Les Rencontres d’Arles 2024

Beneath The Surface

Festival review by Mark Durden

For the 55th time, Arles, the historic Roman city in southern France, hosts the prestigious Les Rencontres d’Arles, where municipal buildings are transformed to showcase the visual legacies of photographers and artists worldwide. This year’s theme, Beneath the Surface, explores narratives that uncover divergent paths, often revealing vulnerabilities in seemingly impermeable facades. As expected, the festival boasts its usual grandeur, meticulous organisation, and impressive works by renowned artists. Yet, as Mark Durden writes, it is the traditional photographic approaches that retain a profound impact amidst the festival’s exploration of new directions in the medium.

Mark Durden | Festival review | 11 July 2024 | In association with MPB

Sophie Calle’s exhibition of some of her own artworks and possessions are left to rot in the subterranean Cryptoporticus in Arles, offering a great contrast to the clamouring image spectacle of the very festival of which it is part. On discovering one of her favourite works, The Blind, had become toxic through mould spores after her studio was damaged in a storm, and refusing to follow the restorer’s suggestion that it should be destroyed, Calle decided to exhibit it (together with other works that had been contaminated and objects from her life that she no longer had any use for but could not throw away) in a humid and underground place where its degradation could continue. Calle’s show, in this respect, offers a mini retrospective, a darkly comic counterpoint to the grandiosity of more spectacular displays above ground, and a reminder of the ultimate and inevitable mortality of art and the artist. When I viewed her exhibition, water was constantly dripping upon large framed black-and-white prints of graves, laid on the floor.

This year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles is marked by a schism between those who work against photography, those who deploy it through montage in installations and those who less ostentatiously explore its intrinsic properties. Calle works against photography, but knowingly and comedically, clearly relishing the correspondence between her decaying pictures and their sepulchral and funerary setting.

In the impressive interior of the 15th century century Gothic Église des Frères Prêcheurs, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel’s flagship show’s magical realist response to the migration route across Mexico to the US, with its overblown and enigmatic combinations of pictorial elements, objects, archival material and Mexican lotería card imagery (this game of chance, presumably there to bring in an iconography related to Mexico and imply the journey of migrants is a lottery and up to fate) muddles the clarity of reportage and seemingly relishes the resultant ambiguity. The US’ brutal migrant policy and murderous exploitation by cartels through both people and drug trafficking (nothing to do with chance) becomes a cue to a fantastical tale, modelled on Jules Verne’s science fiction Journey to the Centre of the World (1864). The problem with such a spectacular display is that it is hard to engage and relate to what is going on as images collide and compete for attention. If montage was originally intended to be critically dialectical and produce new meaning, the danger here is that things become all too uncertain.

Mary Ellen Mark, who is given a significant and engaging retrospective at Espace Van Gogh, valorises an older, humanist documentary tradition; her 1987 portrait of the Damm family in the car in which they were living at the time, is in some ways her “Migrant Mother”. Perhaps it is not so obsolete as de Middel’s pop documentary display might suggest. The real goes beyond our imagination, and is always full of surprises. Photographers like Mark are attuned to this and bring it out again and again in many of their extraordinary pictures. In her powerful, colourful, somewhat voyeuristic depictions of sex workers in Mumbai, she may be outside but the sense is that she pictures more from the inside and in affinity with these women.                                                                                                                                                   At the Palais de L’Archevêché, I’m So Happy You Are Here, Japanese Women Photographers from the 1950s to Now curated by Lesley A. Martin, Takeuchi Mariko and Pauline Vermare, was a welcome change and far cry from the continued celebration of such male Japanese photographers as Daido Moriyama and their fixation on women as subject. But with so many photographers on show, 26, it only functions as a taster. I would have liked to have seen more work by Mari Katayama. Born with tibial hemimelia, which caused the bones in her lower legs and left hand to be undeveloped, and having decided to amputate her legs at the age of nine, the young artist sees herself as ‘one of the raw materials to use in my work’ in extraordinary self-portraits with hand-sewn prostheses.

