Robert Frank, “New York City,” 1950. Courtesy of the artist and Collection Fotostiftung Schweiz.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
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Special thanks to Eric B. for encouraging me to pursue this story.
In his introduction to the press kit for the Arles Photography Encounters, presided over by former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine and running through September 23 in the provençal city best known outside France for chasing Vincent Van Gogh out of town, festival director Sam Stourdzé, discussing the mini-festival “America Great Again” which groups together several French and Francophone shutterbugs’ perspectives on the United States, proclaims that, despite the revolts of the 1960s, “In the end, America has not really changed. Indignant yesterday that a foreigner would dare represent it, it continues today to stigmatize the Other.” As every Frenchman who’s ever read Albert Camus knows, fear of the Other is not confined to the shores of the United States, as it is not ubiquitous there or in Europe; on both sides of the Atlantic, for every nativist who would erect barriers, there’s a Josephine Baker or a Marcel Duchamp who would dissolve them. Elsewhere, Stourdzé’s contention that the festival is guided by a desire to “understand” is strained by Patrick Willocq’s “The Bridge Between Peoples,” part of the collaborative “Hope” exhibition, focusing on immigrants and exile. In the elaborately staged tableau, everyone is a hero — the lovable refugees crammed into an inflatable life-raft, the residents of a Southern French village leaning over a cookie-cutter bridge to rescue them, including a buxom siren who could be an Occitan version of “Marianne” — except, of course, a faceless State security officer done up to resemble an ominous Darth Vader. And yet, shouldn’t one of art’s purposes be to challenge ready-made stereotypes *of all genres*, and not just confirm them? (In France, the forces of order are on the frontlines of the defense against terrorism, often its targets, and strained by sustained overtime. That CRS officer is one of the reasons Mr. Willocq is still free to do his work, Mr. Stourdzé to present it, me to write about it and you to read about it.) If this is Mr. Stourdzé’s idea of “Hope,” I’d hate to see what cynicism looks like.
My own aesthetic preconceptions and prejudices made me hesitate about covering the festival after I looked over the samples electronically provided by its press office, the majority of which appeared to be singularly lacking in technical ingenuity and conceptual creativity. Just about all the photos seemed to be generated more by news cycles and serendipity — the photographer being in the right place at the right time, but without Cartier-Bresson’s flair for shooting at the right instant — than any artistic ideas beyond (what seemed at first glance like) clever compositional manipulation.
Robert Frank, “Bus Stop,” Detroit, 1955. Courtesy of the artist and Collection Fotostiftung Schweiz.
But I kept returning to the photos, hoping to find some there there. (I’m pondering moving not to Gertrude Stein’s Oakland but to Henry James’s Arles, so I really want to like its numerous seemingly big-league cultural avatars: besides the festival, a national photography school, a promising — on paper — cultural foundation, a literary translation association, several dynamic galleries which seem to go against the often obscure Parisian curatorial grain, a publisher, Actes-Sud, which specializes in literary translation and also programs an art house cinema, a theater which seems to go beyond the cirque and ‘theatre de geste’- centered “family programming” that dominates most regional spaces in France, and even a bull-fighting scene, famously celebrated by Pablo Picasso and located in a Gallo-Roman amphitheater.)
After, then, letting the images simmer in my consciousness for several weeks, and trying to stretch my usual 120bpm Internet attention span and lend them the more languorous regard of work one might discover in a gallery, book, or museum, I realized that the deficit might be more in the eye of this beholder. Specifically, my tendency to seek out art that comforts my worldview, confirms my already established opinions on and aesthetic standards for art, caters to already existing tastes, engages my intellect without making it work too hard, and/or enables me to show off my connaissances to you. Well, it turns out that a) the subjects and perspectives of these photos cannot be neatly spliced and diced into any of those frameworks, and b) keen as the photogs’ powers of observation may be, they are less about craft than about witnessing. Like the work of Walker Evans (featured in a recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, and whose Depression-era chronicle with James Agee, “Let us Now Praise Famous Men,” is a reference for French photographers and curators), almost all of the photographs I’ve been able to examine are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Paul Graham, “New Orleans,” from the “A shimmer of possibility” series, 2003-2006. Courtesy the Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Carlie, Gebauer, Berlin; Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.
Emblematic of this anthropological ethos is Paul Graham’s “New Orleans,” from the “Shimmer of Possibility” series, undertaken from 2003 to 2006. When I noticed the time period, the subjects (evidently, economically-strapped Black people), and the locale, I anticipated a direct commentary on Katrina and the catastrophic ramifications of the 2005 hurricane and resultant flooding on this population. While the effect may seem on first look more flat — dominated by subdued shades of blue and grey — and less dramatic than, say, a picture of a drowning man, it’s ultimately much more nuanced, profound, and heartbreaking. Here the death is slow, prolonged, deep-seeded — and it didn’t start in 2005. In fact, it may have started in 1968, with Graham’s subjects the descendants of the Black citizens in Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train,” who stood on a field as Bobby Kennedy’s corpse rolled by, bidding “So Long” not just to “Bobby” but to the hopes of secourse his presidential campaign had briefly raised.
Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos, Untitled, from the series “RFK Funeral Train,” 1968. Courtesy the Danziger Gallery.
