Images of humanity: creative ideas from Arles

The annual photography festival in Arles, in the south of France, can be a valuable source of creative inspiration, as Mark Tungate discovers.

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

Here’s the challenge I set myself: if I was visiting the annual photography festival in  Arles (it’s called Les Rencontres, or “The Encounters”) in search of creative inspiration, what insights might I take home with me?

In fact I found one overarching theme, which I might call “The Persistence of Humanity”. This first occurred to me when I saw the photographs of Michael Wolf, mostly shot in China.

Wolf shows us clusters of towering apartment blocks that seem devoid of any humanity at all; huddled so closely together that they form sharp vertical stripes. But look harder and you’ll see signs of life: a blurred figure at a window; a tiny scrap of garden; a great deal of drying laundry.

Michael Wolf: Architecture of Density. 

Next, Wolf takes us inside the blocks to show us how residents have projected their individual personalities into their tiny abodes, with pictures, mementoes, objects and ephemera of all kinds. Everyone is different, he seems to be saying, and even the most dehumanising systems can’t rob us of our essential character.

This idea surfaced again in an exhibition by Gidéon Mendel called “Drowning World”. It depicts victims of catastrophic floods and their responses to disaster. The accompanying video, particularly, captures their will to survive, as they continue to live, eat and even work amid the lapping waters. The film will haunt you more than any Hollywood science fiction movie. That’s because it does not depict a future dystopia: this is happening now. 

Gidéon Mendel: Jeff and Tracey Waters, Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, UK, February 2014.  

From the present it’s worth returning to the past, and the street photography of Joel Meyerowitz. Like Michael Wolf, his subject is the city, and his restless eye alights on dreamers, romantics and unsuspecting surrealists in urban streets or gaudy coastal towns.

Joel Meyerowitz: Camel Coat Couple in Street Steam, New York City, 1975.  

He has a certain spiritual kinship with Karlheinz Weinburger, who in the 1950s began photographing a group of “Swiss Rebels” called the Halbstarke in Zurich. “Outcasts who were fascinated by James Dean and Elvis Presley”, their backcombed hairstyles, home-made accessories and swashbuckling way with denim might have an electrifying effect on anyone working on a youth brand.

© Karlheinz Weinberger, 1962. 

Finally, although it’s not part of the main festival, by all means take the time to tour Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years, at the Luma Foundation. Featuring a huge selection of her work for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1960s and 70s, it’s practically a field guide to the leading pop cultural icons of that period.

© Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz The early years: 1970 - 1983. Archive Project #1 

The accompanying text points out that the 1970s were known as “The Me Decade”. The expanding presence of media, daily news of a brutal war (in Vietnam), Watergate-fuelled paranoia and the effects over-consumption drove people to seek enlightenment and self-fulfilment from various gurus, charalatans and drugs. The phrase was coined by the journalist Tom Wolfe – the subject of one of Leibowitz’s photographs – who wrote in 1973: The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality – remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it.”

The pioneers, in other words of self-branding. And now they’re back, ironically in photography form, as the Selfie Generation.

By Mark Tungate, editorial director