I was something of a latecomer to the Rencontres d’Arles. Yet even in the two decades through which I have been a frequent visitor and occasional active participant in this annual gathering, I have accumulated many precious memories and witnessed a significant evolution as times and directions changed.
Photographs have, to be frank, often felt like the pretext rather than the purpose of Arles. The key word is Rencontres and my most memorable moments relate to people and to events – the unpredictable, rewarding, fleeting aspects of Arles in that special summer week that brings together photo-aficionados from all over the world. My Rencontres tend to focus not so much on exhibitions seen – though these have included some wonderful presentations – but rather on the human element, and on the town and its environs. For me, as a lover of Provence and fascinated by its history going back to Roman times – I was born in Aix-en-Provence – every visit has been a resonant experience that taps deep into atavistic emotions
I have been very mindful of following in the footsteps of the photographers of the Mission Héliographique of the 1850s, notably of Edouard Baldus, and of Charles Nègre, whose Midi de la France project included fine images of Arles in the 1850s. I knew the image by Baldus of the funerary chapel at Montmajour, modest in scale yet a perfect gem of Romanesque architecture, a short distance from Arles. My first visit, alone on a crystal clear day, picking my way over the surrounding graves hewn out of the hard rock while contemplating this disarmingly simple structure of extraordinary rigour, was, I must acknowledge, a delight more exquisite than any photograph could provide.
Arles itself is defined by its architectural history, including impressive surviving traces of Ancient Rome, most notably the amphitheatre and the theatre. What a privilege to be implicated in events hosted on these hallowed sites. I recall a dinner on the sands of the arena, a performance in the theatre by Lou Reed of his album Berlin. How gratifying to find myself on that same stage, one of a number of invited speakers paying homage in a memorial tribute to the legendary editor and collector Roger Thérond.
The word Rencontres is a meaningful one as I think of the wonderful lunches in her gorgeous tree-shaded garden hosted by the delightful Maryse Cordesse, around whose pool some of the greatest names in the history of photography have gathered over the years. I was fortunate enough to play a part in hosting evening receptions in magical locations such as the private gardens behind les Alyscamps. I took a quick, irresistible snapshot there of René Burri making his own group shot of Lucien Clergue, Peter Lindbergh, and Paolo Roversi. I have appreciated the support and been a beneficiary of the generous hospitality extended to our photo community over many years by the inspiring Maja Hoffmann, and I cherish, for instance, my recollections of a dinner in the Camargue at which I was introduced to William Eggleston and witnessed his first encounter with someone whose work he so greatly admired, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Nor should we overlook the many enjoyable, lower-key, serendipitous encounters on café terraces that reinforce friendships and allow for such wide-ranging, agenda-free exchanges.
These are just a few random fragments of all that Arles has meant for me over the years – and this is without referencing a single exhibition. One that I thoroughly enjoyed was devoted to the art of the album sleeve; another presented the collection of Surrealist and Modernist photographs collected by film director Claude Berri; I was fascinated by the images of American vernacular architecture by Robert Venturi, author of Learning from Las Vegas. The list goes on, and embraces every aspect of photography. Where better than Arles in the summer to share a passion for this endlessly fascinating medium?