Stolen phones, British homes and wine for breakfast – Arles photography festival


Celebrating its 50th year, the Arles photography festival is a surprisingly gritty affair with a strong emphasis on photography from the recent past that asserted the personal as political. In a section entitled My Body Is a Weapon, the veteran Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková enthralled with her edgy diaristic approach, laying bare a life lived recklessly amid a period of political repression in the 1970s and 80s. In shadowy monochrome, the young, self-taught Jarcovjáková relentlessly photographed her own wild, doggedly self-destructive life in images that paid little attention to formal concerns, but nevertheless capture a time and milieu in an uncompromising way.

There is not trace of romanticism here, rather a portrayal of a hedonistic time when sex and alcohol were constants and excess itself a declaration of freedom. Often, she is her own most riveting, and revealing, subject. “The tangle of an untold number of limbs, red wine for breakfast,” she writes of one series tellingly called Killing Summer. “At night I walk barefoot along sidewalks. I understand nothing and don’t care. Life is pelting along too fast to understand. I’m rarely sober.” Her raw, imperfect images possess that same chaotic, devil-may-care energy, offering an insider’s eye-witness account of a time and a place with an extraordinary honesty. Simply entitled Evokativ, it is all that and more, one of the must-see shows at Arles.

Still Life With TV, 1984.



Edgy, diaristic approach … Still Life With TV, 1984, by Libuše Jarcovjáková. Photograph: Libuše Jarcovjáková

There’s more edgy, street level energy in Restless Bodies, which chronicled post-punk youth culture in East Germany in the 80s, and La Movida: A Chronicle of Turmoil, which looked at youth culture in Spain at roughly the same period. Both shows were uneven but caught the peculiar energy of fragmented European youth cultures that thrived despite the constraints of repression. What came across most strongly was how subversive ideas, propelled by the template of punk music and graphics, spread like a virus across Europe in a pre-digital era that seems suddenly impossibly distant. Today’s global interconnectivity, in its mesmerising superficiality, seems to work against this kind of subversive – and defiantly local – communal creativity.

The anxieties and injustices of our own time were at the heart of Mohamed Bourouissa’s powerful and politically engaged installation, Free Trade, which pointedly was exhibited in a space in Monoprix, a superstore near the railway station. Algerian-born Bourouissa has been working among the marginalised and economically disenfranchised for 15 years, using video, painting, text, drawing and latterly sculpture. In series such as Nous Sommes Les Halles and Périphériques, he engages with the lives of Parisian youths traditionally demonised by politicians and the rightwing press, often presenting narratives that, in their clandestine exchanges, echo the official rituals of power and finance.

L’impasse, from the Périphérique series, 2007.



Clandestine exchanges … L’impasse, from the Périphérique series, 2007. Photograph: Mohamed Bourouissa

Bourouissia is a quintessentially contemporary artist, not averse to using reenactments as well as footage shot on surveillance cameras and even stolen smartphones, to create complex images that are a world away from traditional documentary and all the more urgent for that. In a festival where exciting contemporary work was thin on the ground, Free Trade stood out as a challenging, compelling report from the margins.

Elsewhere, perhaps in response to the flak the organisers took last year for the paucity of women artists, Arles celebrated pioneering female photographers. Susan Meiselas was deservedly awarded the inaugural Women in Motion prize for her long career as a documentarian whose engagement with her subjects is often deep and sustained. Her still viscerally powerful 1970s series, Carnival Strippers, was on show at Espace Van Gogh, alongside the work of the lesser-known Abigail Heyman, whose 1974 book Growing Up Female – about the ordinary, domestically demanding lives of a generation of women – remains a touchstone of feminist photography. Squeezed between the two, Eve Arnold’s more traditional images, though iconic in their own right, seemed oddly put of place.

Rock-Ola Club, Madrid, 1982, from La Movida: A Chronicle of Turmoil.



