Arles: Capital of Photography

Annual photography festival the Rencontres d’Arles was founded in 1970 by Arlesian photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier, and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette. At the time, photography was still regarded as a “minor” art and had not come of age. The festival in Arles played an important role in enabling it to gain recognition from institutions. Starting out as a series of encounters between photography enthusiasts, over the years the event gained importance and much popularity, with soaring success in the early 2000s due to a growing public interest in photography. 

For over 50 years, photography’s biggest names have participated in the Rencontres d’Arles, a veritable breeding ground for new talent. Forecasting changes in the medium of photography and the evolution of technologies, offering the experience of the image to all: these are the festival’s ambitions. Its program is made rich through a diversity of perspectives, with photographers and curators hailing from different backgrounds. Occasionally an artist is offered a whole section of the program, as was the case with Martin Parr, Raymond Depardon, Nan Goldin and Arles’ own fashion designer Christian Lacroix. At other times, breaking down the divides, photography is made to resonate with cinema, music or architecture. Year after year, the festival tries to interpret a changing world through the eyes of photographers, unquestionably the best at telling its story.  

From the start of July to the end of September, the public is invited to explore around forty exhibitions. Often produced in collaboration with French and international museums and institutions, the exhibitions are shown at different sites throughout the city: heritage sites such as 12th century chapels and cloisters, 19th century industrial buildings, and modern and surprising sites (such as the Monoprix and its façade, classed as 20th century heritage). During opening week at the beginning of July, the whole of Arles, sporting its soft Southern light and incomparable heritage, vibrates with photography. In addition to exhibitions, evenings are enlivened by projections, concerts, and other performances at the city’s Théâtre Antique. The infamous Night of the Year, the festival’s unmissable event, is an occasion to attend debates, book signings, meetings with artists and party all night long under the stars.

The Rencontres d’Arles is at work year-round with an active program on the practice of photography and visual education. Courses run by reputed professionals are offered, allowing participants to fulfill their creative pursuits. As for “Back to School in Images”, it welcomes over 10,000 students, training them in visual literacy. 
In recent years, the festival has also been collaborating regionally with exhibitions for Grand Arles Express (in Aix, Avignon, Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, Marseille, Nîmes, and Saint-Rémy-de -Provence). It also goes global through international initiatives, notably in Xiamen, China, where the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival has been taking place in November since 2015. These initiatives promise an even brighter future to the luminous festival.

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