photo exhibition arlesThe Rencontres d'Arles is one of the biggest and most important photography festivals in the world. In 2018 it celebrates its 49th year and runs from 2 July-23 September.

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The festival takes over the whole of Arles: in 2018 there are 25 official venues and 35 exhibitions, and over 100 more shows in the fringe festival, Voies Off.

The whole thing has gone from strength to strength and welcomed a record 125000 visitors last year, up 20 per cent on 2016 and a massive 40 per cent on 2014.

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).

THE RENCONTRES D'ARLES IN 2018

arles poster 2018This year's droll poster, pictured, is designed by the US photographer, William Wegman, and features one of his trademark Weimaraner dogs. Wegmen is being honoured with his own retrospective. (And, no, we haven't posted the image upside-down.)

To mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary students' and workers' demonstrations in Paris in May 1968, exhibitions delve into police archives and those of the photo-journal Paris Match.

Events outside France during this watershed year are spotlighted too, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the founding of the Utopian Auroville community in India.

The Rencontres d'Arles are also travelling a further decade back in time to 1958, when the legendary Robert Frank transformed post-war photography with his book The Americans.

Other exhibitions trace the US as seen through the lenses of the equally influential French photographer Raymond Depardon and Britain's Paul Graham. This strand is called America Great Again, surely without a trace of irony.

The festival continues to add new venues in its mission to make its photography extravaganza take over the entire town. One fun new spot in 2018 is on the other side of the river in Trinquetaille, where a specially constructed modernist bamboo temple houses a show by the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, with sessions of music and meditation.

At the Abbaye de Montmajour, just outside Arles, an exhibition compares and contrasts Pablo Picasso and Jean-Luc Godard and this year the festival is even spilling over as far afield as Nîmes and Marseille.

Click here to read our review of the Rencontres d'Arles in 2017.

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 and the Église Sainte Anne.

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 of them are admittedly 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 25 €uro discount on your first booking.

 

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