Ishiuchi Miyako, recipient of the Women in Motion Award, as well as showing in I’m So Happy, is given a solo show at the Salle Henri-Comte, presenting photographs of objects and possessions remaining after death: her mother’s used lipstick, her lingerie, her hairbrush tangled with her hair, her dentures. There is also a picture of her mother’s scarred skin. For Miyako, ‘things touched by my mother were like part of her skin.’ The intimacy and poignancy of such photographs is continued in other pictures: the clothing and personal objects of Atomic bomb victims, from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and Frida Kahlo’s belongings, her nail varnish, decorated corsets and casts, through which one can sense the presence and strength of the artist. Miyako is responsive to the intrinsic properties and resonances of photography as an auratic medium. In contrast to Calle’s funereal retrospective, for Miyako, objects from the past, through photography, are ‘revived in the present moment.’

In many ways, New Farmer (2024) by Bruce Eesly offers a bright, jaunty and comic interlude to the festival; an AI generated mock documentary, consisting of photographs and texts presented as if from the 1960s, parodying the Green Revolution’s goal of intensified agricultural yields, by showing farmers, fields and smiling kids replete with oversized vegetables. Such absurdity and fakery serves as a fictional counterpoint to the reality of what increasing farming yields has led to, as the artist says: ‘giant fields of monocultures, fertiliser run-off, pesticide pollution and a major loss of genetic plant diversity.’

The revelation of Nicolas Floc’h’s exhibition is that there is a rainbow of colours in water. His epic quasi-scientific project, Rivers Ocean. The Landscape of Mississippi’s Colors (2024), a dazzling array of different blocks of pure colour prints, the result of photographs taken underwater at different depths, presented together with black-and-white photographs of the land, nevertheless remained baffling. While the descriptive detail in some of the captioning texts might help explain what causes the colours – ‘In Minneapolis, the Mississippi gets its colour from the tanins of northern forests… At the surface, a bright luminous orange turns bright red at one to two meters in depth’ – in the end, I was left pondering the gulf between these beautiful and seductive colour fields and the pollution and ecological disaster they presumably are indexing.

At La Mécaniqué Générale, there is more colour, not so much in the photography, which is predominantly black-and-white, but on the walls that animate and resist the potential stasis of ordered clusters of photographs in Urs Stahel’s beautifully curated show, When Images Learn to Speak, drawn from the collection of Astrid Ullens de Schooten Whettnall. Since the collector has been buying up whole series rather than individual photographs, Stahel pursues the conceptual implications of serial groups of images, beginning with Harry Callahan’s street portraits and Walker Evans’ worker portraits. The show is very much about the formal richness, the subtleties and lasting fascination with what are mostly now classic photographs. There are also some nice surprises, including Max Regenberg’s billboards, for example, in both colour and black-and-white, taken over two decades, a simple register of fortuitous collisions and relations between the imagery of billboards and their settings: the crumpled rear end of a car appearing as if trampled by giant feet on the advertising beside it. Is there not a lesson for Arles here? Maybe we do not need the fireworks. Straight(-forward) photography can still be very engaging and lasting.  

Stahel’s curation links well with Lee Friedlander’s small survey show at LUMA. Friedlander was also in Stahel’s show and some of his TV pictures appear in both exhibitions. An outlier to the festival, the Friedlander exhibition nevertheless was a vital and refreshing addition. Selected and curated by filmmaker Joel Coen, the show underscores the enduring richness of his work and brilliant understanding of the possibilities of photographic form. Coen is skilled in picking out the compositional play of elements in well-known and lesser-known Friedlanders. The point made by Friedlander in the 1960s was that montage effects can already be found in the world; it is a question of framing. He is a picture-maker who made a virtue out of the limits of photography. A pity there are so few new contemporary photographers on show at Arles that come close.♦





Mark Durden is an academic, writer and artist. He is Professor of Photography and the Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales. He works collaboratively as part of the artist group Common Culture and, since 2017, with João Leal, has been photographing modernist architecture in Europe.


