Les Rencontres d'Arles 2011
This year's Les Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in the South of France has a strong Mexican theme, with many of the major exhibition spaces within the town given over to the work of Mexican photographers. One of the strongest of these is the retrospective of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa's powerful and ground-breaking work with directors such as Luis Bunuel and John Huston. Showing simultaneous loops of iconic scenes from his oeuvre on huge screens in a dark, deconsecrated church, the exhibition can't fail to draw viewers in to Figueroa's world.
Another powerful show from Mexico was an overview of Enrique Metinides' work, in tandem with a new book of his photographs, titled 'Series', published by Kominek. For years a staff photographer on the Mexican tabloid La Prensa, Metinedes often rode to crime scenes with fire and ambulance crews and created strikingly composed images of car crashes, suicides and accident victims before the blood had stopped running. Whilst his work has been exhibited and lauded for many years now, it still doesn't diminish the power of some of his images, however grisly the subject matter, and the image of the skewered body of actress Adela Legarreta Rivas is one of the most powerful, haunting images on show in the whole festival.
There's a wealth of fascinating vintage photographs from the Mexican Revolution, one of the most comprehensive exhibitions ever compiled of this key moment in Mexican history. The show's curator, Miguel Angel Berumen attempts to shed fresh light on the assumed history conveyed through iconic images from that time, and it's interesting to see lesser-known photographs from the era. The work of Ponciano Flores Perez from 1914, with text painted on each image describing the scene and the subjects, is fascinating, as is that of Hugo Brehme, an acclaimed landscape photographer who also documented the revolution with formal, studied compositions of the soldiers.
Outside of the Mexican theme, The New York Times Magazine show, on display over two exhibition spaces, is a fascinating insight into how the photo stories are created at this most influential of publications. Various case studies of iconic stories from the last 25 years of the magazine are on show - tearsheets of the final printed story, the prints themselves, and documentation showing the often labyrinthine process to get to the final story, including contact sheets, story boards, emails, and faxes to subjects. Co-curated by the magazine's photo director, Kathy Ryan, and Leslie Martin of Aperture, there is much to admire here, not least the magazine's continued ability to surprise and inspire with its bold and prescient commissions.
One of the most interesting areas of the Rencontres D'Arles is the annual Discoveries competition, where various luminaries in the photographic world are invited to show three emerging talents who they think are worthy of wider recognition. One of these photographers who is judged to have the strongest body of work is awarded a €20,000 prize, courtesy of the Luma Foundation, who support the festival in myriad ways (the remit appears to have loosened in recent years though, with well-known names appearing in competition and Taryn Simon, hardly a discovery, winning last year's prize).
Particularly strong in this year's selection was the work of
http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/jo_ractliffe/" target="_blank" >Jo Ractliffe, a South African photographer who shoots enigmatic and allusive black and white landscapes showing the traces and scars of war and loss. The images are mysterious and not immediately apparent, but closer study reveals a strange sense of memory in the landscapes and spaces she documents.
African photographer Jacob Nzudie also had a striking but more light-hearted body of work on show with his Yaoundé Supermarket Series. Nzudie is the in-house photographer at the Yaoundé Supermarket in Cameroon, where the city's upwardly mobile are photographed in their favourite aisle wearing their finest outfits, signalling that they have achieved material wealth so no longer need to shop in the many traditional markets. Shot by an outsider, these portraits could be somewhat crass and exploitative, but Cameroonian Nzudie takes frank, candid images that are honest and non-judgemental.
This year's winners though, were Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, with their powerhouse series on the fifty-four story Ponte City tower in Johannesburg. The tower, built in the Seventies and once a symbol of a prosperous future for the country, suffered years of neglect and became emblematic of Jo'burg's woes in the mid-Nineties. Tales of brazen drug dealing and prostitution rings in the tower were in legion, and it's still a dangerous and unpredictable place. Subotzky and Waterhouse have been photographing there for the past three years, gaining the trust of the inhabitants and the clean-up crews who attempt to deal with the four-storey-high mountain of rubbish in the building's hollow core. The duo have photographed every single apartment on every single floor of the tower - inside and out - and these images, displayed in sequence on giant 9ft-high lightboxes (mini towerblocks in themselves), are a triumphant and original marriage of documentary and display.
Meanwhile, the From Here On exhibition attempts to take stock of the internet's inexorable influence on photography, with five different curators presenting their pick of the interesting and relevant. No mean feat given the sea of images sloshing around the globe now. Much of the work is gimmicky and shallow. One exhibition even has crude comic photos being displayed to live chickens, and its hard to tell who is more baffled - the wandering viewer or the cooped up birds.
Pavel-Maria Smejkal's Fatescapes series, however, is a notable exception. He explores the unexpected iconography of place in classic documentary photographs of the last 150 years. Carefully removing all trace of the people - the focus of these canonical shots - leaving only the setting, Smejkal captures eerily empty, bland landscapes. The viewer can almost instantly insert the people and protagonists from memory and picture the original knockout image, but it's surprising how powerful and poignant these empty retakes remain. Look at our image gallery and see for yourself.