by Ed Osowski
Could there be a more felicitous site than Arles in which to look at photography? A major Roman location, its arena and ancient theatre are still in use. On the banks of the Rhone River, it was a prosperous medieval town as well. Its most famous resident, Vincent Van Gogh, once received treatment in its asylum which is now, like many of its deconsecrated churches, an exhibition site.
Arles stands in waiting ready to seduce the visitor but then quickly brings one back from paradise: roasting chickens, freshly cut lavender, cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables fill the stalls at the open-air market. These tempting items also share space with the most pedestrian objects—tube socks, athletic gear, cheap plastic toys, and "Provengal" fabrics made in China.
This year's Rencontres d'Arles, the 36th installment of the first of now many international photography festivals, was like that market: over fifty exhibitions offered enormous choices, some worth repeat visits and others, like those ubiquitous tube socks, leaving the distinct impression that they had been seen many times before.
This year's exhibitions were grouped into five broad categories: 1) Awards, 2) A World under Stress, 3) Portraits, 4) a salute to the 20th anniversary of the National School of Photography, and 5) exhibits presented by the Association du Mejan, a not-for-profit arts organization. In bookstores, bars, restaurants, and even on the walls of buildings there were other exhibitions to see. A display of nearly 300 books, candidates for the annual Arles book award, could also be perused. Additionally, lectures and panel discussions were offered each afternoon in the town square. And at night the town came alive with walking tours and various programs in the arena. One evening Anushka Shankar, with her father Ravi Shankar in attendance, presented a program of sitar music.
Visitors quickly spread word of which shows to avoid: one thinks of Miguel Rio Branco's Muted Cries where a church, darkened to the point that one felt afraid of tripping on the uneven floors and stairs, was the site for a mixture of sounds of overheard conversations, whispers, and music with still photographs and slide projections filling the walls. One also recalls Rosangela Renno's installation of appropriated and manipulated images of weddings and automobile accidents offering a political message that seemed at least a decade old.
But there were far more exhibitions that were fresh, exciting, and intelligent. What follows are personal responses to eleven exhibitions, my "greatest hits," if you will, of the 2005 Rencontres d'Arles:
1. Miroslav Tichy A recluse, now in his eighties, Tichy constructs his own cameras from pieces of cardboard and the bottoms of bottles which serve as lenses. His images, made in the 1980s but not shown until 2004, are the voyeuristic results of his hidden observations of women dressing and undressing, sun-bathing in parks and on balconies, walking. His negatives provide just the faintest scraps of information and, after crudely printing them, Tichy abandons them to the natural environment. He nails them to fences and walls and tosses others into bushes or his garden. Months pass before he "rescues" them. The results? Shapes barely emerge from large expanses of over-exposed landscape. Are these relics from some cult that worshipped the female nude? Or are they kitsch? Their abused surfaces and their obscurity make reading them a task. Tichy's exhibition returned the viewer to the question, raised in the 1980s, of the "male gaze." But they also seemed to offer a witnessing to the difficulties of making art under a Communist government.
2. Barry Frydlender Frydlender's large-scale color images convinced me of their importance when I first saw them at New York's Andrea Meislin Gallery in September 2004. They derive from the traditions of documentary photography. But they are anything but quick responses to a significant moment. One quickly realizes Frydlender is a master at computer programming, digitization, and manipulation. He presents small clues to warn the viewer not to trust what the eyes see. Everything about his image-making is decisive and deliberate. In these works time both stops and simultaneously advances. His image of a terrorist incident seen from his studio in Tel Aviv is a great work made by a great artist.
3. John Divola Those crazy dogs, that seem to appear out of nowhere, barking and running as you travel down the deserted landscape of the American West, are Divola's subject. Using a motor-driven, hand-held camera and fast film, Divola photographs a bleak terrain where speeding devils twist and blur, bare their teeth, and where some terrible incident is about to happen.
4. Simon Norfolk His war imagery of Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, here ironically titled Et in Arcadio Ego, is indirect and subtle. Norfolk's vision of a shattered world offers small moments of grace that struggle to keep hope alive. His balloon seller, posed beside the bombed-out remains of a tea house in Kabul, brings punches of color to a bleak, monochromatic setting. Light and shadows take on weight and gravity in his photograph
of a playground, the children's swings and slides set against three massive military vehicles.
5. Yuji Ono If photography is a way of seeing, then Yuji Ono has turned his back on that definition. His black and white photographs of old master paintings (Fragonard, Rembrandt, Caravaggio) are what remain when memory flees—light admitted through the windows in the galleries where these paintings are hung, a hat, a hand, a face emerges —and then disappears. These works are sly, elegant, and seductive: they frustrate one's expectations while dazzling with their emptiness.
