is so striking about these is the ‘normal’ quality of those pictures; these are not pictures of religious zealots, of a society enmeshed in a fanatical version of Islam, the breeding ground of terrorists, but are recognisable to us, their concerns, their experiences are as human, and as difficult given a regime that is as suspicious of the liberal freedoms of western societies as you might imagine.

An excursion out of town is recommended, and this year a jaunt to Gordes, a beautiful hilltop village in the heart of Provence, to the north of the Luberon, with Oppède in distant sight. A short walk to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, with lavender fields framing the entrance to an ancient stone refuge hidden amongst within the steep valleys. The order hails to a time of the Cluny order, an adoption of a simple and sparse aesthetic in rebellion to the opulence of the Catholic Church.

Back to Arles, to the rows of photobooks, bolted to the table, mine (Greenland) included. There are many exhibitions to take in, too many, as the town is also home to many small galleries, and these are all on show, whether as part of the Voies Off festival, or just set up for a short time, to take advantage of the many visitors to Arles during the summer. Of them all, there are three that stand most in my mind: Michael Wolf (Life in Cities), the densities, the hives of human lives in the crowds of buildings of Hong Kong, of Tokyo’s trains, and the like, of Niels Ackermann & Sébastien Gobert (Looking for Lenin) on a journey through the Ukraine with pictures of Lenin, the fallen, lying on the ground, disgraced, disregarded, honoured (by few), with such a sense of the comic (Lenin as Darth Vader), and tragic, circumstances of this man’s place in history and of Gideon Mendel’s “Drowning World” with images of flood waters inundating homes and towns, as climate changes.

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