This year’s Rencontres d’Arles is not only the fiftieth edition, but also one of near parity, featuring 47% of female photographers in the official selection.
This percentage is a first in the history of the festival, as this figure was closer to 20% for the 49 previous editions. It is difficult not to consider this shift through the lens of the polemics generated last year by the over-representation of men, which pushed a number of professionals to unite with Marie Docher to form the collective La Part des femmes1 (On behalf of women) and write an open letter addressed to the director of the festival, Sam Stourdzé. Published in the newspaper Liberation on 4 September 2018, this letter denounced the “androcentric” vision of photography put forth by such programming.2
With this new approach, the official selection includes no less than twelve solo and collective exhibitions by women, as well as several co-ed collective exhibitions. Next to known figures such as Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Germaine Krull (1897-1985), are several surprising discoveries, such as the chaotic and shocking work of Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková (born in 1952) and other young emerging artists, creating a remarkable variety of talents – a subjective sample of some striking projects from the feminine side of the Rencontres.
Among the initiatives aimed at paying tribute to historic figures of photography, the exhibition Eve Arnold, Abigail Heyman and Susan Meiselas – Unretouched Women distinguished itself both through the quality of the photographs presented and through the care given to the conception of the project by curator Clara Bouveresse. The exhibition focused on three books fundamental to feminist photography from the 1970s. While revealing the individual work of three authors and photographers of these publications mixing images and testimonies, the exhibition reveals – with accuracy and without essentialism – the similarities of these practices infused with feminist reflections from the era. Confronting these three approaches allows for an emphasis on highlighting the unique perspective of female artists. The contemporaneity and resonance of the issues addressed is striking within the current context, as seen with a print by Abigail Heymann (1942–2013) demonstrating a lesson of feminine self-examination. More than offering a feminine and feminist perspective on the history of photography from the 1970s, the exhibition highlights the breadth of this both artistic and political legacy that is still evident today.
The work of Marina Gadonneix (born in 1977) body of work takes a completely different direction. For the series Phénomènes (2014–2015) presented at the Mécanique Générale, the artist carried out several trips and residences in scientific institutions, such as the Centre national d’études spatiales. There, she photographed simulated environments conceived by researchers in order to study different natural phenomena, such as lightning, fires, floods and meteor showers. In the photographs of this artist interested by the porosity between fact and fiction, reality and dreams, these scientific experiments become enigmatic visions, imprints of mystery and fantasy. Although her approach is close to that of conceptual photography, it is her meticulous work of light and colour as well as the purity of her images that transports the viewer to a poetic universe where science and imagine collide.
Laure Tiberghien, Filtre #4, 2017, Courtesy Laure Tiberghien and galerie Lumière des roses
Alys Tomlinson, Untitled, from the Vera series, 2018, Courtesy Alys Tomlinson and Hacklebury Fine Art, London
For those representing the younger generation, the five artists nominated for the Louis Roederer Discovery Award were a major strength for this edition of the festival. Notable amongst them is Alys Tomlinson (born in 1975), winner of the people’s choice award, whose hypnotising video entitled Vera (2019) paints an intense and mystical portrait of Sister Vera, a nun in a convent in a remote region of Poland.
Co-winner of the jury’s prize, the practice of Laure Tiberghien (born in 1992) questions the definition of photography itself as she works directly with photographic paper without the intermediary camera. The abstract and colourful images resulting from this process are both innovative and deeply anchored in the tradition of experimentation that took place in the early development of the photographic medium. Simultaneously tangible by the subtlety of the technical processes employed and ethereal in their aesthetic, these complex and ambivalent pieces are both conceptual and poetic.
The number of female award winners is relatively high this year: Evangleia Kranioti (born 1979) won the Prix de la photo Madame Figaro, and Susan Meiselas (born 1948) became the first winner of the Women in Motion Photography Prize, initiated within the framework of a new partnership between the Kering Foundation and the festival. This collaboration is undoubtedly part of an effort to guarantee a better representation of women, however, one cannot forget the open letter published by La Part des femmes which explicitly stated they were not asking for a “special prize for women”, but rather wished that the Rencontres d’Arles and other important events in the field would change the institutional and undying vision of female artists. The evolution initiated in 2019 proves that the quality of the festival does not suffer from this effort towards parity; quite the contrary. The richness of the selection owes a lot to this new orientation. This observation allows for a certain optimism about the capability of the Rencontres d’Arles to transform and reiterate the feat for the next edition, even by prolonging the effort to include a greater number of artists from different ethnic backgrounds, Western and non-Western artists to attain a real diversity of perspectives next year.
Les Rencontres d’Arles, from 1st July to 22 September 2019, at Arles (France).