The way the Prix Découverte at Arles is set up is that a group of photography worthies are invited to select less-known artists for a solo exhibition promoted and visited within the context of the festival. The potential boost to the careers of those chosen is obvious. This year, in keeping with the theme of the Rencontres, centred around photographic education and one school in particular, the worthies were all distinguished teachers. It was disappointing that so many of their selections were of their own pupils or former pupils: it looked sleazy even when it wasn’t.
Nevertheless, five selectors managed to choose fifteen artists for exhibition. The sponsorship of the LUMA Foundation made sure that they were each given a full-scale show. Management of British photography festival the Brighton Biennial, which has in the past been satisfied with digital files all printed in Brighton and the resulting unframed cheap digital prints pinned directly to the walls, should mark and learn what full-scale sponsorship allows. I won’t list all the good exhibitions within the Découverte framework this year; I found no more than four or five out of fifteen to be unremarkable, and the standard among those that remain to be closer to excellent than merely interesting.
The searing journalistic report called Intended Consequences, by Jonathan Torgovnik, on the use of rape as an instrument of policy in Rwanda, will be a big experience for everyone who sees it. The plain gentle humanity of the portraits of the victim women and the children of the violence done to them contrasts most horribly with the accounts they struggled to give to Torgovnik’s recorder. An odd thing about this series is that a particular blue, mainly on various T-shirts depicted, resonates much more strongly than other colours. It’s Murillo’s blue, the colour he gave most often to saints.
At least two artists were familiar to me from my involvement with the Pictet Prize, which continues to act as a locomotive, pulling the interest of photographers and editors and curators and eventually viewers and policy-makers towards questions of the environment and of sustainable development. Landscape itself, once all-but abandoned as a manner of photographic activity to camera clubs and other disparaged arrière-garde groups, is making a fast and important come-back. Not all of that is down to the Prix Pictet. Not even most of it. One thinks of the long term interests of artists such as Elger Esser, long before the Prize existed, to see that the Pictet Prize cannot claim to have initiated the turn. But all the same, landscape, and pictures that treat generally of the way man interacts with the environment are much more prevalent now than they were ten or twelve years ago, and the Prix Pictet takes a modest part in that shift. Sammy Baloji’s report on the Kowelzi mines took a deserved share of the attention among the other Découvertes.
Chu Ha Chung’s series A Pleasant Day did, too, a brilliant account of Koreans going about their daily lives, often on vacation, with nuclear reactors always in the background. The photographer uses the phrase ‘blinded fear’ to describe the permanent knot in the stomach Koreans have from living on the nuclear edge. His photographs have all the force of a political campaign, without any of the blinkeredness. Korean economic growth needed power. Korean leaders chose nuclear, and Koreans have benefited from that – until it all goes wrong. But see people bathing in a visibly steaming sea, and those recognizable shapes of generators in the distance take on a menacing quality of foreboding. We have all seen pictures of Chernobyl and of Fukushima. We all see palimpsests of those beneath every new picture of a nuclear reactor.
Another very strong landscape series was Osamu James Nakagawa’s on the cliffs and caves of Okinawa, at the very southernmost end of the Japanese chain of islands, where thousands of civilians died in 1945. Several photographers lately have taken to examining for remaining signs of trauma land which had been the site of violence in years gone by. One could think of Jo Ratcliffe’s work on Angola in particular, Jonathan Olley’s on the unexploded ordnance that still litters the area around Verdun, Paola de Pietri’s remarkable exploration of the trenches high in the Alps between Italy and Austria…. And it is not always warfare that has left the scars: Deborah Luster’s Tooth for an Eye started out as a mapping of the places where homicides had happened in New Orleans. It ends up as much more, a moving photographic bestiary of the ghosts of evil, heir of such photographic oddities as Wisconsin Death Trip and one of the very few successful modern uses of photographs made in circular form. All of this begins to appear something of a trending fashion, but it has always been the privilege of photography to seek out auras of the past where the naked eye can perhaps not see them. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that almost every picture Fay Godwin ever made (apart from the portraits) was an examination of places which had at some time been more important to people than they were when she got there. Into this good company stepped Osamu James Nakagawa at Arles, with his series which makes it impossible not to feel the evil which once poisoned places of grandeur and beauty.
This is already a lot of good stuff for one large former railway repair shed.
I very much like Nadège Mériau’s beautifully made close-ups of plain foods lit so that they are only just readable as food. She can make the doughy inside of a loaf of bread into a night sky or an underground cavern or a flow of lava. This is a big contrast to the work of those examining land for traces of what went before. Mériau does the other thing photography has always been able to do, to look at something which meant nothing at all, and invite us to give it meaning.
It is arguable that this one collection of fifteen individual exhibitions is reason enough to plan and make a journey to Arles this summer. Average quality, very high. Not all artists unknown, by any means, but all fully deserving of precisely the wider circulation that this exposure will get them. Among them, one in particular had me thinking.
Eva Stenram is an artist in her mid-thirties who was born in Sweden and has made her career in England. She studied at the Slade and at the Royal College of Art in London. She has a substantial back-catalogue of interesting work behind her, and an honourable number of pieces in distinguished collections, but she is hardly running a stellar career yet. She seems to survive by taking a succession of teaching posts in the UK, which is the modern equivalent of living on public grants, as artists used to be able to do.
Her latest series is at Arles. It’s called Drape, and it is pleasingly straightforward in conception, like so many good ideas. Stenram went looking for a particular kind of imagery, oldish pin-up photographs (I suppose that most are from the 1960s, but it doesn’t much matter) which had been made in domestic interiors, or — if offering a slightly more adventurous fantasy to their original buyers — in offices. The important thing was that they should be made in rooms which included curtains. But of course many of them did: if you were going to make pornographic or even mildly erotic pictures, you’d very likely make them with the curtains drawn. All Stenram then did was to extend the curtains. She did it digitally, of course, and she made no pretence of doing so with the digital retoucher’s customary discretion. She quite simply drew the curtains away from the backgrounds, to wrap and clothe the models.
It is simple. But it is also very effective. In the first place, the pictures are funny. Far too many artists think that wit undermines their stuff. It doesn’t. To have taken suggestive, titillating nudity and wrapped it up and made it ‘decent’ is charming. “Oh, do put it away, love.”
It’s also gently feminist, as if it were an attempt many years later to undo the presumed exploitation of the models. Yet, at the same time, we can see that these pictures replace one kind of teasing by another: we can’t quite see, we want to peer. We want, in effect, to peek under the newly enlarged curtains a bit.
Formally, there is something quite intriguing in the transplanting of the curtains from background to foreground. It is unsettling, it gives some of the pictures a lurch in perspective which is quite unexpected; and yet it is also entirely in keeping with the lurch of expectation from ‘salvaged pin-up’ to ‘sociological enquiry’.
The treatment is not entirely new. John Stezaker, continuing his late assault on the summits of high visiblity, is currently among the four nominees for the Deutsche Börse Prize. Some of what Stenram is doing is derived from things that Stezaker has been doing for years: re-using older photographs, manipulating them in highly visible ways and by doing so asking questions about what they originally meant and how that has changed through time. Stenram’s erotic photographs are altered and made into new things; but they are also old things salvaged. They’re still an archive. I like them. They are small pleasant intelligent pieces full of sensible reminders that photography represents a big broad culture which easily encompasses everything from grubbiness to wit.