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.♦

Les Rencontres d’Arles 2024 runs until 29 September 2024.





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

23>24-Courtesy Lee Friedlander and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Luhring Augustine, New York.

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Cristina De Middel

Party:(Quotations from Chairman Mao)

Interview with Brad Feuerhelm

Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, commonly known as the Little Red Book, remains one of the most widely printed books in history. First published by the People’s Liberation Army in 1964, it was a totem facet of every Chinese household during the country’ Cultural Revolution. The book, though not stated as such, was an unspoken Bible of necessity for every party member, printed in small sizes in order that it could easily be carried around and bound in vivid red cover. When issued, it literally changed the shape of publishing in China. Presses for other books by Vladimir Lenin and Friedrich Engels were put on hold, so that Mao’s could be printed and celebrated to marvelous effect by the machine of Chinese communism and the ego affect of the Chairman himself. Economically devising a way to put himself on par with the great thinkers of communism by tyrannical control over the presses, Mao’s spread of influence was capitalised in effect by economic bullying of the Chinese printing industry. A great sense of irony permeates over this.

Cristina De Middel, whose The Afronauts marked an unparalleled rise in photobook fetishism has now reworked Mao’s book. She has combined photographs from a recent trip to China with a series of interventions with the original text. Text negation, as seen similarly in the recent Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible has a long history; the conscientious obliteration and reshaping of contextual meaning through absence or striking out of text was a pursuit purloined from the Dadaist tradition and also more singularly by Sicilian artist Emilio Isgrò. Mao’s red book is perhaps the perfect untapped fodder for such treatment given that China is very much undergoing a major transition, both ideologically and economically. The Cultural Revolution is teetering on the brink of capitalist largesse and De Middel’s book points to a series of propositions about this ‘party’ change.

Brad Feuerhelm: Cristina, can you give us some insight on why you felt the Little Red Book was due for re-examination?

Cristina De Middel: I didn’t start with the Mao book from the beginning. I just used the Mao book as a structure for the pictures I had taken. It was the structure I was missing. The images were quite random. It was not for a specific project.

BF: Do you feel that the original book itself holds any truths about the China of today or is it in any way a sacred cow of literature and ideology in need of some abuse?

CDM: I don’t think it is any of these things. For me it is a historical object, a testimony of something that has happened in the past. It has no literary value. It is simply an ideology put together – it’s just like the Bible. It is full of information, full of perspectives that are of no use anymore.

BF: When I look at the choices you have made regarding the text negation, I feel a certain amount of dysphoria involved. The words ‘struggle’, ‘people act blindly’, ‘oppression’, ‘negate universal truth’, and simply ‘why’ point to series of propositions regarding the measure of failure of communist philosophy for that of a sort despondent embrace of capital in the country. Is this an intentional measure or have we taken it upon ourselves to load such an already loaded tract with obsequious negativity?

CDM: The edit of the text is very intentional. It is meant to transmit my mood at the time. It is closer to a personal diary, using China as a failure for utopia. It was also about the moments I was going through there while shooting.

BF: The photographs themselves align quite cleverly with some of the text whether representational images of hands or people pictured in scenarios where they are partying. Did you add the photographs to the text or vice versa?

CDM: I had a lot of the images as a result of spending three months in China during the time I was working on The Afronauts, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I needed to find a structure for this. The failed utopia was a perfect structure – turning a political statement into a personal diary and vice versa. It is the most personal work I have done to date because it may be well hidden, but the book reflects myself very much so at the time – my outlook. I was in a very personal crisis. I had quit my job. I had personal issues, so I went to China to reset myself. I was taken with the idea of rediscovering the pleasure of photography, taking pictures on the street, but also adding a personal perspective of the images.

BF: The images themselves are quite different to those of The Afronauts, where the fictive elements of storytelling and documentary practice cross boundaries to present a fairytale synthesis of unreality. This presumably hints at the fallacy of representation in photographic practice. In part, the images seem to have a more literal, less fantastical shape to them given your prior career as a photojournalist. Was this employment of more traditional, let’s say, more static image selection done on purpose or was it the sequence of events in China itself that led to the making of images? They feel less staged than the images in The Afronauts….

CDM: I am more known now for my fictional stance to photography and documentary practice. That being said, it is more of a transition as I was going through The Afronauts at the time so it wasn’t cemented in what my work is associated with now. I finished The Afronauts in December 2011, whereas this was actually shot in August of the same year so it is also sort of research on how to use a book as a documentary object and how to use the historical weight of the culture and book to say what you want to say. As the critic and curator, Aaron Schuman has pointed out about my work in the past, it is like a system of failure and utopia. It is the same with The Afronauts. It is about failure but when I was working on the series I had no need to play with fiction. I was dealing with my own reality and the hard reality of the culture, there was little need to stage that further. Also, I didn’t even know I was going to do a book – it was more photographic therapy having being disappointed with photojournalism. I was focused more on my feelings and opinion of the place rather than the staging of an idea.

BF: Would you say that, by and large, photography is about failure or just your perspective of playing up to it through story telling?

CDM: Photography is not about failure per se. Actually, I think it is one of the best tools you can use for storytelling. It is about success. It is more the promise of utopia and people’s expectations or idea of reality, places and things that is exposed to failure. At some point there is success through communication. Failure is about expectations. Photography is maybe the tool for me to treat that disappointment because if the latter comes from when reality is not what you expect it to be, with photography you can control that. It is a medicine to cure disappointment.

BF: On page sixty-four, there is an image of a man who looks a lot like the Chairman himself bathed in a sort of strawberry pink light. Was this an intentional use of a doppelganger? If so, what process was there to find someone that carried these traits while in China?

CDM: No, I found him by chance. It is not staged at all. The guy looked like Mao. The light is a long distance rifle light from an exhibition, which suggests feelings of threat by the government, the struggles and impressions of a threatening government but also personally how one can feel like a target – pointed at by everybody.

BF: Do you feel China is going through another Cultural Revolution or perhaps a revolution of complicity in contradiction to its status of economic revolution?

CDM: From what I saw, my own personal experience, I don’t think their revolution is something new since they are repeating mistakes that perhaps the West is trying to fix now – principally the endorsement of capitalism amidst a tyrannical regime. It is hard to have hope. It is like a timebomb, especially the results of the infamous One Child Policy. If we all agree that by 2016 they will be the strongest economic power, who will be ruling their country? They don’t know how to share; they raised as one child with lots of pressure, both academic and economic. Imagine the perspective of these people ruling one massive country – little empathy and no charity.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Cristina De Middel

Brad Feuerhelm is a London based, American collector and dealer in vernacular photography. He is also managing editor at American Suburb X.