photo exhibition arlesThe Rencontres d'Arles is one of the biggest and most important photography festivals in the world. Now in its 48th year, it runs throughout the summer from 3 July-24 September 2017.

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The festival takes over the whole of Arles: in 2017 there are 25 official venues and over 40 exhibitions. Click here to read our review of some of the highlights and must-sees.

And there are over 100 more shows in the fringe festival, Voies Off. The whole thing has gone from strength to strength and in 2016 welcomed a record 104,000 visitors.

At the same time, the compact nature of Arles and its intimate scale mean that the Rencontres have remained easy and enjoyable to navigate.

Pictured below: bikes are a favourite way of getting around, if the number of them parked outside the festival HQ is anything to go by.

"Rencontres" means "meetings". And the social aspect - the debates, the workshops (for both children and adults), the discussions, the guided tours and of, course, the parties - is almost as important as the shows.

rencontres darles bicyclesThe opening week is always the busiest, with many special events that attract critics and industry professionals. Its packed programme includes evening awards ceremonies and projections, at the Roman Théâtre Antique and other venues around town.

The Nuit de l'année (Night of the Year) is a huge free spectacle at which artists' work is projected in a loop on multiple screens accompanied by DJ sets. But don’t worry if you can't make the beginning of the festival: most shows continue for several months.

engine sheds luma arlesOne of the pleasures of the Rencontres is the sheer variety of venues it uses, from disused freight sheds and factories, empty shops and houses to some of Arles' loveliest churches, cloisters and palaces. Some of these places are only open to the public during the festival.

Pictured, the big former train workshops and depot on the edge of town was formerly a major exhibition zone.

It has been acquired by the LUMA Foundation which is turning it into a cultural centre of its own (causing a bitter dispute with the Rencontres in the process). However so far parts of it continue to host shows in the festival.

All these spaces sell specialist photography books (and the artists are around to sign them in the opening week).

And dozens of publishers are in town too for another satellite event, Cosmos-Arles Books. Alternatively, you can visit the excellent Actes Sud publisher-bookshop.

The Rencontres d'Arles was founded in 1970 by the legendary Arles-born and -based photographer Lucien Clergue, the writer Michel Tournier and the historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette.

Clergue was also instrumental in founding Arles' École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in 1982. It's the only college in France exclusively devoted to photography.

Since 2015 the Director of the Rencontres d'Arles has been Sam Stourdzé, previously at the Musée de l’Elysée photography museum in Lausanne.

Today the Rencontres form part of a prestigious quartet of midsummer arts festivals in Provence alongside the Festival d'Aix en Provence and the Chorégies d'Orange (opera and classical music) and the Festival d'Avignon (theatre).

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Where: The Rencontres d'Arles takes place all over town (and the surrounding region). The main festival office is at 34 rue du Docteur Fanton. Website for the Rencontres d'Arles

Tickets are also on sale at an office on the place de la République as well as at certain venues: Ground Control (just on the right as you exit the train station), the Espace van Gogh, the Église Sainte Anne and the Grande Halle at the LUMA Arles Foundation.

You can choose between a forfait (festival pass), a day pass or a ticket for each individual show. The passes are quite pricey but definitely worth it if you plan to see more than four or five exhibitions. Concentrating on the centre of Arles, we were easily able to take in around a dozen shows in one day (some are quite small).

The passes become a little cheaper in September, though some of the exhibitions will have already closed by then. You can also make a small saving by buying them in advance online.

Bear in mind, too, that if you are combining the festival with a conventional tourist trip to Arles, you get "added value" from access to certain venues. For example, there is normally an admission charge for the beautiful Cloître Saint Trophime. But your festival pass will get you in free.

Insider tip for the Arles photography festivalIn Arles on a really tight budget? You can see many shows for free in the parallel, Voies Off fringe festival, which also runs roughly concurrently throughout the summer.

It offers over a hundred exhibitions, some of them very good, in small galleries and all sorts of improbable, mostly pop-up spaces.

rencontres darles masahisa fukaseAs with the main Rencontres festival, there are many extra events (workshops, music, apéritifs, dinners, etc.) in the opening week. The Voies Off office is at 26 ter rue Raspail.

You can pick up a good, clear annotated map at the main festival HQ, the Arles Tourist Office and other venues or view it online for the Rencontres, showing what's on where, and carefully plan your itinerary. Voies Off has its own booklet and map too.

Alternatively, you can take a more leisurely approach and just wander around the town centre keeping an eye out for something interesting. Shows in the main festival are brightly signposted (pictured: Masamisa Fukase at the Palais de l'Archevêché in 2017). The fringe ones publicise themselves energetically with posters and flyers everywhere.

