Below, we offer a short preview of the festival as well as an extended interview with the festival’s new director, Sam Stourdzé. So, while we hope you enjoy our wide-ranging selection of pictures above, you shouldn’t miss out on Stourdzé’s fascinating vision of the future of Arles!
One of the gifts of photography’s relatively short history is the way in which it endlessly has the opportunity to reinvent itself. And so it is with the grand dame of photography festivals, Les Rencontres d’Arles, which in its 2015 edition (and 46th year) celebrates a new chapter in its own history as well as the latest developments in the photographic world. In welcoming its visionary new director, Sam Stourdzé, the festival invites the latest generation of image-makers to stop and take notice of what is happening in the south of France.
This year’s edition celebrates the hybridization of photography today, revolutionizing the way we experience the form. The variety and depth of this year’s exhibitions, curators, and work supports the festival’s innovative intention. From showcasing new curatorial approaches of classic material, to supporting fresh, never-before-seen work, the festival aims to offer a stage to a little bit of everything—and succeeds.
The inclusion of new approaches is apparent throughout the festival’s line-up. For example, the program Resonances takes a look at photography’s dialogue with cinema, architecture, and music, underscoring the innovative ways that photography collaborates with other arts. Arles Books focuses on contemporary publishing practices and celebrates the resurgent form. Grand masters, such as Walker Evans or Federico Fellini show comfortably next to cutting-edge multimedia artists. Everyone benefits from the inventive, egalitarian approach.
If nothing else, Arles always brings together a thought-provoking selection of work using the city’s unique, beautiful setting as a stage to celebrate photography. For those who can’t make it this year, we hope you enjoy our in-depth preview—and start making plans for next time!
Editor’s Note: The opening week of this year’s festival will run from July 6 to July 12. Exhibitions will continue until September 20, 2015.
If the early indications can be trusted, Arles is in good hands. Stourdzé, fresh from a short but energetic directorship at the Musée de l’Élyseé in Switzerland, has brought a shot of excitement to this year’s proceedings. While Stourdzé recognizes the burden of history, he is also brimming with ideas for change. In his words, “innovation is in Arles’ DNA.” While Stourdzé has the tall task of re-envisioning the place of the festival in today’s rapidly changing digital landscape, he does so with the confidence of decade’s of history at his back.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker was able to speak with Stourdzé over the phone last week. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:
LC: Your position prior to coming to Arles was as a museum director [at the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland]—coming from this outsider perspective, what is important and specifically unique about festivals as a way of sharing photography with a wide-ranging audience?
SS: The first and main difference is that when I was heading a museum, my job was to do one exhibition after another. I was in charge of the overall program and the program had a strict linear timeline. The most I could do was to try to create a connection between the exhibition before and the exhibition after.
With a festival, on the other hand, I have a great number of exhibitions happening simultaneously. The alchemy of artistic direction is to embrace this fact and create some sort of magic that is derived from the endless interactions occurring between so many different artists.
In the case of Arles, artwork is displayed across the city in 39 different exhibitions. At the same time, it’s all self-contained, walkable. That means that at the end of the day, the viewer can sit down in a café and reflect on the work s/he has seen and think about the links between them. This ability to create connections and synthesize so much different work ultimately puts the viewer in a great position to answer, in a personal way, one key question: “What is photography in 2015?”
LC: These days, so many people consume photography digitally, through one kind of screen or another. What is the importance of a physical, material festival then? What’s the importance of allowing a huge number of people to travel and then congregate in one place?
SS: As I mentioned, the magic of festivals is in connections. On the one side, we are able to work directly [physically] with the artists. We give them a platform, a space, a spotlight where they can express themselves. We also create a community amongst them. A place for them to receive support, both material and otherwise.