1- Sophie Calle, Finir en Beauté, 2024. Courtesy Anne Fourès

2- Cristina de Middel, An Obstacle in the Way [Una Piedra en el Camino], Journey to the center series, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Magnum Photos

3- Cristina de Middel, The One That Left [La que se Fue], Journey to the center series, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Magnum Photos

4- Cristina de Middel, The Black Door [La Puerta Negra], Journey to the center series, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Magnum Photos

5- Mary Ellen Mark, Rekha with beads in her mouth, Falkland Road, Mumbai, India, 1978. Courtesy of The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

6- Mary Ellen Mark, Vashira and Tashira Hargrove, Suffolk, New York, 1993. Courtesy of The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

7- Mary Ellen Mark, The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987. Courtesy of The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

8- Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled. From the eyes, the ears series, 2002-04. Courtesy the artist and Aperture Foundation

9- Sakiko Nomura, Untitled, 1997 from the Hiroki series. Courtesy the artist and Aperture Foundation

10- Hitomi Watanabe, Untitled from the Tōdai Zenkyōtō series, 1968-69. Courtesy the artist and Aperture Foundation.

11- Ishiuchi Miyako. Mother’s #35. Courtesy the artist and The Third Gallery Aya

12- Ishiuchi Miyako. ひろしま / hiroshima #37F donor: Harada A. Courtesy the artist and The Third Gallery Aya

13- Bruce Eesly, Peter Trimmel wins first prize for his UHY fennel at the Kooma Giants Show in Limburg, 1956. From the New Farmer series, 2023. Courtesy the artist

14- Bruce Eesly, Selected potato varieties are rated in sixteen categories according to the LURCH Desirable Traits Checklist, 1952. From the New Farmer series, 2023. Courtesy the artist

15- Bruce Eesly, Farm table in Dengen, 1955. From the New Farmer series, 2023. Courtesy the artist

16- Nicolas Floc’h, White River, Badlands, South Dakota, Rivers Ocean. From the Mississippi series, 2022. Courtesy the artist

17- Nicolas Floc’h, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Rivers Ocean. From the Mississippi series, 2022. Courtesy the artist

18- Nicolas Floc’h, Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Rivers Ocean. From the Mississippi series, 2022. Courtesy the artist

19- Nicolas Floc’h, Mississippi River, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rivers Ocean. From the Mississippi series, 2022. Courtesy the artist

20- Moyra Davey, Subway Writers III, 2011. Courtesy the artist

21- Martha Rosler, Photo-Op, photomontage. From the House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home series, 2004. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich

22- Judith Joy Ross, Annie Hasz, Easton, Pennsylvania, Protesting the Iraq War, Living With War. From the Portraits series, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

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Silvia Rosi


Exhibition review by Mariacarla Molè

Silvia Rosi’s exhibition at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia showcases 34 artworks across four rooms, unified by the theme of vanishing identity and fractured representation. The collection features photographs from families of African descent in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy that portray the vitality and resilience of the diaspora community. Through her art Rosi serves as a conduit to this history as she connects to the story contained in her family album, reports Mariacarla Molè.

Mariacarla Molè | Exhibition review | 20 June 2024

As a viewer of Silvia Rosi’s Disintegrata at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, you become aware of the urge to piece together parts of a whole. The 34 artworks displayed in the four rooms appear to tell four distinct stories, yet they all share a common concept: the disappearance of a clear-cut representation of identity, which in turn becomes disintegrated, as implied by the title. Consequently, the exhibition presents photographic and video works that, despite being united by the word ‘disintegrata’, have a strong fragmented quality that is dispersed throughout the four rooms.

At first glance, the landscape photos in the initial room may leave you feeling disoriented, since the overall exhibition is billed as a project featuring archival photographs of the African diaspora in Italy, which the artist collected between 2023 and 2024. In fact, the first room is predominantly filled with black and white as well as coloured landscape photos, alongside videos, all from the series titled Disintegrata nel Paesaggio. These works mostly consist of images of Rosi’s figure crossing deserted green landscapes from the edge of time. The green colours are vibrant in the giclee prints, while the videos remain silent. In this scenario, the human figure seems unable to assert itself on the landscape; it can only pass through it. However, even when the human figure is caught posing, it appears to blend into the landscape: in one image, a figure with their back turned stands against a grassy landscape, and the texture of their coat merges with that of the grass. In another image, Rosi lies on the grass in the same coat, seemingly completely engulfed by it.