It’s not unusual for French artists, pundits, and curators to deplore the conditions of American minorities. (If anything, they have a predilection for this topic, often ignoring similar problems in their own backyard.) Where the Arles festival goes beyond the usual predictable castigating is in expanding the conversation to a general one about the scourge of poverty afflicting Americans of all races, as if taking a hint from Martin Luther King’s race-blind Poor People’s Campaign. I’d never heard of the haphazard encampment known as Slab City until seeing Laura Henno’s photographs of (evidently) poor white people camped before broken down buses, or a dirty-faced infant in a cartoon tee-shirt standing rooted in a desolate “terrain vague.” (If Hilary Clinton had seen these photos prior to November 2016, we might have a different president. The lives of poor white people matter too, and we shouldn’t have had to wait for a neo-Nazi to say so to acknowledge this. Whether in Germany in 1938 or America in 2018, racial hatred nourishes itself on economic insecurity.)
Laura Henno, “Revon and Michael,” Slab City (USA), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris.
I knew white (and Hispanic, and Black) people like this in Texas. (In fact, I was one of them. Shout out to the lady who organized the Saturday night hot and take-home food giveaway in the parking lot of the Fiesta Market across from the library in east Fort Worth, asking only in return that I accept her earnest “God bless you.”) What I didn’t know — until discovering Laura Henno’s Redemption series, part of Arles’s “America Great Again” exhibition — was that they also existed in the California desert. In Henno’s portraits of the denizens of Slab City, where the Paris-based photographer lived in a camper for two months, if her subjects seem more blithe than Graham’s, it’s this very, almost serene, acceptance that is disturbing. But that’s my view, informed by my experience; Henno doesn’t judge. She simply documents.
Laura Henno, “Ethan,” Slab City (USA), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris.
Lending historical perspective to Henno and Graham’s documentation — as well to a Raymond Depardon shot from the 1968 presidential campaign in which, fittingly, Nixon’s suit seems too big for him — and suggesting the more cloying influence of Cartier-Bresson, is Robert Frank’s “New York City,” from 1950. In the girl’s engaging smile and the high boots suggesting the mod future which awaits her, the boy carrying a skewed portrait of Washington on his back, and even the scribbling on the wall which, juxtaposed with George, might suggest a child’s rendering of the Constitution, we see Ike’s impending promise of a brighter future secured by the sacrifices of a war sold as a campaign against all racisms. The “story” comes from the contrast of this hope and the disappointment that would follow, as captured by Graham, Fusco, Henno, and even Depardon.
Raymond Depardon, “Sioux City,” Iowa, 1968. Courtesy Raymond Depardon, Magnum Photos.
The hope delivered in Arles, then, is not so much in the series presented under that rubric (examples of which are also featured below), but in the fact that these stories are being told. That — to paraphrase Arthur Miller from “Death of a Salesman” — attention is being paid to these discrete tragedies.
Raymond Depardon, “Manhattan,” New York, 1981. Courtesy Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos.
Along those lines, I’ve highlighted just a few of the stories that emerged for me after the photos gradually developed in my consciousness. I’ll leave the rest — from the mundane to the spectacular to the tragic, but all involving ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances — to you. You can catch these photos and more — without the intermediary of the Internet — in Arles through September 23.
Spectacle or sincere manifestation of la lutte? The scrawled addition “Tout maintenant” (Everything now) also captures the perpetual impatience of youth. Marcelo Brodsky, “Paris, 1968,” from the 1968 series “The Fire of Ideas.” Featured in the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the artist, HFFA NYC & Rolf Art Gallery.
May 6, 1968 demonstration. From the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the Paris Prefecture of Police, Memory and Cultural Affairs Department. Atypical among the archival photographs and posters on the May 1968 student and worker rebellions which have enjoyed a resurgence in this 50th anniversary year, what I appreciate about this photograph is that it humanizes the policemen.
Cadets’ honor guard during a speech by Chechnyan president Ramzan Kadyrov during the World War II Victory Day parade, 2010. Photo credit provided by publicist: Olga Kravetz, Maria Morina, Oksana Yushko. Courtesy of Grozny: Nine Cities.
Cleaning women wash away blood from the stairs of the parliament building in Grozny after four suicide bombers detonated their explosives, killing three innocent bystanders on October 19, 2010. Photo credit provided by publicist: Olga Kravetz, Maria Morina, Oksana Yushko. Courtesy of Grozny: Nine Cities.
Taysir Batniji, from the Gaza: Home Away from Home series, 2017. Courtesy of the artist. Discussing this series — in which the exiled Gaza-born Palestinian photographer focuses on family members living in the United States — recently on French public radio, Batniji reported that one niece, perhaps the young women above, tells other Americans she encounters that she’s Afro-American to avoid having to explain to them what Palestine is.
Taysir Batniji, from the Fathers series, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.
Michael Christopher Brown, “Yo soy Fidel,” from the series “Cuba, 29th November-4th December 2016.” Courtesy of the artist.
Michael Christopher Brown, “Yo soy Fidel,” from the series “Cuba, 29th November-4th December 2016.” Courtesy of the artist.
Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, “Cuba, Finding Home.” From the exhibition Hope, a collaborative perspective. Courtesy of the artist.
Matthias Olmeta, from the Peace Treaty series. From the exhibition Hope, a collaborative perspective. Courtesy of the artist.
Nicolas Havette, “Fortunes,” Arles. From the exhibition Hope, a collaborative perspective. Courtesy of the artist.
(The words read: “The gap between me and my memories of Syria becomes bigger. I’m afraid of the blank.”) Omar Imam, Untitled [I’m Afraid of the Blank], 2015. From the exhibition Hope, a collaborative perspective. Courtesy of the artist.
I have met the other, and he is me: Prune Nourry, “Men Without Women, Holy Daughter,” New Delhi, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Chin-Pao Chen, from the Mirror, Dengkong Project series. From the exhibition Hope, a collaborative perspective. Courtesy of the artist.