On the other side, we also work with the public. The festival is a physical meeting place, a link between the artists and the public. One of the reasons I think people like to travel to Arles is that the public partakes in a very unique experience. Whereas the museum experience is more or less static, Arles offers many means of meeting [recall, of course, the name of the festival]. A visitor might have the chance to meet an artist, to see the work placed within a church and to discuss what he or she saw with a stranger—who is a fellow photography-lover.
And behind all that, each person has the chance to take in the city itself and observe how it informs the art. All of the sites across the city are very unique to the place and its history. And the fact that everything is in walking distance, as I said, really underlines the irreplaceable physicality of the experience.
LC: Photography in 2015 is largely defined by its quantity—there is so much of it being produced every single day. Part of the curator’s mission, then, is to make sense of this flood. How do you engage with the contemporary stream of images without getting swept away?
SS: Arles is the most important festival for photographers—we make sure to watch and study and celebrate the creation of images today. But Arles is also a festival for curators—we are committed to showing the world how you can do exhibitions in 2015. This allows us to be interested in both historical and contemporary work, but always with a focus on modern approaches of presentation.
Today, I believe that there are three principal ways for artists to diffuse their work: the exhibited image, the printed image (through books), and the projected image. I want the festival to embrace all three of these methods.
In terms of exhibition space, we’re there—20 venues across the city. As for books, we are opening a new space dedicated to contemporary editorial practices. We are inviting over 75 publishers and we will present pop-up exhibitions in this space. We believe that the book form today is a very prospective, forward-looking way to present photography alongside to exhibitions and projections.
For projections, we also have many offerings. During opening week, we have ten screens which we give carte blanche to several artistic associations, who can then present several projects. The younger generation is experimenting more and more with books and projections—so as a festival, we need to be there and create a space for this.
At the same time, we also put a big focus on supporting new production. We have the Discovery Award, in which we ask five of Europe’s top curators to suggest a number of their favorite emerging artists. From this selection, we create an exhibition of ten photographers. The winner receives a grant of 25,000 euros, which is essential to supporting artists and allowing them to pursue new, independent work.
LC: You seem to really want to place an emphasis on multidisciplinary approaches to photography, for example, the program pushes the connection between photography and other disciplines such as architecture and music. Why is this so important to you?
SS: First, because this is how the artists are working today. Some artists still work with cameras and really care about being seen as “photographers.” But many of them don’t care and they just want to be called artists. They use installations and all sorts of other ways of producing their work. These artists go from one field to another, depending on what they want to express.
Arles’ mission is to give a picture of what is art in relation to image in 2015. Ten years from now, I’m sure this will change completely, but today, this is how the artists are working. And so our program needs to reflect the practices that are being done.
Today, we are in the middle of a technological revolution. The entire world is shifting from textual to visual, and the “alchemy” of the festival gives us a way to start thinking about what this huge influx of images means. It gives us a space to share and to edit what we are producing—to think about how everything works together.
Still, just because we are a photography festival, it doesn’t make sense to only be centered on our medium. We want to make the statement that photography is everywhere and that you see it all day long. We want to be more open, to say “yes” to pieces that create a dialogue with architecture, cinema and sculpture. After all, photography is endless and very inclusive. I think we can improve the spirit and open-mindedness of the festival by saying that we are very open to showing projects where photography is not necessarily where you expect it to be.
LC: Arles has long been the place for photographers to meet, but now you want it to be a place for curators to learn, and also to become more involved in helping photographers produce original work. You’re working with the city, the photographers, the curators, the publishers, and the public. Is there any problem with trying to balance all these things?
SS: No, I don’t think there’s a problem, but I also don’t think it will happen overnight. We were established in 1970, and we are celebrating our 46th anniversary. The festival has come a long way and I hope Arles will continue for another 50 years. But the question is not simply to exist—my task is to figure out what we can actually bring to the community each and every year.
Already, I know that Arles is a great platform for diffusion. When a photographer shows at Arles, (s)he knows that all of the photography media will hear about it. We will continue to do this, but we can also help out in new ways. For example, how can we support the artist and actually (financially) help them produce their work? That is a key question today. Yesterday, photographers could work with magazines or the press. Today, the situation is different.