The desire to explore the landscape is new in Silvia Rosi’s practice and can be traced back to the theme of Fotografia Europea 2024, of which Disintegrata is a part: La natura ama nascondersi (Nature loves to hide), quoting Heraclitus, which assembles a series of solo and group exhibitions that thematise the sense of interdependence of every life form on Earth as part of a larger living organism. Some other elements resonate with those familiar with Rosi’s work, such as the tension of removing disturbing elements from the background, the coexistence of colour and black-and-white and her own presence, even if it is particularly elusive here, as if to underline the frustration towards self-portraiture and self-representation which becomes more and more slippery. Perhaps a clue to the direction her work is taking?

In the second room, it is easier to recognise Rosi’s work as it can be traced back to her analogue studio portraiture, which she then digitises, not to mention the clearly visible self-timer cable which is another characteristic element of her self-portraiture. The images constructed in the studio make use of single-colour drapes or essential decorations with geometric black-and-white patterns on the floor, such as checkered rhombuses and dots, and elegant outfits. In one image, Rosi shows off a wedding dress, in another a wig, and in another an elegant trouser suit. These are all meant to demonstrate adherence to specific historical periods – the first: the 1990s when her parents moved from Togo to Italy, and the second: studio portrait photography of 60s post-colonial West Africa. The environment of each image is bare, inhabited only by Rosi and individual objects such as a bike, a wedding dress, bedside tables loaded with framed family photos, an old hairdresser’s helmet and two old suitcases. All of these elements were extracted from Rosi’s family album to be reactivated with a stage-like quality. Reading the captions pays off as each self-portrait is a version of her ‘disintegrated’ presence. When translated, the titles read ‘Disintegrated with Family Photos’, ‘Italian Bride Disintegrated’ and ‘Disintegrated in Profile’, which represent splinters of possible worlds. Her figure, although omnipresent, seems to want to escape from the camera, often with her back turned or her face hidden behind objects like a flower, a shoulder, a helmet or a pack of Agfa photographic paper. The reference to Malick Sidibé’s photography is clear. However, unlike the photographer who used objects to reveal the pride of his portrayed subjects, Rosi uses them as a portal through which to connect to the story contained in her family archive. This allows her to pose in her parents’ clothes, so as to discover the history of her family, starting from the photographs in her album, through her body and the history of the diaspora, which was kept silent for a long time. She only experienced the aftermath of this history.

The interest in family albums is reignited in a collection of photographs from the 90s that Rosi, along with a team of researchers, gathered from families of African descent in the Emilia Romagna area, where she hails from. Palpable is the desire to create a disintegrated archive in a national territory that comes together via an openness to share and donate personal images. As someone who grew up in the early 90s, these poses and scenarios are very familiar: scenes of trips out of town, standing and posing in front of a landscape, in the centre of a square, or leaning against a car. Moments of celebration or simple daily life. The vitality is feverish, and they seem to say: “We are here and we are fine.” From the collection of work that Rosi amassed with the researchers, it emerged that these photos were often sent to relatives in Africa, accompanied by audio cassettes in which they recounted their stories. And this element seems to spill over into the video housed in the last room, where a three-part split screen shows a tape recorder on one side, with Rosi listening to the recorded voice through the headphones on the opposite side, while in the middle, the voice transcription of four different letters written between 1982 and 2000, read by the people who received them, telling stories of diaspora. You can sense their discomfort in speaking French, since it is not their first language. As a result, the communication might not be very fluent, but it is always sincere. They express gratitude, poverty, determination and worry. At this point, you feel conscious of being invited to assemble pieces, like an interpreter in photographs and a listener in videos, as Rosi seems to be doing to the world around her. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Collezione Maramotti. © Silvia Rosi

Disintegrata runs at Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, until 28 July.

Mariacarla Molè is an art writer based in Turin.

1000 Words favourites

• Renée Mussai on exhibitions as sites of dialogue, critique, and activism.

• Roxana Marcoci navigates curatorial practice in the digital age.

• Tanvi Mishra reviews Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect.

• Discover London’s top five photography galleries.

• Tim Clark in conversation with Hayward Gallery’s Ralph Rugoff on Hiroshi Sugimoto.

• Academic rigour and essayistic freedom as told by Taous R. Dahmani.