Arles 2015 / The Brit Awards: Love, life and death at the 2015 Rencontres d’Arles
The UK’s contributions to this summer’s Rencontres d’Arles are all about ‘the big stuff’, and between them they inadvertently create a grand narrative of love, life and death.
First, love: a girl walks into a pub; she sees a boy; both are instantly lovestruck. This is how Natasha Caruana met the man she married. Perhaps in an attempt to understand what happened to her, Caruana has created an exhibition involving others with similar stories. Made in Paris during an artist’s residency, Love at First Sight plays visually with the notion of coup de foudre (lightning strike, the metaphor the French use for the phenomenon). The heart of the show is a series of portraits of individuals and couples – including Caruana herself – lit as if struck by the benign light of love. The tone of the exhibition is playful and enjoyable (particularly a section of pseudo-scientific experiments), and the overall effect is gentle yet though provoking.
As with Caruana, love often leads to marriage. In 2010, Hackney-focused artist Stephen Gill bought 9,000 negatives by an unknown 1950s East End photographer. Mainly consisting of wedding photographs, Gill was disappointed with his acquisition until he homed in on the pictures where the bride and groom kiss. Such is the magic in these particular images that Gill has made a book of them, which is shortlisted for the Arles Photobook Award. Fascinating and charming, Hackney Kisses is a warm, romantic Cockney counterpoint to the contemporaneous industrial typologies made by Bernd and Hilla Becher just before they themselves were married, and whose far-reaching influence rendered much subsequent British portraiture cold and unfeeling.
From love to life, as recorded by British photo-colossus Martin Parr. MMM is a career retrospective of sorts, with several themed sets of Parr pictures each accompanied by a single-instrument soundtrack by French musician Mathieu Chedid (‘M’). M is a superstar among francophone audiophiles, and Parr is just as well known to French photography fans (he is practically a fixture at the Rencontres), so this show in a grand church right in the middle of town really is a (sound)clash of the titans.
Taken as a whole, this pick-and-mix exhibition reminds us what a truly fabulous photographer Parr is. Rapacious chronicler of the quotidian, it is as if he doesn’t really understand humans and is trying to make sense of it all. Often, the soundtrack is too slight and the images too strong, but occasionally they work perfectly together, as when M’s Piano drifts gently across a line of early-Parr black-and-white pictures laid out like a photographic keyboard. Here, Parr seems physically more distant from his subjects than in his later colour work, but somehow closer to them emotionally. Warmer and less anthropological, these older pictures are just as satisfying as the often funny and occasionally brilliant saturated colour shots which have now become Parr’s trademark. These larger-than-life colour images reach their apogee in a stand-alone giant print of a pair of white stilettos discarded amidst the high spirits of a party. But even M’s Synthesizer – still the most modern and futuristic of instruments – cannot hide that in life, all is subject to decay, as Parr’s accompanying photographs of the worn and the torn remind us.
And decay inevitably leads to death. Lisa Barnard’s exhibition Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, nominated for the Discovery Award by UK curator Louise Clements, comments on modern warfare. While anchored in photography, the show also includes all manner of other media, from a jar containing the faux smell of discharged weapons to a training video which looks like a prototype for the game Call of Duty. Presented in an appropriately objective style, the show exposes the anaesthetic mundanity of all that supports the military apparatus. Cold, detached and remote, it provides an insight into how people whose work directly supports the physical business of killing may feel far removed from any notion of violence.
Also nominated for the Arles Book Award, Amore e Piombo (Love and Lead) from the UK’s Archive of Modern Conflict is a set of black-and-white press images from 1970s Italy put together by Roger Hargreaves and Federica Chiocchetti. Little love is evident, but life certainly is, mainly at the extremes of celebrity, politics and protest. The pace is frenetic, and the book culminates in a series of photographs of violent death: a man fires a gun through a windscreen; the dead and the injured lie on the ground and hang out of cars after bombings. What’s going on, and who’s behind it all? As so often in life, there are hints but no answers.
Another Book Award nominee – Paddy Summerfield’s Mother and Father, published by Dewi Lewis – is a poignant meditation on love, life and loss. Deceptively humdrum black-and-white photographs narrate the mental and physical demise of Summerfield’s mother and the subsequent loss of his father over a 10-year period. A bit like Chedid and Parr’s Piano sequence, the images are shot from a distance, yet somehow contain remarkable warmth. We don’t even get a proper view of the protagonists’ faces, which not only whispers of Summerfield’s respect for his subjects, but also heightens the story’s everyman and everywoman quality. Impeccably photographed and sequenced with subtle visual correspondences, this may well be one of the finest photobooks ever published.
Carrie and Lowell, American musician Sufjan Stevens’ recent suite of songs centred on the loss of his mother, has much in common with Mother and Father. It is not just the shared subject matter, and that both are superficially slight and understated. Even the allegories and motifs used by Summerfield, such as birds and trees in the garden, have many parallels in Stevens’ imagery:
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you,
And I long to be near you,
But every road leads to an end.
Yes every road leads to an end.
Your apparition passes through me in the willows,
Five red hens – you’ll never see us again,
You’ll never see us again.
(From Death with Dignity by Sufjan Stevens)
At the end of 2015, Carrie and Lowell will almost certainly be many a music critic’s album of the year, and millions of people will have been touched by it. It’s a crying shame that something equally beautiful and important will find only a comparatively tiny audience, just because it is a humble book of photographs.
– text by Simon Bowcock
The Rencontres d’Arles continues until 20th September 2015, with various exhibition end dates. See rencontres-arles.com for details.