Issue #207  9/22/2014
Why Arles Is Important to You—to Photography

By Alex Novak

You will find an article below about the Rencontres d'Arles International Photography Festival and the issues swirling around this event written by French journalist Gisèle Tavernier, who has specialized in the art and photography market. But perhaps I should put it in context for you, so that you can understand this moment, and the impact of the potential forces and changes to this vital photography building block.

Many of you may have never even heard of this festival; most—frankly, including myself--have never gone to the town of Arles for this pilgrimage. After all, of what importance is a distant French festival to you--just another one of those hundreds of photography "festivals" that have become so ubiquitous over the years?

The end of "Parade", "la troupe".  In the center, François Hébel  and Sam Stourdzé, outgoing and incoming directors of the Festival respectively. (photo by Gisèle Tavernier)
The end of "Parade", "la troupe". In the center, François Hébel and Sam Stourdzé, outgoing and incoming directors of the Festival respectively. (photo by Gisèle Tavernier)

Rencontres d'Arles is the progenitor of all such photography festivals and citywide events. Founded over 45 years ago by Lucien Clergue, a great photographer, who I am proud to call my friend, Arles has provided the template for worldwide creation of such festivals, while itself remaining unique. For the photo world, even the word "Arles" has become synonymous with the Festival, more than with the city itself.

Arles is not only the first of its kind; it—despite the occasionally tawdry exhibits and environs, and circus-like atmosphere—is the only such event in the photography world with a sense of history, scope, majesty and, yes, magic. And when I say "magic", I mean having the ability to create change from out of nothing. Inspiring and revealing to the world so many artists, Arles has made its contribution to photography like no other single event in the world. As the new director for Arles Sam Stourdzé notes in the article below: "A festival is not a museum, and it is not a commercial fair. It is a moment in which photography can be reinvented, experimental, exploring amazing spaces."

And Arles is even more: it has been the oh-so-delicate social web supporting much of the photography world. It has been an international meeting place for proponents of photography as art to meet and share ideas for the last 45 years.

And now all of this is potentially at risk.

When I spoke with Lucien Clergue a year ago at a vernissage of his work at a left bank Paris gallery, he told me two sad things: that he was very ill and that he feared for the continuing existence of the Festival, even wondering if this past summer's event would become a reality.

Circumstances have changed since then, both for the better and potentially for the worst. The Festival, just finishing this past Sunday, did indeed go on as planned, although in less than perfect circumstances or environment. The long-time Director of the Festival François Hébel stepped down after infighting about the long-term solution to the venues for the Festival and the overall future for Rencontres d'Arles. It could be easily said that Hébel, nearly single-handedly, was responsible for saving the Festival financially and otherwise when he retook over the reins in 2002.

Hébel could also be said to be a visionary, but his longer-term vision for Arles was defeated last year (and maybe even earlier, if the truth be told), and so was he. Some said his vision was an overreach. Perhaps, but in today's world you either grow and change, or die. I offer here my own tribute and gratitude to Hébel's Herculean efforts to keep the event running and relevant in the midst of economic and political headwinds.

A new director has been chosen. Perhaps cooler heads, as they say, will prevail to keep the single most important photography event still vibrant and pertinent, while insuring a secure financial future and attractive environs. It remains to be seen whether the Festival will have to sell its soul, or become something less magical and influential for this to be accomplished. I hope for the future of Photography that the players involved with the Rencontres d'Arles resolve their issues to the benefit of Photography instead of the benefit of just their own objectives. It will take all the parties involved to move Rencontres d'Arles forward to becoming a self-sustaining, vibrant event that maintains its relevance to Photography. Arles does indeed matters to Photography. It would be a shame to dilute that impact in any way.