ARLES.- One way of celebrating 40 years of such a vulnerable enterprise might be to invite all those who have so generously put their work on show here. Yet nostalgia and extolling the great deeds of the past might not to appropriate for the Rencontres, whose history is made up of ongoing creative ventures, photographers pushing back the boundaries of the still image, and uncertain periods of transition. A history that has never been so effervescent.
Even so, the temptation to invite back some of the moving spirits was too strong, and the programme for 2009 falls into two parts:
40 Years of the Rencontres brings together the artistic directors who helped the idea develop over time; celebrates the talent of Robert Delpire, who has given so many artists a helping hand and found so many ways of bringing photography to the public; and pays tribute to Willy Ronis, doyen of our guests photographers and still very much an Arles fan.
40 Years of Ruptures shows photographers whose initial Rencontres exhibitions were controversially at variance with the accepted standards of the time. In the forefront is Duane Michals with a retrospective; and Nan Goldin, whose Ballad of Sexual Dependency has such an impact and who is also inviting various photographer friends along.
A further break comes in the form of the exhibition Without Sanctuary, which uses the collection from the Center for Civic and Human Rights in Atlanta to show the progress represented by the election of Barack Obama since those not so distant days when photographers in the Deep South turned out postcards of lynchings of African-American men and women.
How many believed in Lucien Clergue when, in 1970 the era of macrame, pottery and meditation classes he imported the idea of photo workshops from the United States?
Infiltrating the festival as it then was very much in a good-times Arles tradition Clergue, with the invaluable backing of Jean-Maurice Rouquette and Michel Tournier, had to assert his vision by setting up an independent structure with no premises and no real budget.
A lover of photography and the arts, but above all of artists, Clergue had gauged the crucial role photography was going to take on, and was determined to set up an exchange community that would get photographers out of their isolation.
This fundamental feature is what has always made the Rencontres unique. At a time when curators often admire the work but dread the artist, the notion of Rencontres ("encounters") adds something to that of the exhibition. This is also why the Rencontres are a collective venture. Right from the start Clergue worked with Paul (Geniet), two Jean-Claudes (Lemagny and Gautrand), Jean (Dieuzaide), Jean-Pierre (Sudre), Denis (Brihat), and very soon after Cornell (Capa), Antoine and Maryse (Cordesse), Luc (Hoffmann) and Roger (Thérond). Even his models would skip their breaks in order to lend a creative hand. More help was not slow in coming: like so many others Bernard (Perrine), Agnès (de Gouvion Saint-Cyr), Françoise (Riss), Serge (Gal), Yann (Le Goff) and Marie-José (Justamond) learned their skills in Arles before moving on to the Paris press and various cultural institutions.
Invitations to leading American photographers brought the few initiates of the time to Arles, while vigorous debate and the workshops spread the Rencontres' reputation. These were political, libertarian, libertine times: Guy le Querrec's workshops were psychological happenings and in Jean-François Bauret's everyone got naked as they did in Lucien Clergue's, much appreciated for their infinite permutations of three models. The foreign workshop coordinators were loth to leave the wild beaches of the Camargue, the sales staff of the nascent FNAC chain ensured the technical backup alone until they were joined by Ilford, the only company to see which way the wind was blowing and until Kodak discovered, in Arles, how industry could meet changing artistic needs.
Battles were fought to maintain the availability of quality photographic paper and for the establishment of the toplevel National School of Photography, opened in Arles in 1983 at the instigation of President François Mitterrand. Most crucial of all, however, was the ongoing debate, with ancients and moderns facing off in Arles at the Arlaten, the Archevêché and under a venerable nettle tree in the School courtyard. In the Théâtre Antique you can still hear the echoes: as much booing as there was applause for the projections, with the audience throwing tomatoes and even setting the screens on fire when photographers and directors let them down.
This period had also been marked by the arrival of Christian (Caujolle), Hervé (Guibert), Claude (Nori), Jean- Jacques (Naudet), Gilles (Mora), Joan (Fontcuberta), Philippe (Salaun), Gabriel (Bauret), Alain (Dister) and a host of others who had no qualms about affectionately taunting the founders. Alain Desvergnes came over from Canada to help structure things a little and then found the School.
At a time when museums were opening their doors to belatedly recognised black and white photography in the late 1980s Arles innovated with an early move to colour, large formats, photo installations and vernacular photography. Then the Méjan association stepped in with an annual contribution of fast-rising Conceptualism. The exhibitions began to loom larger than the workshops and the Théâtre Antique evening shows. For lack of space, other modes of exhibiting had to be found, the results being, in 1986, the Espace Van Gogh and the Atelier des Forges with Olivier Etcheverry. In Arles the painting-based exhibition conventions and the sacrosanct 30x40 centimetre print went out the window, to be replaced by showings in apartments and under bridges, by photos that were projected, glued to walls or glimpsed through a keyhole.
The first years might have been dominated by the Americans, but Arles also did its bit for Lithuania, Catalonia, China, India and Africa. Neighbouring Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Spain found regular places on the programme, as did Surrealism, Conceptualism, rock and even NASA. At the Rencontres diversity was the keyword.
François Barré, in charge of visual arts at the Ministry of Culture, then took the Arles bull by the horns and looked into the Rencontres' future. The resultant recommendations were partially implemented, but then Barré went off to run the Centre Pompidou. There followed some great years of diversification, with astute artistic directors broadening the Rencontres' scope. Barré proved his loyalty by coming back as President, at the request of the Arles mayor: a courageous, generous decision at a time the brand-new millennium when collapse and bankruptcy were on the cards and almost no one seemed to care.
Yet the future brought visitors who were more numerous and something new stayed longer to soak up all the diversity of what was on offer. Another crucial feature was the Rencontres' speciality of not leaving everything to a single artistic director: each year curators from all over the world are invited along to put on special exhibitions. Thanks to the LUMA Foundation, redevelopment of the Parc des Ateliers (the railway workshops) is about to make a great leap forward, notably in respect of the presentation of exhibitions. By way of an introduction LUMA has invited artist Roni Horn to put a new project on show.
And last but not least the future has turned out to hinge on the educational side: more workshops, conferences, discussions and the Back to School with Pictures programme that has been such an unqualified success with teachers.
Moreover, despite the difficult times, the Rencontres special partners among them SFR, FNAC, Olympus and Hermès have made new pledges of loyalty.
The 2009 programme reflects the work of now stable, experienced teams who achieve the annual tour de force of providing 60 exhibitions and all sorts of other events with strictly limited means.