I came to Arles  this July for the opening of Les Rencontres de la Photographie, one of the world’s most prestigious photography festivals. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the festival. Founded in 1970 by three renowned French photographers, Lucien Clergue, Michel Tournier and Jean-Maurice Roquette, the festival places the city of Arles at its center, utilising its unique architecture as the setting for the comprehensive experience of fine art photography. The first festival featured a manifesto exhibition: La Photographie est un art [Photography Is an Art], and, over the years it has continued to host the world’s most distinguished photographers. Ansel Adams, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier- Bresson, and countless others have exhibited at les Rencontres and, as a result, Arles has become the world capital of fine art photography.
Fifty years later, the festival remains the place where photographers come to launch their careers and where gallerists, collectors and lovers of photography converge every July, filling the exhibition spaces, the cafés and restaurants, the hotels and streets with conversations about art and enthusiastic receptions for the artists.
In parallel to Les Rencontres, the VOIES OFF festival offers photography exhibitions by “emerging” photographers in over 100 spaces throughout the city. It also screens movies outdoors at night and hosts after-hours electronic dance parties until dawn.
Both Les Rencontres and VOIES OFF publish catalogues and maps listing each exhibition with an accompanying photo, an artist’s statement and the date of the vernissage (the exhibit opening is a fun wine and cheese party). This year’s catalogue illustrated the current trends in photography. There were many “socially relevant” photojournalistic exhibits, lots of black and white photographs, quite a bit of surrealism, and a smattering of abstract work.
The two festivals take over the entire city in July. Every gallery, every bookstore, every museum, most restaurants, shops and hotels, and even the Roman amphitheatre display photography exhibitions. Gallerists, photographers, and collectors are everywhere, all wearing some variation of chic linen outfits. They form a uniquely stylish crowd. The cafés are full, the screenings and vernissages are packed, music from the dances echoes late into to the night. Everywhere and in every language, people are discussing photography. (I loved it!)
The city itself is amazing: Roman ruins; a completely pedestrian inner core of narrow, medieval streets; outdoor cafés in every square. I stayed at the Hotel Nord Pinus, a favourite of Picasso  for its classic art deco bar. The Nord Pinus is located right in the center of town in the square that was once the Roman Forum. It has a Roman column built into a corner of its exterior wall and Roman relics throughout its corridors. Just next door is the Café de la Nuit, Van Gogh ‘s favourite hangout, and the subject of one of his most famous Arles paintings. It hasn’t changed a bit in since Van Gogh’s time and it is still possible to eat at his table– which I did several times.
There is photography everywhere you look. The old stone and stucco walls on each street are plastered with posters for photo exhibits.
Art galleries are open from morning through dark and admission is free. You do need to pay to enter L’Espace Van Gogh, a stunning museum which hosted the Helen Levitt exhibit, but it was well worth the 10 euros fee.
As part of the VOIES OFF festival, I had a solo exhibit of photographs from July 8-14 in a gallery around the corner from L’Espace Van Gogh.
The city was sweltering but, even with temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day, visitors arrived at my solo exhibition daily. Most were French but I met Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Norwegian and British as well. Many were photographers themselves — the entire Nîmes  Photo Club came in one afternoon — and both photographers and non-photographers were very knowledgeable about art. Conversing in French was a challenge but I got a pretty good sense of what people thought. Their reactions to my work were sophisticated and positive, noting the clean lines, the use of light, and the freedom that abstraction offers to make own’s own meaning. During the week, my visitors’ book filled with wonderful comments in a variety of languages.
Most fun of all was visiting the other galleries. There are over 125 photo shows in the VOIES OFF catalogue plus several larger Rencontres exhibits. I spent many hours in the galleries, chatting with photographers and enjoying the wide variety of approaches to the medium.
For both photography connoisseurs and those new to the art, I could not recommend a better way to experience Arles.
For more information visit www.rencontres-arles.com