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Arles 2024 : My Wanderings by Thierry Maindrault


This 2024 edition, of the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles, was presented to us as fabulous and extraordinary by some. Others predicted moribund Rencontres which would immodestly give their last death rattle. A host of circumstances, more or less predictable, disrupted attendance forecasts. Big attendance on Wednesday and Thursday, the other days an unusual brightening (Place du Forum at noon on Friday, about one table out of two was empty). The shock of the news.

It is true that in terms of atmosphere, the past is the past and those who are nostalgic can crawl back into the hole they came out of. The laughs between disinterested friends have completely disappeared, even at the Tambourin or the Nord Pinus for the more fortunate. There are two unavoidable reasons, many of the friends deserted despite themselves the boat for other skies, on the one hand. On the other hand, fellow photographers, even on site, have become virtual and friendships are transmitted through this famous smartphone which has replaced pastis! The same goes for the nocturnals at the corner of a projector who are replaced by dense crowds around wild DJs. Our societies are evolving, relationships are evolving along with profitable technologies. Photographs which were a strong vector became a weak pretext.

This vintage really disabuses our pessimists and our outrageous optimists. Some very good surprises and a few setbacks in my wanderings.

In advance, and in the general opinion of the great or talented photographers we met, the quality of the images offered to the public, all exhibitions combined, has improved greatly compared to previous years. It’s about time and that’s good. Paradoxically, it is always with the “In” that there are the most blunders.

To all honors, the “In” and especially the associated exhibitions in Arles, offered us some very beautiful and very good photographs. The public museums of Arlaten and Réattu have, in their choice and their creation, lived up to what we have the right to expect from such a world-renowned event. The Rencontres at the Espace Van Gogh and the Archbishopric (the Japanese) rose to the occasion. For the rest, many questions and in particular disputes both for the photographic choices and for the scenographies. Personally, for what I have seen, I agree with the numerous testimonies heard.

On the presentation side, all circuits and exhibitors combined, the images are trapped in a protective glass yoke. This protection has become essential given the number of cerebellar freaks who try to spray an artistic celebrity to assert their “loser” egocentrism.  Financial means being limited, the window glasses used transform masterful photographs into a psyche to put on a bit of lipstick. This being exposed, even high value anti-reflective museum glass filters, at a minimum, 80% of the emotional exchange to be shared with a work.

For the organization, still a bit of confusion. Logically, we are not in Japan (although over-represented this year). At the entrance of certain exhibitions, the barcode scanners are a little capricious. For a stopgap solution the QR codes are photographed on the smartphone of the screening agent, to reduce the queue getting impatient. For a few minutes, we are back in the pretty creative mess of improvisations. But it feels good within these new suffocating binary organizations.

And then, the walls of the city are lined with fairly harsh protest posters, supporting a fairly clear manifesto, with a major sponsor of the Meetings in the spotlight. The official transport provider, in prestigious vehicles, during the Meetings, is slowly taking an important place in the operation and artistic choices of the Meetings. Its foundation “••• Art Makers”, just that, has taken over a room in the Cloister, to present two immense colored panels very far from photography and the expression of light (perhaps for a dining room wall !). I found myself (fortunately for a very short time) in these abysses of “Art Counting for Nothing”. At the exit, the century-old stones of the Cloître Saint Trophime allow you to get some oxygen back into your head. This patron of the “Art Manufacturers” gives into the emerging… the immersed.

A group of active environmentalists launched into the emerging demand with beautiful posters (see photos). The aim is to denounce both the polluting manufacturer, the control over creation and the civic irresponsibility of the Meetings which entrust a public space and questionable creative choices. The manifesto attached to the poster (see photograph) is clear. What bothers me, a little, a lot, madly, is that such an approach is not the work of photographers. Abuses have been taking hold in the landscape of the rencontres for years, without much warning. Now they are all here, the merchants of cosmetics, luggage, photographic equipment, potentially intelligent software, cars, champagne, banks, with their stables of ephemeral designers (fashion is merciless). Should we let all the younger generations who show us a sincere appetite for working with light be treated like disposable tissues? During an exchange, a great photographer who agreed that photography was the subtle blend of fully mastered technology and effervescent creativity. He added that it was also a spirit which cannot escape from an image unless its author was imbued with it.

Like the phoenix, in the middle of the ashes still warm in our hearts, for a fourth time, the “Off” rises again, or at least, tries. An unknown team (three former ENP students), under the label “La Kabine” have been selected after a call for projects from the City of Arles, to recreate an Off Festival. The start of this new project which is supported and encouraged by the Town Hall and by the Rencontres is quite astonishing. When we remember that it was these two friends who carried out a formal assassination of the Off, an internationally recognized model of its kind. This new (Off) seems a long shadow of the official part of the Meetings. First, its support, including financial, appears to be provided by a very famous brand of pet food. Also supported by two manufacturers of photographic equipment. For the rest, less than a hundred numbered signs in the city, mainly on stores rented by galleries or various merchants. Very few independent photographers, it must be admitted that there are not many left anymore. Where have the more than 200 photographers who exhibited in Arles gone?

The professional or amateur photographers who presented their work this year were reduced to two dozen (not many in the Off). Galleries, coming from everywhere and nowhere, invaded the professional week and paid astronomical rent prices. The independents cannot follow, which left at least a third of the available spaces empty. 3,500 euros for 15 linear meters of exhibition space is not for all budgets. No sponsors! No more salvation! Everything has a price, gone is the time of casual discussions on extraordinary subjects or “technological philosophy”.

For the visitors who comes to Arles 2024, to see photographs, during the professional week, which is a little expensive. There are multitude of galleries (with a numbered (Off) sign) closed. With papers in the window that say “open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.”, when we don’t have “by appointment only” with a mobile phone number. You came specially to see photographs, you got the wrong address. In these pharmacies, there are few authors of the works hanging on the picture rails, just a guard behind a computer, ignorant of the photographic image. I was curious to find out about a former classmate, some of whose well-known photos were hanging on the wall. The kind guardian present was able to tell me that he was resting in the Basque country.

Those who were present in Arles this year found themselves in a circuit that was a little quick for them. All the others who were absent voluntarily, or not, can get a little idea to assess whether their refusal to come this year was or not a good decision.

For many of you, there remains until the end of September to admire some very beautiful exhibitions, between two groups of tourists (banners in the wind), you will surely be able to enjoy them without regret.

Thierry Maindrault

[email protected]

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