6. Joan Fontcuberta Anyone who has ever been amused but also troubled by accounts of images of the Virgin found on grilled cheese sandwiches or depictions of the Crucifixion on screen doors would find Miracles and Co amusing. Appropriately displayed in a medieval cloister—did a setting ever seem a more perfect a match for an exhibition?—Fontcuberta's project presents photographs of monks levitating and of a piece of ham with the face of Jesus on it. All of this, one is asked to "believe," comes from a Finnish monastery. Not very subtle, Fontcuberta's project offered laughter as a response to the excesses of religious fundamentalism.
7. Keld Helmer-Petersen Does Martin Paar ever sleep, I sometimes wonder. Here he displayed color reproductions of photographs made in 1948 by the Dane Helmer-Petersen. Paar's recent The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 introduced Helmer-Petersen's flat, direct, blank approaches to mundane urban subjects. These were works that anticipated William Eggleston and Stephen Shore by a generation.
8. Christen Stromholm In 1965, a Stockholm department store mounted Stromholm's For My Own Memory. This scramble of black-and-white images could not have been less appropriate for shoppers to contend with. After three days, the show was hastily closed. Miraculously, the photographs survived. One found images of drag queens preening before the camera as they applied make-up and walls covered with graffiti. Nothing could be more shocking while also being any more banal than these photographs. One was reminded of Larry Clark and Danny Lyon but also of BrassaT and Andy Warhol.
9. Frangoise Hugier In 1950, Hugier, living in Cambodia where her father oversaw a rubber plantation, was kidnapped with her brother by Vietminh raiders. Eight months later they were reunited with their parents. At the age of 61, Hugier returned to Cambodia. Her project, I Was Eight Years Old, walks the fine line that divides reality from fiction. Not afraid to mix genres, she moves with ease from portraits to landscapes to interior images and mixes color with black-and-white. These works are part dream and part reality. This is visual autobiography that is neither self-serving nor hermetic. Hugier presents a quiet, intelligent document: an example for all who would seek visual equivalents of their memories of loss and separation.
10. Sarah Moon Moon's photographs and videos are amazing, lush and romantic, instilled with a sense of highly-wrought emotion, structured with story-telling devices, and totally absorbing. Handsomely installed in a suite of rooms in an 18th century home, Tales groups illustrations of three childhood stories by Anderson and Perrault. Moon understands that terror and pathos lie just beneath the surface of stories read to all of us when we were children. Scenes from Moon's The Little Match Girl had me transfixed and in tears. Tales visualizes the dramatic and emotional essence at the heart of these stories.
These ten remarkable exhibitions set a standard that was not easy to match. But one exhibition emerged as the principal topic of conversation. This was the remarkable No Eyes/Sans Regard, brilliantly installed in the galleries of L'Espace Van Gogh. Drawn from his private collection known as Collection Dancing Bear, owned by New York art dealer and collector Bill Hunt, the exhibition grouped over three hundred works from his collection .
For the sake of disclosure, I admit I've known Bill Hunt for nearly ten years. And I've been familiar with his collection for over five years. Three years ago, I was hired to help update his vast inventory of over 1,000 photographs. I opened boxes, removed photographs from plastic sleeves, looked for signatures and other information, and checked dimensions. I certainly thought that I knew these works as well as anyone could. How wrong I soon learned I was.
Hunt's collection is one that moves from high to low, from the most elegant (and expensive) to works purchased at flea markets. His is the photographic equivalent of a "cabinet of curiosities." Here one finds a home for press prints, cabinet cards, photographic collages, tin-types and daguerreotypes, platinum prints, and digitally-printed imagery.
Hunt collects portraits of subjects whose eyes are closed, covered, or somehow obscured. Some displayed at Arles include Irving Penn's well-known 1971 photograph Two Guedras, Morocco, two women, photographed in a studio with black shrouds totally covering and obscuring their faces, a portrait of Andy Warhol (1962) by Weegee where Warhol's face is multiplied six times, like six sections of a pie, and enormous sun glasses cover his eyes. Other notable works were Harry Callahan's 1949 Eleanor, his wife, her head emerges from rippling water like a shy pre-Raphaelite virgin, her eyes decorously closed. Other works include anonymous tin types of men in sun glasses (1850s and later) and a carte-de-visite (1860s) of three Victorian women holding blank sheets of paper to their faces. This image demonstrates the surreal and inexplicable quality of the images in Hunt's collection.
It might be true that vision is the one sense on which we most depend. As I type this article, it is raining but I barely hear the sound. I am hardly aware of the taste of coffee which sits in a cup to my right. Do I smell anything other than my dog who probably needs a bath? But I cannot write without holding a pen or touching a keyboard. My sense of touch is crucial to my activity. But most importantly, I must see to write, to look at images from the catalogue of the Arles exhibitions, to refer to notes, to look at publications I brought back from France.
