Photo Festival Review: Rencontres d'Arles 2006

With over 50 exhibitions, nightly slideshows in an ancient Roman theater, and fantastic food and wine, no one does a photo festival quite like the French.

Thousands of photographers and industry professionals descended on the ancient Roman town of Arles last week to witness one of the world's longest-running photography festivals, commonly known as the Rencontres d'Arles.

With 50 exhibitions around town, nightly slideshows in the Antique Theatre, and workshops where burgeoning photographers could learn from the profession's noted masters, the Rencontres d'Arles offered a unique look at both the history and future of photography.

This year's program was guest curated by Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon, who vowed in the festival program that he wanted to both celebrate the work of his photographic "fellow travelers" as well as provide a "subjective X-ray" into the current field to determine what deserved recognition.

The exhibitions were highlighted by master works of all types, from the career retrospective of noted South African photographer David Goldblatt to the political photography of David Burnett to a side-by-side exhibit comparing the late-'60s, early-'70s war photography of Don McCullin and Gilles Caron.

COMPLETE COVERAGE Party PicturesAward WinnersLeica PrizesInterview with Festival Director

Much of the work exhibited by emerging photographers dealt with the question of, as Montreal-based Isabelle Hayeur puts it, "what is going to become of places and cultures in the age of globalization?"

In the eyes of Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong, globalization took the shape of surreal, Photoshopped tableau where ubiquitous corporate logos decorated a desolated, post-industrial landscape. Wang's "Glorious Life" series was one of the festival's highlights, and indeed won the Rencontres d'Arles Outreach Award, which was voted on by 826 festival participants.

New approaches to storytelling were also suggested in the exhibitions, most notably in the work of Alessandra Sanguinetti, who has spent the past five years recording an allegorical tale of two Argentine cousins through their desires and dreams rather than focusing on a more traditional documentary narrative. Sanguinetti won the Discovery Award (see complete list of winners).

The nightly projections, held in an ancient Roman theater, took a multidisciplinary approach by combining music with photography. New York-based punk poet Patti Smith riled up the crowd on Wednesday night during a projection celebrating the 20th anniversary of Agence Vu, France's avant-garde photojournalism gallery and agency.

The following night featured a live jazz quartet providing the soundtrack to a selection of photos by Guy Le Querrec.

On Friday afternoon, the town of Arles was abuzz with activity as work crews set up outdoor screens and slide projectors around the La Roquette neighborhood. That evening, venues such as courtyards of schools, monasteries and classic townhouses overflowed with people as various agencies, magazines, and photography collectives showed highlights from the past year in photography.

The one question many Americans have about Arles is how it compares with Visa pour l'Image, the photojournalism festival held each September in nearby Perpignan, France. Conventional wisdom holds that the Rencontres is to fine art what Visa is to photojournalism, but that analogy doesn't quite fit.

The comparison might have been more apt two years ago, when Martin Parr served as guest curator at Arles. But the program at Arles this year featured an abundance of photojournalism, thanks to the curatorial work of Magnum's Raymond Depardon. Arles' director, François Hébel, is the steady hand guiding the festival each year, and having served as one-time director of the Magnum agency, Hébel's pedigree in photojournalism is well-established. True, the program in Arles can be said to be more diverse, and it embraces much more in the way of portrait and fashion photography than Visa, but it's far from a fine art festival.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the two is the overall mood. Compared to Visa pour l'Image, which has a high-tech trade show floor where business is carried out and relationships forged, Arles offers a more laid back approach. Perhaps it's due to the July heat, but the atmosphere is one of taking things as they come rather than hustling to get work in front of photo editors.

American Photo editor-at-large Jean-Jacques Naudet, who has attended the Rencontres off and on since 1976, says Arles is notable for the quality of its exhibitions and its air of conviviality.

"I think the quality of the exhibitions this year is largely due to Raymond Depardon, who is a father figure for the French and for all photographers," Naudet says. "Raymond has paid tribute to all his friends and all the photographers he loves and respects. He pays tribute to all kinds of photographers, from paparazzi to fine art to photojournalists.

"It's really a humanist festival. Almost all photographers have people inside their photos. You have very few landscapes. And the conviviality is due to Francoise Hebel."

Hébel recognizes that it's difficult for people from the U.S. to travel all the way to Arles, so he goes out of his way to treat them to a unique experience. The lunch in the countryside Friday afternoon, which featured a traditional cattle roundup and branding ceremony, as well as a fantastic meal of roast pig and mutton, was one of the week's true highlights, and offered a relaxed opportunity to converse with fellow photographers and industry luminaries.

Arles does offer portfolio reviews, which participants must pay for, but there are fewer photo editors roaming the streets than in Perpignan. Kathy Ryan of The New York Times Magazine was the only American photo editor we spotted all week. Perpignan, in comparison, can offer a better opportunity for photographers to show work to editors at all the major news magazines and conversely offers photo editors a better chance to spot new talent and connect with old friends. At Visa you can expect to run into editors from National Geographic, Stern, Paris Match, Time, Newsweek, People, Geo, and Rolling Stone, among other magazines.

All that's not to say one can't make business deals in Arles. Several photographers were seen shopping around book deals, and several book publishers were in attendance. If you pick your spots, as one photographer we know did, you can have your portfolio seen by a gallerist, a photo editor, and several fellow photographers, and that's just at dinner.

The explosion of photo festivals in recent years - Pingyao in China, Photo Espana in Madrid, and Reality Crossings in Germany, to name a few -- give photographers and photo editors (and journalists who cover the industry) great opportunities to meet and learn from one another in a relaxed environment. All are no doubt worth the time and money, but the Rencontres d'Arles should be the model they all aspire to.

No one does a photo festival quite like the French.