Peculiar energy … Rock-Ola Club, Madrid, 1982, from La Movida: A Chronicle of Turmoil. Photograph: Miguel Trillo

Downstairs, a retrospective of Helen Levitt’s street photography from the 1930s and 40s was one of the crowd-pleasers, with many of the images being shown for the first time. It traced her trajectory from black and white to sumptuous colour, highlighting her eye for gestures – arm movements, bodies crouched or languorous, children moving with balletic grace – and the quiet observational intimacy of many of her snatched portraits. Again, it provided a glimpse of another world when even New York’s streets seemed relatively free of traffic and children could be photographed with impunity.

Perhaps it was the punishing heat of Arles, where temperatures hovered around the mid-30s, but I found two vast and very different group shows, Home Sweet Home and Photo Brut, as frustrating as they were fascinating. The former, conceived and curated in France by Isabelle Bonet, looked at the home as a defining aspect of British identity. Ranging a bit too freely through recent depictions of the domestic – from the social documentary approach of Daniel Meadows and David Moore to the more mischievous conceptual strategies of Eva Stenram and Clare Strand, it did not really convince me of “the link between the wellbeing of soul and body and the domestic interior”. Rather, I was reminded again of the essential oddness and insularity of the English, which the French tend to interpret – despite the interminable farce of Brexit – as a kind of lovable eccentricity. A show that didn’t quite equal the sum of its parts.

Helen Levitt at Arles



Crowd-pleaser … one of Helen Levitt’s street photographs

Likewise, for different reasons, Photo Brut, an exhaustive – and exhausting – trawl through the outer reaches of “outsider” photography mostly culled from the collection of Bruno Decharme. There were 500 works, many created by self-taught obsessives, often mentally ill or marginalised. The best known is probably Miroslav Tichy, who clandestinely photographed women in his Czech hometown, Kyjov, on primitive homemade cameras. The results remain oddly beautiful despite the manner of their making and the blemishes, stains and grime that coat many of his prints.

Like several outsider artists, his work is now highly collectable. More disturbing still is the work of Morton Bartlett, who carved wooden sculptures of pre-pubescent children and then dressed, posed and photographed them. The work has a heightened, almost surreal aura that raises more questions than it answers, but is utterly compelling and, in our censorious climate, more controversial than ever.

In a show as sprawling as Photo Brut, a kind of weirdness fatigue inevitably sets in – obsessiveness is exhausting even when glimpsed at a remove – but there are plenty of surprises: imaginary worlds, compulsive cross-dressers, anonymous voyeurs who recorded their intimate lives or their often bizarre alter egos. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Lee Godie, it is almost worth a visit to to see her work alone. She lived on the streets of downtown Chicago in the 1970s and made photo-booth self-portraits that seem oddly attuned to some of the conceptual photography of the time – Cindy Sherman without the artfulness. An outsider, then, who was utterly in step with the prevailing art currents of the time.

Untitled, from the Vera series, 2018). Courtesy of the artist and Hacklebury Fine Art, London.



Spiritual rigour … Untitled, 2018, by Alys Tomlinson. Photograph: courtesy Hacklebury Fine Art, London

In an airless old building by the train station, the shortlisted young artists on the Arles Discovery Award competed in a prize dictated by a public vote. I was taken by Mate Barths’s series, Kontakt, which documented military-style summer camps run by the Hungarian “Home Defence School”, in which often very young children learn survival skills and, in the process, become normalised to weaponry and violence.

In contrast, British photographer Alys Tomlinson’s stark, monochrome portraits and landscapes of contemporary pilgrimage sites evince a feeling of deep calm and spiritual rigour. Her short film about a young nun, Vera, who works with wild horses in a convent in Belarus is another highlight, serene and oddly sensual, evoking an inner peace expressed through images of quiet stillness. In the visual overload of the festival, it was good to be reminded of the enduring power of quietly attentive images.

The Arles photography festival runs until 22 September.



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