Arles in Black

Guest Opinion: In the first of a series of pieces from the 2013 Rencontres d’Arles, the annual photographic festival in the south of France, writer and photographer Rebecca Dearden gives a personal perspective on the theme, and her ambivalence to monochrome. It's summer in the south of France. The sunflowers are blazing yellow, the sky's blue, the sea's turquoise, but the town of Arles is all in black. In place of the bright aubergine, carrot and blue fox of previous years' international photo festivals, the 2013 mascot-logo is a black and white swan, albeit with a green beak and blue eye, and I realise I'm hoping there will be some similar touches of colour in what promises to be a worthy, nostalgic and dry festival. This is my sixth time in Arles and I'm lacking enthusiasm for monochrome. I don't use black and white, but I have. Firstly, when I was learning to process and print and then, later on, for a series of life-size, full-body portraits of visually impaired people. The subjects were never going to see their portraits (although I did create tactile versions as well), and it seemed right that sighted people should have some element of their view withdrawn too – so no colour. For me, then, there needs to be a damn good reason to choose black and white in a world of colour with all the tools of colour photography in our hands. [img_assist|nid=9649|title=|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=356|height=520] François Hébel, director of the Rencontres d’Arles, reminds us in his introduction to this 44th edition of the festival that colour photography was "treated with disdain" until the 1980s, while black and white were "inherently the tones of art photography". By the year 2000, he says, black and white had almost disappeared and colour "established its supremacy in all photographic practices with the rapid development of digital technology". So, is this a festival of archives, of old masters, of yearning after a time when photography didn't belong to anyone with a phone and a Flickr account? Hébel says it's all about questioning the place of black and white photography today. Is it, he asks, realism or fiction, poetry, abstraction or pure nostalgia? The first exhibition I'm drawn to (and there are 50 to choose from) is Doux-Amer (Bittersweet) by Brussels-based Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt. This is the epitome of perfectly composed, cleverly observed 'documentary' photography. The images are arresting – just look at that huge lion mural menacing the table of senior citizens – fantastic they would be in colour. Black and white makes sense here, though, because Eeckhoudt was born in 1947 and was taking photos in the years BC (before colour). It makes sense too, in the fascinating A Fonds Perdu (Faded Out) collection put together by Raynal Pellicer – more than a hundred press photos, mostly portraits of Hollywood figures, published between 1919 and 1970 by American dailies. They show the gouache and ink retouching and crop marks that reframe the original gelatin-silver prints for use in single and two-column newspaper formats. It's not surprising, of course, that black and white was going to work in terms of a retrospective of photography. The question is how it worked when photographers started to make a conscious decision to resist colour, and how it works today. [img_assist|nid=9644|title=|desc=John Stezaker - Betrayal XVIII|link=none|align=none|width=417|height=520] John Stezaker's collages of (mostly) black and white found images bridge the gap, but in a way that's perhaps only possible as an 'art thing'. He seamlessly stitches together images of '40s and '50s film stars and landscapes to create unsettling new portraits and scenes. He's mixing up the past and making something new. [img_assist|nid=9645|desc=John Davies - Elf Services, Autoroute A26, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, 1988. Courtesy Centre régional de la photographie, Nord-Pas-de-Calais| link=none|align=center|width=520|height=361] The monochromes of John Davies, whose France, England project (realised between 1980 and 2009) is on show, create, for me, a sort of petrification of these landscapes and post-industrial scenes. His ability to see the odd mismatches in social architecture is impeccable, of course, but for me is more striking in his colour work, such as Fuji City (2008) and the Metropoli project (2000-2003). [img_assist|nid=9646|title=|desc=Antony Cairns - Untitled, from the LDN series|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=348] And how I struggle with the work of 33-year-old Londoner Antony Cairns, busy part-developing, solarising, redeveloping and fetishising process to leave me with a whopping 'why?' as I try to find something in the wall of coated and blotched aluminium. These A4-ish sized sheets form the LDN series, a study of the city and, perhaps, of the messy process of darkroom photography. [img_assist|nid=9647|title=|desc=Vincent Fillon - Interspace #36|link=none|align=center|width=520|height=520] What have I really loved so far? The work of SFR Young Talents' Vincent Fillon, who has made something beautiful and ghostly by superimposing (barely) coloured images of derelict rooms that remind me a little of Catherine Yass. And one lovely picture by another SFR laureate, Jean Noviel – a crumpled image of trees at either side of a road... but that's just me, I'm a sucker for the photographness of the photograph. [img_assist|nid=9648|title=|desc=Wolfgang Tillmans - Headlight (b), 2012. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne. |link=none|align=left|width=220|height=147] I've also re-found a respect for Wolfgang Tillmans. He's been a tad self-indulgent here with five or six vast spaces all to himself, but, as a survey of what photography can be, it's thought-provoking. From screen grabs to abstracts, nature studies to social realism, this collection of images re-presents what it's like to be out there in the real, messy world. Oh, and they're in colour. I'm subjective, I can hold seemingly contradictory views, I often change my mind. And that's all legal this year because the festival theme invites criticism and discussion. It's actually useful to have a polemical focal point around which to look at bodies of work and gather your thoughts about photography. The Arles team has done its job of posing the question of what monochrome offers photographers and their viewers today. Whether it's a question worth asking is another matter. And you can be sure there are no black and white answers. © Rebecca Dearden – a photographer and writer based in the UK.
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