The best Arles in years. Visual jokes. The joy of bringing solar power to rural Africa. The horror of pesticide use in South America. Pictures by members of a bullfighting club. Portraits of Mafia families. Prohibitions. Invitations. Blue skies. Eating sandwiches in the street. Large format gum bichromate pornography. Tintypes. Cyanotypes. Vintage LGBT snapshots. Pictures of jazz musicians' hands. A blessing from an Orthodox priest. Virtual reality. Mediaeval cloisters. Seeing everything as pictures.  

Pictures on walls. One of the infuriating/charming things about Arles is the wild variety of uncredited or inadequately credited pictures stuck to exterior walls.

You can't review Arles in detail. It would be like trying to provide individual reviews of each jugful of water in a lake. You just go there; and dive in; and try to remember some of the experiences. So that's what I'm going to do here. If it seems fragmented, well, yes, that's the way Arles is. 

In fact, it is probably impossible for two people to go the the same Arles, even if they go to the same exhibitions together. They will notice different things, dismiss different things, be captivated by different things. Time and again, Frances would ask me, "Did you see...?" and I'd say "No" and she'd point out something I'd missed. And I would ask her, "Did you see...?" and she'd say "No" and I'd point out something she'd missed. 

Stairs beside the Rhone. Even without the Rencontres, without any photos, Arles is a visual feast.

Let's start with the pictures, though. They're what many people think the Rencontres are about, after all. And they are. Sort of. But you'll see more (and better) pictures in the street in Arles than you'd see at a dozen normal exhibitions. Some are literally stuck to walls with paperhangers' paste. Some are taped up. Some are on lines, fixed with clothes-pegs. That's before you start on the ones in the shop windows. And the galleries, official (Rencontres), fringe (Voies Off) and unofficial (whoever, for whatever reason, didn't make it into Voies Off). At a rough guess there were over 200 exhibitions in total. 

Prints for auction. One of the least expected "exhibitions" is the enchères, the print auction. As you can see there is a tremendous range. What you can't see is that many of the prints are by extremely famous photographers, such as Ronis, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, and so forth. Do not expect any bargains, though.

Then there are the projections: literally, projected still or video images, usually outdoors and at night, but sometimes indoors. This is not necessarily so bad in a cool cellar but it can be intolerable in a stuffy room. Actually I find most of them intolerable anyway: I much prefer to be able to look at pictures in my own time, lingering over what I enjoy and quickly skipping over what I don't. Until a few years ago I used to go to some of them but then I realized that there was very little point. There's so much even without the projections that I never get to all I want to see anyway, so why waste time on stuff I don't want to see?

Vernissage, ENSP (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie). Technically a vernissage is a first night or private view. In practice, during the Rencontres, it's an open party: anyone can walk in off the street. For that matter, they are often held on the street. There are several, most nights, usually with wine-boxes (which is what this young lady is using to fill her glass). Can you imagine the effects of unlimited free alcohol on British or American students? There are also soft drinks for the faint of heart.

The jokes I referred to in the first paragraph were part of a massive exhibition in the Archbishop's Palace: an endless selection of juxtapositions, mistakes, and deliberate jokes.

Not all were strictly photographic:

Fans. Sort of. Look closely at the "fan blades". They're socks.

The whole exhibition encouraged a spirit of playfulness. In one room, a few of the tiles on the floor were loose, and clinked and chinked musically underfoot. This prompted Frances to do a little dance on them:


Frances dancing, in front of a picture of a skip (dumpster) with a peacock's head by Matt Stuart. She doesn't usually carry a walking stick but even the pavements (sidewalks) in Arles can be treacherous; there are countless steep and often badly worn stairs; and the interiors of some of the more ad hoc galleries are extremely demanding, with uneven floors, skull-cracking low arches, and the aforementioned lethal stairs. Do not expect much in the way of disabled access!

Not all of the humour at the exhibition was intentional, either. More and more photographers use video or (sometimes) still TV screens and other electronic devices. French concepts of health and safety at work tend more to the practical than the theoretical, so if something isn't actually dangerous, no one worries very much about it. This led to the following spectacular rats' nest behind one of the exhibits:

Twenty-one power supplies, but thanks to the wiring, it looks like more.

You're probably beginning to wonder now: isn't all this expensive? Arles is in the notoriously expensive South of France, after all. But the answer is that it almost certainly costs (or can cost) far less than you might think. Arles is not (and has never been) an expensive resort. Or indeed, much of a resort at all. Once an important river port, the rise of the railways in the 19th century turned it into something of a backwater. It's on the way back up now, but it's hardly the Côte d’Azur

To begin with, there's the 49€ pass for the first week, but that gets you into everything, as often as you like. After that, you need somewhere to sleep. For years we've stayed in not just the same hotel, but the same room. It's up 60 stairs, it's true, and there's no air conditioning, just a fan; but it's inside the city walls; every room has a balcony; there are private facilities (shower, hand-basin, toilet); and it's 42€ a night, which is well under $50 or maybe £35 UK; though just after the vote for Brexit, exchange rates were veering a bit. Apart from the fact that the owners are really nice people, there's also the fact that because our room is on the top floor it's reasonably cool because it catches whatever breezes are about, and it has a superb view of the Place Voltaire, one of the main squares of the city.

