By Roger Overall
If someone told you they'd just been to the big international photography festival in Arles, southern France, you'd be well within your rights to ask: "Which one?" There are, as best I can tell, five festivals—all of which run concurrently, some of which appear in each other's promotional literature. As one French photographer put it while trying to explain the situation: "It's complicated."
The first is the official festival, the real Rencontres, which puts on the prestigious exhibitions, workshops, book signings, talks and portfolio reviews in the most high-profile venues (including the town's Roman ruins). It runs from early July to mid-September every year.
The second festival is the Voies Off, or the "Off" for short, best described as the official unofficial festival that runs during the opening week of its bigger sibling.
Arles 3 comprises the dozens of exhibitions put on in gallery spaces (or any space, for that matter, including cafes, courtyards and basements) organized by independent photographers. By the way, such is the demand for a space during opening week of the official festival that photographers are rumoured to offer as much as €2,000 to shoehorn themselves in somewhere. The calibre of picture buyers, agents and international gallery owners who visit the festival each year is such that a few grand to secure the right space is considered a good investment.
Arles 4 is a single-evening extravaganza, hosted in a bohemian part of Arles called la Roquette. It’s a night of projections on walls and temporary screens, along with some street theatre. One lady spent the evening orating from her living room window this year. My French is bad, so I don't know whether she was any good. She held the attention of a crowd, mind you.
Arles 5 consists of the guerrilla exhibitions that spring up on alleyway walls and in shop windows overnight. Some of these even have official openings with wine and nibbles. When a friend of mine asked a young photographer on the street when the opening of his exhibition was, he was told: "You’re standing in it."
Small wonder that at the end of opening week the biggest question on everyone's lips is: "What did I miss?"
Surely the highlight of this year's festival is the main exhibit by the New York Times Magazine. I say "main" exhibit because there is a second, inferior NYT Magazine show consisting of stenciled tear sheets. The latter has the feel of a filler event. Maybe it is, I don't know, but with around two-thirds of the funding for the main festival coming from the public purse and private donations there is a possibility that cheap padding was needed to give this year's festival some bulk in the face of reduced funding in harsh economic times.
Anyway, none of that should detract from the main NYT Magazine exhibit, which is both exciting and engaging in terms of the variety of work on display and the way in which it is presented. Hard-news reportage sits next to celebrity portraiture, in most cases with explanation and supporting documentation about how a shoot came to publication. The many telexes, faxes, emails, notepad pages and so on give a terrific insight into the photographic process at the magazine, allowing you a glimpse behind the veil.
You can't talk about the NYT Magazine show without mentioning what many on the cafe terraces around Place du Forum, Arles' main square and social focal point, said were the most incredible black-and-white prints they had ever seen: Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of Kuwaiti oil well fires being quelled after the first Gulf War. "Breathtaking" is an overused adjective. In this instance, it is deserved.
Which I suppose brings us neatly to the greatest disappointment of this year's Rencontres, in my opinion at least. Shunted out to the edge of town is what should be the event's star turn: The Mexican Suitcase—an exhibition of the presumed lost negatives belonging to Robert Capa, David (Chim) Seymour and Gerda Taro, produced predominantly during the Spanish Civil War. The miserable exhibit space was badly lit, making it hard to see the photographs on display in some instances. In that regard, they may as well have stayed hidden in a plastic bag at the bottom of a cupboard in Mexico (the "suitcase." if there ever was one, is more a marketing concept than reality).
As a whole, though, the first week of the Rencontres cannot disappoint. Arles is beautiful; no photographer could resist its visual charms. Good food and wine surrounds you. And it is easy to strike up conversations and friendships with photographers from around the world, including those who actually have work on show. Unless, of course, you don't share a common language. Upon leaving Wang Qingsong's remarkable single-print exhibition, I more or less collided with the photographer himself. Presuming he had no English, and me with no Chinese, all I could think to do was smile and shake his hand vigorously, while saying "Fantastic!" over and over again. I think the poor man thought he was being mugged.
Roger Overall is a professional documentary photographer based in Cork, Ireland.
ADDENDUM by Roger: Regarding The Mexican Suitcase: two readers have commented on the existence of an actual suitcase, one stating that it was on display in New York.
The physical containers of the negatives consist of a green cardboard box, a red/brown cardboard box (both containing rolls of film), and a box that contained film in envelopes. The red/brown box and the green box look to have been handmade for their purpose and, like the Mona Lisa, are much smaller in person than you would imagine in your mind. Neither are an actual suitcase, or resemble one.
Nor was a single suitcase on show in Arles. In fact, that would be impossible. None was ever recovered with the negatives. In the documentary by Trisha Ziff about the negatives and their recovery and place in history that premiered at the festival, Mexican filmmaker Benjamin Tarver, who was instrumental in recovering the negatives, talks of the three boxes being handed to him by their unwitting custodian in a plastic bag.
According to the website of the International Center of Photography, established by Robert Capa’s brother Cornell and the current custodians of the negatives: "As far as we understand, Capa left all his negatives in his Paris studio at 37 rue Froidevaux, under the supervision of his darkroom manager and fellow photographer Imre 'Csiki' Weiss (1911–2006). In a letter dated July 5, 1975, Weiss recalled, 'In 1939, when the Germans approached Paris, I put all Bob's negatives in a rucksack [my italics, RO] and bicycled it to Bordeaux to try to get it on a ship to Mexico. I met a Chilean in the street and asked him to take my film packages to his consulate for safekeeping."
So, at the time they vanished, the boxes were in a rucksack, likely a French one at that.
Moreover, in a FAQ section of its Mexican Suitcase website, the ICP says: "The Mexican Suitcase is the name given to three boxes of negatives found in Mexico City containing negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour), and Gerda Taro."
While the three boxes collectively are known as The Mexican Suitcase, there is no actual, physical, single suitcase. The phrase is a metaphor—if that’s the right word.
That said, as a marketing concept and collective noun, it is superb. It is evocative, exotic, mysterious, and is suggestive of the journey of the negatives.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.