As the publisher of Collectors Photography magazine in the mid-eighties, I decided to head to Arles and see about finding new photography to publish in the magazine in 1986. As anyone who has tried knows, finding a room in Arles during what was then called the Rencontres Internationale de la Photo (RIP which was an unfortunate acronym because while in French it sounds fine, in English it means Rest in Peace) is nearly impossible.
Knowing exactly who to contact to pave the way, I called JJ Naudet who by that time had been countless times to the festival and didn’t plan on going that year. He told me to let his hotel know he wasn’t coming and to ask for his room. In this hotel, all the guests come each year and keep their same rooms. What I didn’t know was by taking Naudet’s room, it became mine and I’ve stayed in it every single year since. It’s like having a time-share in Arles. Same week every year for 33 years.
That first year, in a lovely restaurant owned by the Dumas family on the second floor above the Café Van Gogh on the Place du Forum I was having dinner and noticed RIP co-founder Lucien Clergue having a meal with friends. I naturally sent over a glass of champagne. After dinner he came and sat at my table and the first thing he said to me was “you must be Americans.” When I asked him why he said that he replied that the French had little respect for him but Americans had always appreciated him and his work. He said the gesture of sending a glass of champagne was greatly appreciated and thus began a friendship that lasted decades until his passing.
The following day he invited me to the vaunted private lunch at the home of Maryse Cordesse where I was introduced to the nucleolus of what was then the Rencontres. Amongst the guests, Florette Lartigue, Cartier Bresson (seen only fleetingly of course), Martine Franck and her brother Eric, Jean Claude Lemagny, Joyce Tenneson, Pierre Boran, Willy Ronis and best of all for me that day, Jean Dieuzade (“YAN”) who adopted me and introduced me to many of those present.
In those days the projections in the Theatre Antique were still done using slide projectors and we were treated to the occasional spectacle of watching a photographer’s transparency catch fire and burn up before our eyes. Still, the soirees organized by Lucien were phenomenal and I’ve missed only a handful of them since the eighties. I remember one evening when Keichi Tahara projected so many images from his Paris series that people began quietly leaving. It lasted so long I was amongst probably less than 200 at the end. Happily he has saved some of the best images for last.
Kodak came along and invested in the program in the eighties which altered the character of the festival greatly – it became about ‘meetings’ in the American sense of the word rather than the casual rencontres of the French language – gone were the people showing their work around the Place, gone was the spontaneity that I only witnessed in my first year but was characteristic of the early years of Arles.
Suddenly you needed “badges” and needed to be on lists to attend functions. This happily only lasted a few years and soon it became French again. Interesting was at that time Francois Hebel had taken a crack at being the Directeur and had done a good job before departing to work for Magnum if I’m not mistaken. Back to Clergue and back to more great evenings in the Theatre Antique.
Then we had a rotating cast of directeurs including Claude Hudelot, Louis Mesple and even Agnes de Gouvion Saint Cyr. Next in 1995 was Michel Nurisdany’s turn, whose projection of the works of Nobuyoshi Araki with graphic images of naked Japanese women hung upside down and tied saucisson-like caused a full-blown riot one night complete with tomatoes being thrown at Michel and him leaving with a police escort. I remember people going up into the projection booth and physically pulling the plug on the evening presentation. Censorship prevailed. Unfortunately I had found myself seated next to the wonderful Yvette Tripoux who was then in her late eighties and all she could say was “C’est pas normal ca,” watching the bondage images of Araki. It was tragic. Joan Fontcuberta had a turn in 1996 and the inimitable Christian Caujolle in 1997. Then came a wonderful one year only program by the indomitable Giovanna Calvenzi with a wonderful exhibition by Massimo Vitali of his Italian beach work. She’s the grande dame of Italian photography in many ways and a wonderful person. Gilles Mora was next. Gilles played old-time rock and roll guitar with Ralph Gibson on a stage in les Allyscamps but only served two years. One of the great exhibitions he did put on was by the unknown but incredible Louisiana-born American photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery. Gilles was a big fan of the mythology of the American South from its music to Eggleston to Caffery. He brought the South (of the USA) to Arles.
Being treated to different directeurs every year or two was not a recipe for success, however, as it clearly required more than a year or two to fully get a grip on how to run a photography festival and Hebel went on to oversee the festival for many years. His idea of giving carte blanche to many galleries and conservateurs to put on exhibitions was a mixed bag each year but there were always great highlights and he definitely reached beyond in cases like bringing JR to Arles before he became a house-hold name. He had to shepherd the festival through years with greves – one wonderful but unfortunate result was watching the amazing work of Harry Gruyart projected in a restaurant in the Camargue because his evening presentation was cancelled due to the intermittant’s greve – he had to wait a full year to present the show.
Clearly my favorite aspect of the Rencontres, aside from the actual rencontres that happen still are the evenings, but the exhibitions requiring enormous energy and resources are still the meat of the matter and I wouldn’t miss one.
As we move forward into a new time with a new headquarters and an incredibly generous messane, the character has forever changed from the old RIP and why not? It’s a new day and a new Rencontres. I’ll be there.
Jeff Dunas, 2019