Arles Photography Festival: A 2021 Comeback & Transformation




One of the first signs of the reawakening of the European cultural scene, after the somber, somnolent year of Covid lockdowns, was the return of Les Rencontres d’Arles in July — a spirited non-commercial festival celebrating the best of the world’s photography in the labyrinthine southern town best known for Van Gogh’s final days and still-active Roman arenas. It felt the same as years past except for being helmed by a new director (Christoph Wiesner), the obligatory masks, and shows that veered a bit more self-consciously toward the causes of racial and gender diversity, and the politics of  environmentalism.

Photographs by Michael Kurcfeld.

But the most compelling shift (and hottest ticket) was the unveiling of the LUMA Foundation’s spectacular new Arles campus, the centerpiece of which is Frank Gehry’s gleaming 5-story edifice that houses galleries, offices, a theater and a “living archive” of photographers. There’s even a double-helix tubular slide descending the height of the entry atrium, which this writer braved. As a nod to the Roman origins of Arles, the tower’s undulating metallic surface is built of volumes equal to the stone bricks used in classical Roman architecture.

The surrounding grounds, including the Parc des Ateliers (once a complex of train sheds) bejeweled by a giant pink, rather intestinal-looking sculpture by Franz West, have been transformed with lush landscaping and a large pond from oppressive desert to inviting Eden. Does it really fit the ancient township? Depends whom one asks. But there’s no denying it will burnish Arles’ growing reputation as the Athens of Provence. Here are five shows that stood out… 

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Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist and founder of Stonehenge Media. He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

 

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