Timothy Prus is the curator of The Archives of Modern Conflict, and an atypical collector. He is the person who put together the controversial “Nein, Onkel!” archive, that depicts playful Nazi soldiers relaxing aside from the horrendous war. “You can go in many places around the world and discover photographs , very tightly linked to the individuals or the nature of the place. You meet people, friends of friends, in cafés, in street markets and little shops, and photos will start to emerge if you ask for them”, he explains.
At Les Rencontres d’Arles, he presents a collection of vernacular photographs from Colombia. Here again, curiosity and hazard led to an original portrayal of the country. Spanning over a century and a half, the images cover a wide range of subject, from the result of early botanical expeditions to news photographs and daily life. “Because there are seas, mountains and jungles, Colombia is not unified by its geography. Some part of the country are also difficult to access so it’s a good place for photography to flourish”, he comments. This is the instinctive reason for his interest. Then, there is a decisive encounter with Manuel Rodriguez. “He had a photo studio and had shot photo since the late 1930’s. He was working a lot for the news and had taken the portraits of most presidents and intellectuals. He had a fantastic way of telling stories about Bogota, not just the news but also giving a feeling of the daily life. When I saw his work I thought, he was exceptional and he must not be the only one. It triggered in me an interest in hunting for photos in Colombia.”
The collection of Timothy Prus reflects his personal experience of the country, and the violent conflict is thus absent at the exception of anecdotic evocations. “There is an interesting group of photos by TX Tizenez, and we discovered a movie made in Colombia in 1968 with money from Hollywood. It’s called “The adventurous”, features Charles Aznavour and reconstructs the overthrow of a dictator. At some point, there is crowd fighting, but if you look closely a lot of them are laughing. It’s a 17-million-dollar movie so they put on a spectacular fake revolution and that’s the closest you get to a picture of fighting!”
An incongruous element gives its names to the set of images, “The Cow and the Orchid”. “There are funny stories that unite the two. I have heard of a collector of orchids who also collects cows and has trouble in life stopping cows from eating the orchids”, Prus laughs. “I like the resonance between the two images. People can really make what they want of that. In some minor way, it’s a comment about how we think about photography”, he adds. The exhibition displays between 400 and 500 photographs of various size, organized by groups of images. There is a lot of vintage material mixed with newly printed images.
On the early side, there are many photograph by Henri Ernest Coppola, who was originally French and had a great influence in bringing photography to Colombia. “They arrived in Colombia in the early 1870-s-80s, had a studio in the Caribbean and then in Baranquilla and Bogota. It’s have not really been seen in Europe before”, Prus comments. “There is also an interesting group of pictures taken by street photographers who used to take photos of people in the streets and try to sell them. There is still a few left today but it was massive from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. It was the traditional way of having your photo taken in Colombia until the 1990’s.”
Along with those professional shots are amateur photographs of lives and families. “Some of those give me the most pleasure. There are images of sport and cultural events, and even a few from a hippie festival near Medellin in 1970-71. There are also many record covers, some of which are very funny as the Colombian sense of humor is often brought out in music”. To give a taste of this local spirit, there is a video juke box displaying a selection of music videos. The machine is displayed in a room reproducing a local bar where visitors are invited to sit and have a beer. “We have lost that in Europe, a place where people exchange news and gossips”, Prus regrets.
And for those who are interested in other project from the prolific curator, note that another of his recent projects will be a screening during The Night of the Year, entitled “The Luton Auguries”. Half-fantasy half-reality, the collection, which is also published as a book by RVB, comes from the newspaper archives of the city of Luton, turned surrealist by the impish eye of Prus.
Laurence Cornet is a journalist specializing in photography and an independent curator. She lives in New York and Paris.
The Cow and the Orchid
Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles 2017
July 3 to September 24, 2017