View of the Place Voltaire from our room. The tumbler in the white trousers is a capoeirista. He is doing a series of cartwheels and somersaults that will carry him over the head of the man who is barely visible behind the light post. Capoeira is a blend of martial art, acrobatics and and dance invented by slaves of East African origin in Brazil, with its roots in the 16th century. It can be beautiful to watch, and we are moderately familiar with it because it is our daughter's preferred sport: we first saw it at the University of Magdeburg. This was however the first time we've ever seen it as street theatre: they passed the hat around for contributions afterwards.They repeated the performance several times each evening, in different areas of the city: hardly a grand living, but a useful income.

Of course, our hotel is far from the most expensive option. You can easily spend over 200€ a night at the most expensive hotels. But nor is it the least expensive option. Maybe a twenty minute walk from our hotel there is a camping site. I wouldn't care for it myself. because I hate camping, but you sure as hell won't freeze: temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s C, the 80s and even low 90s F, are usual during the Rencontres. Some years you get a few hours' rain, but mostly, you don't.

All right. You have shelter. What do you do about eating? Once again, it's easy to spend 100€ a head in the city's better restaurants, and even in some of the mediocre but expensive tourist traps, but apart from one meal the night we arrive and another the night before we leave, we literally live on sandwiches. Well, that and the nibbles provided at vernissages, which are often copious enough to quality as small meals, adequate if you've had a good lunch. 

Cheap eats: People eating sandwiches in the street, outside the Fad'Oli

Fortunately, one of the best sandwich bars in the world, perhaps even the best, is in Arles:the Fad'Oli. You can buy the sandwiches wrapped, to go, or (for a couple of euros extra per sandwich) you can sit down. There are tables inside, but we always sit at one of the four tiny, uncomfortable tables that just about fit on the pavement (sidewalk) outside. There is nowhere in the world that is better for people watching, including the very long queues, sometimes twenty people or more, waiting to buy sandwiches or waiting for a table.  It's just off the Place du Forum, so it's something of a pedestrian thoroughfare, and you'd pay a lot more for inferior food if you visited one of the tourist traps ten paces away. 

The tiny tables... You can see how tight a fit they are on the sidewalk. Sometimes people put a third or even fourth chair beside a table, and have to get up when a car drives up the street; but the traffic isn't heavy, and nobody minds very much.

The secret of the Fad'Oli is simple: top quality ingredients, including fresh, spicy olive oil and fresh-cut basil, along with really helpful staff who are also extremely nice people. For a couple of their most expensive sandwiches, and half a litre of organic rosé wine, sitting down, it's under 30€: a little over $30, or a bit under £25. Their cheapest sandwich, to take away, is as far as I remember 3.95€:a little under $4.50, or a little over £3. 

You may well have noticed by now that I've said less about the exhibitions than about the other aspects of the city. Well, yes. That's because the city doesn't change, but the Rencontres do: the exhibitions are different every year. I'll come back to that in the next installment. Meanwhile, another aspect of the Rencontres is photographic bookshops, both full-time and "pop-up". We tend to avoid these, because we could easily spend 1000€ and more on every visit. As it was, we were feeling poor, so the only book we bought (for 8€, from Atelier Cinq) was a German translation of Margaret Bourke-White's Portrait of Myself: Licht und Schatten, Mein Leben und meine Bilder.

Books for sale, Atelier Cinq, outside Communist Party headquarters on the Place Voltaire, opposite our hotel. The Mayor of Arles, Hervé Schiavetti, is a communist. Some Americans sometimes have difficulty in getting their heads around this.

As I've already said, the Rencontres are not the only reason to go to Arles. This is a city that was old when it sided with Julius Caesar against the Greeks of Massalia (modern Marseilles) in 49 BC, over 2000 years ago. History lies thick in, on and under its streets. A non-photographer could almost certainly find enough there to amuse himself or herself there during the opening week, and indeed, we are constantly surprised at the number of people we meet during the opening week who aren't there for the Rencontres. Mostly, we meet them at the Fad'Oli. Most people, too, are aware of the city's connexion with Van Gogh, and a couple of years ago the Van Gogh Foundation opened a magnificent new centre on the rue Dr. Fanton, opposite the headquarters of the Rencontres. To tell the truth, I've never been through its doors because I've had too many other things to see when I've been in Arles, but maybe I'll visit it in 2017. Full admission is 9€, or 7€ for OAPs and some others, or 4€ for young people and students. 

Gate, Fondation Vincent Van Gogh.


Note: All pictures taken with Leica M9 and 35/1.4Summilux

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016