Eventually, I want Arles to be present from the very of beginning of the project, rather than only at the end. Ideally, the artist will be able work for a number of years and we will be able to help with the budget and also to connect them with possible partners, who we can convince to back the artist’s work. In France, this is what happened with the production of cinema. It’s a great help to have this support from the beginning, and it becomes an incentive for others to jump on board.
Similarly, in the future, I would like the festival to become a center for research. To do what photo departments in universities are doing. We are a great laboratory for curators and artists. It’s an experimental approach…Arles is a great place to try things, even if you sometimes don’t succeed.
Every year, we have dozens of chances to try something new—another difference between a museum and a festival. We have big exhibitions and small exhibitions; we can give new curators an opportunity to experiment. I really want to see Arles as the launching platform for the next generation of curators (researchers, really) as well. We have over 30 exhibitions on the program this year, and we have 39 curators involved.
LC: You’ve often mentioned the importance of experimentation. At the same time, Arles is a venerable institution. How are you trying to respect tradition while at the same time invigorating the festival?
SS: The festival has a certain DNA that it has had for decades. While we are an important festival, we are not institutional-feeling. We are not in the comfortable museum position and I like that! Each year, we have to reinvent ways to present photography, and it’s always a new challenge.
46 years ago, the aim was simply to give photography a venue to be shown because it was difficult to see photographic work in a serious setting. Today, you have photography everywhere—sometimes in an overwhelming fashion. That means that our current aim is not only to show work but to editorialize, to bring knowledge and reflection to what we are showing. As I said, the festival has long been an excellent platform for diffusion and I want this to remain. But I also want to expand our role to include reflection, research, more original photographic content as well as a creative space for curators.
LC: Since this is your first year, have there been any big surprises in the preparation process?
SS: Of course, there have been many surprises! One thing that’s been amazing is the expansion of the team. Though I’m often the one speaking, there are a lot of people who help to complete the work. From October to March, we are small, 15 people in total. Then, as the festival approaches, the team grows from 15 to 350. That’s when you start to see all the different jobs that go into making the festival a success.
For example, I knew that Arles was a great artistic experience, but I didn’t expect it to be such a great human experience—an army of carpenters, electricians, welders, artisans, craftsmen (not to mention all the photographers). We are building something together. Imagine: we are building 2 kilometers of walls to have the space to hang the work!
You can look at the undertaking economically as well. The local unemployment rate goes down 5% during the festival just because of all the jobs that are created. Not to mention the business at the hotels, the restaurants and so on. There’s a huge impact on Arles—we love the city, and the city loves us.
Now we are days away from the opening week. There will be some 13,000 professionals who will come just to see the festival. It’s exciting. I’m sure there are many more surprises ahead, though…
LC: At the end of the festival, how will you measure success?
SS: First, if I survive, it will be my personal success. My family will be happy as well. More seriously, of course, we hope to receive many people throughout the summer and will try to maintain the fantastic attendance from years past.
But really, there are two different aspects that I want to focus on—the festival’s interaction with the artist, and the festival’s interaction with the public. If the public comes and likes the festival, that’s an accomplishment in itself. From the artistic point of view, if we can be innovative, thought-provoking, prospective, then we’ve succeeded. However, this can be difficult to evaluate. And the public is not always pleased with what we see as being forward-looking. So we must find a balance.
That being said, in this year’s program, I think that many of the projects work at different levels. If you’re an amateur, you can enjoy it. If you’re a specialist, you will see different layers in each of exhibitions, and you can connect to the curatorial approach. Like I said, I hope to transform Arles into many things: a diffusion platform, a laboratory, a meeting place—it’s a lot, but I am feeling optimistic.
—Sam Stourdzé, interviewed by Alexander Strecker