Seeing is, however, always problematic. Ask any two witnesses to an accident and you will quickly see how true this is. The Western tradition itself warns us that looking is not always easy nor recommended: Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she viewed, one last time, the home she was fleeing. Sometimes one can see too much and subsequently know too much: Saul was blinded at the moment of his conversion. Is Lear a fool because he is blind or does his blindness make him fool-like? Doesn't the fool have insights that saner people never achieve? Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes that he has broken the incest taboo. The only way to return to a time of innocence is to destroy his vision. Children sing, "Close your eyes and count to ten" when they play hide-and-seek. At birthdays the command is to close one's eyes and make a wish. And the Beatles sing, "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you."
As Hunt arranged the selections from his collection, looking and seeing become steps on an emotional journey, one that moves from blindness to awareness, from innocence to its opposite.
A small Berenice Abbott print (1930s) was displayed in one gallery: a murder victim lies on the stairs of a Manhattan brownstone. A sheet covers all but his legs and feet. We cannot see him, cannot identify him. Why is that? Was his murder too gruesome, the details too brutal, to look upon? Is it decorum or modesty that keep him from our view? There is knowledge under that sheet, behind that veil, on the other side of the wall, beyond the smoke. But the viewer is not privileged or prepared or emotionally capable of handling whatever that truth is.
When photographs are viewed metaphorically, as they are in Collection Dancing Bear, as signs that spell out the dangers and perils of leaving behind the safety of one's emotional blindness, then their provenance, their value, their chronology, their maker, indeed their actual condition become secondary considerations. Hunt is an expert on vernacular photography—those items made by anonymous makers—and snapshots—those pictures once intended to be shared and enjoyed by family members but now, quirky in their appeal, pieces of paper with information that has slipped away. Hunt's installation showed how "found" photographs are not just quaint or amusing. An entire wall was covered with cartes-de-visite the tiny 3 x 5 inch portraits that came to replace calling cards during the Victorian era. In another room, Hunt arranged over fifty images of Arabic women, exotic examples of our cultural fascination with the "other." As these women look back at us through their veils, their covered eyes resonate with meaning as deep as that found in the Irving Penn photograph mentioned earlier.
It would be wrong to leave the impression that Hunt's collection is only serious. A press photograph of students in a cosmetology class (1950s) shows them with their eyes covered by paper tissues. It is an image both funny and totally baffling. In addition, Joseph Heidecker's four reworked cabinet cards (2001), formal portraits on which buttons and other round plastic objects replace the eyes that once looked back at the photographer, are silly, humorous, and surreal.
Heidecker's work also points to that other kind of seeing that employs the inner eye, the third eye, that accompanies the awareness that transcends the senses. What could better represent this inner way of seeing than John Hillers' haunting 1879 albumen print Group of Zuni Albinos? These men, women, and a child, their eyes tightly closed, express a level of vision, deep and profound, that mere eyesight cannot offer. But a question arises: have they shut their eyes because looking into the light is physically painful or do they see more "truth" in a world that most cannot see?"
One photograph on display accomplished something I've never before witnessed. It was the topic of numerous conversations. It was debated and discussed. It proved that it is still possible to shock. Hunt displayed a photograph taken on Sept. 11, 2001 by the Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. Titled Terrorist Attack but also known as The Falling Man it was seen briefly in the New York Times before shock and outrage removed it from public view. In it, a man has jumped from one of the burning Twin Towers. We imagine him falling, tumbling, and we know his fate. Recognizing that showing that photograph publicly crossed some undefined boundary, Hunt created an installation with The Falling Man at its center.
The Falling Man is not a particularly large photograph. It is grainy, black and white, and nearly featureless. Yet one cannot look at it without wanting to look away immediately. Its companion photographs, images of athletes and models jumping, diving, or floating, were meant to contain its raw and negative energy that seemed to fill the room. Here Hunt did something that no museum curator would ever do. Directly beneath Drew's photograph he positioned Sky 14, a nude image of a member of the Danish gymnastic team made in 2000 by Anderson and Low. But he hung their photograph upside-down.
Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low were present at a tour of the exhibition that Hunt led. They were asked how they felt about this use of their image. Anderson replied that he felt that their image became a talisman, possessing the ability to stop the fall, to freeze before our eyes the inevitable fate of the falling man, to "counteract the negativity of the image."
One opens one's eyes to possibility, to awareness, to understanding. But often one opens them at great price. What Hunt's No Eyes/Sans Regard showed is that eyes held tightly closed may keep out pain but they also keep out knowledge and growth.
Ed Osowski, a former librarian, is a collector and writer who lives in Houston.