Rencontres d’Arles Points the Camera Below the Surface

by Pelican Press
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Rencontres d’Arles Points the Camera Below the Surface

Deep beneath the town hall in Arles, France, past some unassuming service counters and down several flights of narrow steps, the artist Sophie Calle has buried some things that she can’t bear to part with.

Her show, called “Neither Give Nor Throw Away,” is a standout exhibition at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles, an annual summer photography festival founded in 1970 that presents group and solo shows of new and old photographic works in museums, churches, repurposed storefronts and parks across this Provençal city of 52,000 residents.

This year’s edition of the Rencontres, which runs through Sept. 29, is titled “Beneath the Surface,” and Calle’s contribution takes place in a labyrinthine series of underground caverns bisected by long arched balustrades. The shadowy walkways and damp, moldy atmosphere are ideal for her project, in which she displays works from her storeroom that were damaged in a storm. Advised by restorers to destroy them, she decided instead to give them a subterranean afterlife. And so, the works are now “buried” in Arles, where they continue to decompose, but have not, at least, been forsaken.

Calle — a photographer, writer and conceptual artist — is one of France’s most lauded and prolific contemporary art makers. Family, absence, death, romance and archives are themes that recur in her work, which often pairs images and text. In Arles, water-damaged photographs show a charred and discarded bed, formerly Calle’s own, in which a man who was renting a room from Calle’s mother burned to death, and a series of modest grave plots with stark markers: Mother, Sister, Child.

Others come from a series titled “The Blind,” which matches modest black-and-white portraits that Calle took of blind people with her photographic interpretations of their responses, also present as framed texts, when she asked them what they imagine to be beautiful. (Answers include the sea, the color blue and Alan Delon.)

While these works have been gathered together because they suffered the same misfortune, Calle notes in a wall text that, besides “The Blind,” the rot seemed to have “carefully chosen its victims,” attacking pieces that spoke of death or loss, as if they were already compromised and were ready for their demise.

The American photographer Mary Ellen Mark also pays attention to the things that are less visible: Her documentary portraits of subjects from all walks of life are presented in at Éspace Van Gogh in her first international retrospective, in which a Mumbai sex worker clowns for the camera; an elderly couple canoodles at a bar; and a young woman, mouth open in a holler, holds her fist up at a feminist demonstration. (The show travels to the C/O Galerie in Berlin in the fall.)

Another highlight is the 2021 series “Journey to the Center” by the Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel, whose sun-drenched color photographs — including of an old woman standing knee-deep in a murky turquoise lake and a massive Virgin Mary statue strapped to the roof of an S.U.V. — detail the Central American migration route across Mexico.

Uraguchi Kusukazu’s images, from 1960-80, of the Japanese “women of the sea,” who wear all white and free dive for pearls, are stunning, as are the rather eccentric grainy photographs of El Grupo de Cali, a collective of Colombian “Tropical Goth” artists whose uncanny photographs of mysterious figures are like horror movie stills.

And I was delighted to see the luminous work of Rinko Kawauchi in a group exhibition devoted to Japanese women photographers from 1950 to now. Her exquisite soft-focus images of the ordinary rendered extraordinary by the camera — “Untitled” (2004) captures, up close, a single hair balancing against a child’s eyelashes — are long overdue a Western retrospective.

At the southeastern edge of the town is the LUMA Foundation’s “Parc des Ateliers,” a sprawling green space in which the architect Frank Gehry has designed a spiraling, stainless steel tower that resembles the writing cypress tree of “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, who came to Arles in 1888 to find a new way of making art. For the Rencontres, LUMA is presenting “Lee Friedlander Framed by Joel Coen,” for which the moviemaking auteur (of Coen Brothers fame) has chosen 70 photographs by the 89-year-old photographer known for his black-and-white images of the American social landscape.

The exhibition includes few of Friedlander’s famous self-portraits, in which he appears as a shadow cast on his surroundings; instead, the emphasis is on works that show how the camera can trick, perplex and dazzle the eye. The selected photographs are dominated by horizontals and verticals — lamp posts, railings, edges of buildings, sidewalks, doorways, frames within frames — that split and splinter images so that they are hard to read, and look almost like collages or different worlds combined.

“Dallas” (1977) shows a busy freeway from an overpass, but the flattened light and the railing that splits the image into two makes it seem as if the cars below are emerging from a blank expanse. In “Montreal, Canada” (2002), a torn poster of a woman is sunlit from behind so that a sliver of her face is illuminated like a phantasm or a movie projection. A selection of works capture the photographer’s wife, Maria: her silhouette through a backlit newspaper; her sun-drenched half-nude form overlaid with Friedlander’s own shadow; her smiling face through a car window thick with reflected clouds as though she, too, might be floating in the sky.

The photography dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, Friedlander’s former gallerist, came up with the idea of the Coen collaboration, sensing affinities between the two artists’ oeuvres: bold storytelling, uncanny compositions and single frames that can hold the entire world, or a version of it. And, of course, filmmakers, like photographers, know that every frame excludes as much as it includes.

In an idiosyncratic but beguiling choice, the exhibition also features a slide show of all the works hung on the walls, so that we see the photographs as if leafing through a book or simply walking through life — somewhere between stills and moving pictures. There is always more to an image — “beneath the surface” — than we can see. It often takes someone else to show us.

Les Rencontres d’Arles
Through Sept. 29 at various venues around Arles, France;

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