Excess Baggage

In her second personal reflection on this year's Arles Rencontres, Rebecca Dearden reflects on scale and size, focusing on the Manchester-based Roast Beef collective.

Here in Arles, the Author Book Awards go to the best photographic project (and sit alongside a second competition for books about photography or photographers). Several vast plinths stand in semi-darkness covered with a collage of hundreds of books of every shape and size. It's impossible to know where to start, what to pick up. Though the books are new and their lasting qualities unproven, the atmosphere is already that of a serious archive.

Like a lot of things in the Arles Rencontres, there's just too much. You have to become extremely focused or you can end up having seen a lot, but looked at nothing.

Back in the centre of town, on a back street off the Place du Forum, there's a chance to get things in perspective again.

Manchester-based Ed Watts has created the Roast Beef collective with the aim of taking UK photography to other countries. Here, in a show called Spreads, he's brought together ten artists who make books. The books range widely in production value, in theme and in style. Some are more about concept than about showing photographs, but all present work in series. They're quirky and witty, but Ryanair don't get it. They charged him £80 in excess baggage after asking why he couldn't just leave some of the work behind. Now apply that to some of the curatorial decisions in the bigger Arles shows...

[img_assist|nid=9652|title=|desc=Marc Provins - pH6|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=390]

It's artists-at-home night at Spreads, with most of the show's photographers on hand in the tiny gallery. The full number would be John Darwell, David Oates, Ed Watts, Sarah Eyre, Mark Page, Heike Lowenstein, James O Jenkins, Graeme Vaughan, David Dunnico and Marc Provins – all photographers with links to Manchester or the North-West. There's a slight air of anticipation about whether Wolfgang Tillmans and REM's Michael Stipe will turn up (they've both personally been handed flyers).

[img_assist|nid=9651|title=|desc=David Dunnico|link=none|align=left|width=220|height=293]David Dunnico's A Tree Made of Real Wood is a wry look at the ironies of development, and there's a great sense of the absurd in his book. "Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them," he says.

What I liked in James O Jenkins' photographic study of people dressed to take part in customs, such as the Whittlesea Bear Man festival or North Yorkshire's Burning the Old Bartle, is that it's kind to its subjects. United Kingdom is both a survey and an appreciation of the eccentricities of UK customs.

Marc Provins has created a book of hydrangeas. Not gripped? In fact, it was one of my favourites – a seemingly simple series of photographs of intense blue and pink monster shrubs, that turns out to be a fascinating reflection on industrialisation, nature and a wet summer. The book's called pH6 – at a soil acidity of below ph6, your hydrangeas are blue, above that and they're pink.

[img_assist|nid=9654|title=|desc=Sarah Eyre - Wigs|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=255]

Sarah Eyre's Wigs are beautiful, eerie images and the only photographs in this show that made me long to see them as larger prints. There's a provocative concept behind this series – that of identity and sexual stereotyping – but, unlike some of the work in the show, the photographs have a life of their own, rather than being illustrations of an idea.

I asked Ed Watts what he thought books had over big exhibition prints. Aside from the pleasure of handling them and the practicality of producing and transporting them (Ryanair problems aside), he suggested that books worked well in group shows.

"One of the biggest pitfalls of a group show is that each photographer gets to exhibit one or two prints out of context," he says. "Here, they can show a whole series of work in a way that invites people to get up close."

And that getting up close is the pleasure, for me, of spending time with a book. Perhaps it's to make up for the lack of family photo albums, perhaps it's because it's just me and the image, rather than me and the four people standing behind me in front of the wall-mounted print.

Earlier in the day, I went to three of the big-hitting exhibitions – Guy Bourdin, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Jacques Henri Lartigue. Size and scale were already on my mind.

[img_assist|nid=9655|title=|desc=Hiroshi Sugimoto - Revolution 008, Caribbean sea, Yucatan, 1990.|link=none|align=left|width=262|height=520]

I found Sugimoto's Revolution simply annoying. There was nothing for me in these vast dark prints of horizon and streaky moon, made abstract by turning them on their side, that reflected the artist's poetic accompanying text. Where was the out-of-body experience Sugimoto seemed to promise I would be able to share?

While Sugimoto disappointed, Lartigue gave me more than I expected. The Bibi exhibition focuses on Lartigue's life in the 1920s, when he met and married his first wife, Bibi. Scampering in the snow of Chamonix, boating and bathing on the Côte d'Azur, driving to tea dances in a Hispano Suiza...I wasn't going to be interested in the life of a rich-idler, the upturned-collar-polo-shirter of another era. In fact, it was a touching experience and a real lesson in photography.

This exhibition is the family album of a photographer who captures mood and movement perfectly. Almost every image selected here is a tiny gem – the tennis player in mid-air, the five dolls and baby, the father-in-law lying in state (this time, says Lartigue in his diary, he wasn't told to get a move on with taking the picture). These are pictures to peer at and spend time over.

[img_assist|nid=9656|title=|desc=Guy Bourdin - 1950-1955, Paris post war Courtesy of the Guy Bourdin Estate, 2013|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=375]

The Bourdin show, Untouched: The Dark Room, is a treasure trove too. In 2011, 100 brown envelopes were discovered, each containing a negative and a black and white print, dating from the 1950s. While it's hard not to be compelled by a giant print of almost any of Bourdin's vivid Vogue photographs, I was more seduced by this selection of tiny contact prints and studies that show the photographer's influences, his development and, even then, his terrifyingly dehumanising eye.

I know that big has its place, but in the hugeness of the Rencontres, it's calming to get back to human scale in a day of small pleasures.

© Rebecca Dearden – photographer and writer based in the UK. www.rebeccadearden.co.uk

Redeye, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Market Buildings, Thomas St, Manchester M4 1EU, UK
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