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The Rencontres festival truly lives up to its claim to be international. Unlike all too many French exhibitions and galleries, much of the information and signage here is in (properly translated) English as well as French.

And wheelchair ramps have been installed where possible in the historic buildings.

Accommodation is at an absolute premium during the festival, especially if you are planning to be in Arles for the opening week or on or around Bastille Day (14 July), which is a national holiday in France.

Hotel prices can rise by up to a third during July and become even more expensive than Paris. Be sure to book a room well in advance. AirBnB is always an option, of course: click here to get a 35 €uro discount on your first booking.

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE RECONTRES D'ARLES IN 2017

Two shows really stood out for us in 2017. The first was a large exhibition devoted to the German photographer Michael Wolf, now based in Hong Kong and busy chronicling its cramped living conditions and frenetic lifestyle.

Suspended in the beautiful vaulted space of the Église de Frères Prêcheurs, his shallow-focus images of high density apartment blocks, pictured below, hover like colourful abstract tapestries.

michael wolf arles 2017One area of the show photographs people inside tiny one room apartments less than a metre / 10 foot square: rather brilliantly, this section is partitioned off in a space the same size.

Another display reveals Wolf's student project, haunting black and white images of a run-down town in German's industrial region.

The star exhibit, set where the church's altar used to be, is a huge, curved panel of 20,000 cheap plastic toys, set with portraits of the Chinese factory workers who produce them: a surreal and stinging comment on globalisation and junk culture. Until 27 August.

The other exhibition of substance is devoted to the Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase. It's weird, very intense but utterly absorbing.

Fukase came from a family of photographers - high-street photographers. But instead of entering the family business he struck out on his own. The result were, well, different.

Fukase obsessively photographed his wife again and again, often in the nude and in public. When she suddenly left him shortly after giving birth to their child, he began drinking heavily and applied the same single-mindedness to photographing ravens as well as his cat. (Needless to say there are no cute kitty pictures here.)

Highly retouched, Fukase's emotional and experimental images are way ahead of their time. His 1986 book The Solitude of Ravens was voted the best photobook of recent years by a panel of leading photographers. At the Palais de l'Archevêché until 24 September.

niels ackermann looking for leninFor a spot of light relief, head over to the Cloître Saint Trophime for Looking for Lenin. Niels Ackermann and Sébastien Gobert toured Ukraine in search of statues of the Great Leader.

Once there were hundreds of Lenins everywhere, but now they have all, without exception, disappeared.

But Ackermann and Gobert tracked some of them down, all in various states of decay, in rubbish tips, overgrown fields and store rooms surrounded by junk.

Some statues, such as this one in Korzhi, had been cheekily redecorated with kitsch new jackets. One has been redesigned as Darth Vadar (with new head and helmet). Tart comments from locals, from babushkas (grannies) to minor officials, complete the picture. Until 24 September.

Also of interest: Iran, année 38, a major exhibition of 62 Iranian artists who have chronicled the changes in their country in the 38 years since its Islamic revolution in 1979. At the Église Sainte Anne until 27 August.

The other regional focus this year is Latin America, especial Colombia: a big, to our mind rather rambling, retrospective at the Espace van Gogh explores the continent's "conflicted identity". Until 24 September.

The distinguished American street and landscape photographer Joel Meyerowitz was a pioneer in colour photography in the 1960s – a time when only black-and-white was taken seriously as "art".

His retrospective at the Salle Henri Comte was on the small side and it only takes in his early career. The glowing images leave you longing for more. Until 27 August.

audrey tautou superfacialWe had no time to catch two keenly anticipated shows, as they were both slightly out of the city centre.

Pictured, the French actress Audrey Tautou shot to stardom in the whimsical 2001 comedy Amélie, but she has another string to her bow: since a teenager she has been a keen photographer.

She explores her own celebrity status in a series of self-portraits with a sceptical eye, in the wittily entitled Superfacial, her first solo show. At the Abbaye de Montmajour just outside the city centre.

At the same venue: landscapes and still lifes by the late Kate Barry, Jane Birkin's daughter. Both exhibitions run until 24 September.

Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer whose iconic portraits for Rolling Stone magazine defined the 1970s, has a show of some 8000 images from her early career at LUMA Arles.

On display are photos shot between 1968 and 1983, of rock legends such as John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, as well of the 1972 Presidential campaign and the launch of Apollo 27.

The Foundation LUMA has acquired Leibovitz's entire archives and this first exhibition is part of a longer-term project to showcase her whole career. Until 24 September.

Finally the excellent Musée Réattu (which has a substantial photography collection of its own) is hosting a retrospective of some of the best work from earlier editions of the Rencontres d'Arles. Until 7 January 2018.

 

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