Heavy Duty and Razor Sharp was the summation of the curatorial ethos of this year’s 41st Rencontres d’Arles, personified by the characteristics of the rhinocerous, the festival’s 2010 mascot-cum-logo. It’s a typically tongue-in-cheek manifesto slogan for a festival that commands such respect in le monde photographique and is so confident in its own hide that it doesn’t need to strangle itself in theoretical bondage.

Arles doesn’t even need a guest curator to entice photophiles to the south of France. Toulouse-Lautrec recommended the city to his friend Van Gogh not least for its light and wide open spaces. The heritage sites that play host to many of the exhibitions and screenings are an absolute gift to an exhibition organiser. From the former SNFC railway workshops that form the Parc des Ateliers (‘the sheds’ to we English) to the atmospheric Roman Theatre Antique, setting for the nightly outdoor slideshow extravaganzas, or the flowerful courtyard at Espace Van Gogh, the site of the hospital to which its namesake was admitted after the unfortunate ear incident, each space imbues the work on display with a palpable sense of history in the present.

Courtyard at Espace Van Gogh

The festival’s acme this year was surely the curation by Christian Caujolle of Marin Karmitz’s personal collection of photographs, exhibited at l’Eglise des Freres Precheurs. At the point of experiencing the exhibition (verbs that only denote seeing are incomplete here), I did not know it was curated by Caujolle. As we walked from one space to another, it became increasingly apparent that there was a deep connection between the works that the curator was intent on drawing out. I tried to examine this ‘connection’ in terms of period, or subject, or even mood, but no such definitions were satisfactory. There was no doubt that the work – by the likes of D’Agata, Michael Ackerman, Sugimoto, Anders Petersen, and, remarkably, Chris Marker – was in some way connected to the cinematic (Karmitz is a renowned filmmaker), but it was more than that. The works met in fact on an ethical plane, where distinctions between art and documentary were rendered irrelevant. One example of this genre-dissolving quality could be found in the inclusion of images from Jerusalem by Antoine D’Agata, and the Crush-art body of work by Marker, both presented as grids, each with its own emphasis on how the human face might become inhuman, whether through acts of war or a more abstract process. The exhibition vibrated with many such shared resonances, which were by turns chilling, moving, elegiac, unforgettable. It also gave an insight into a rare collaboration between gallerist/curator and collector, which, in every important way, has not grown from big money, but a big heart.

Jerusalem by Antoine D’Agata

By way of complete contrast, the theme of the first slideshow at this year’s Rencontres was ‘High Society’. It’s hardly unpleasant to gaze at images of Jackie Kennedy lazing in the ocean at St Trop or wherever, or Audrey Hepburn looking inscrutably exquisite, and the predominantly French audience certainly appreciated images of home grown celebrities like Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and a young Francois Mitterand. However, we had chosen to avoid the Mick Jagger exhibition on the grounds that it has little to do with photography and everything to do with iconography, oh, and because rocktrospectives are just not very interesting. It’s surely the music that has the capacity to transport back to a time and a place, not two dimensional images. And indeed this particular slideshow succeeded really only because of the music. A laid-back jazz soundtrack offered an insouciant accompaniment to the hall of fame, and in this way the image selection served its role as elegant – it being French and all – eye candy. But even if the photographs were aesthetically pleasing, do they differ in any meaningful way from Tatler’s society pictures or the cover of Hello? I think that the intense desire to look begins with beauty, which in turn begets fame, which at some point probably begets money, and somewhere along the way, it is all three which become fetishised in the image. I find it uncomfortable to look at pictures of the privileged for too long, but then, were I writing about the Perpignan photo festival, Arles’ edgier, more macho second cousin once removed, I’d likely be complaining about fetishising the beauty of poverty. We are all contradictory if not downright hypocritical in justifying where we direct our gaze.

I felt certain that the vociferous whistling that accompanied a (slightly bizarre) special slideshow of the photogenic and feline Carla Bruni and Sarkozy was of the wolfish building-site variety, but I was assured by a bilingual photographer that they were showing their dissent towards their vertically challenged president. Funny how different perceptions can be of a noise that sounds the same in both languages. Either way, I remain mystified as to the inclusion of these images, which closed the evening’s proceedings and left the audience with a blank screen and the Mistral for company.

We were lucky enough to experience the very interesting work from Iran by Paolo Woods twice, both at the exhibition and on the big screen (at the slideshow). His bold, theatrical images possess a visual clarity that makes his work memorable in its field. The prints were exhibited alongside an installation of images Woods has collected from Iranians, taken on amateur cameras and mobile phones, of recent political upheavals in Iran, which play out to his own voiceover narration. Together, these two approaches to documenting an important socio-political moment in the country’s history – oppression and the partial overcoming of that oppression – offered something of the complexity of the situation to the viewer. The homogeneity the western viewer can often witness in photographs of Iran is notably absent in this work; meanwhile, the use of photography as a tool of protest and even revolution is noted for posterity.

Another curatorial success was the range of work on show from Argentina. After being seduced by the extravagant and vivid tableaux of Marcos Lopez, in which the artist draws on myth and legend to create a bloody history for his beloved country, the viewer can explore the subtleties of Gabriel Valanasi’s exploration of Cold War archival material. It is the final second before the inevitable explosion that interests him, of which he says ‘I reuse the old notion that before everything comes to and end, an ultimate image remains on the retina.’

Marcos Lopez exhibition

Elsewhere, for photography fetishists, the darkroom studies by Michel Campeau cover all bases of everybody’s favourite subject: its genesis, its history, its artistry, its science; its unstable future… The Genie of the Laboratorium is surely photography’s immaculate conception as well its primal scene.

More photographers’ photography appears courtesy of the clever Erik Kessels. Somehow he hit the bullseye in acquiring the unique archive of Ria van Dijk, who has a photograph of herself generated from hitting the target at a funfair shooting gallery from every year of her life since 1936 (with a few year’s break during the war). We see this woman age down the barrel of a gun. It made me want to squeal with delight.

Shoot! Existential Photography – exhibition by Clement Cheroux and Erik Kessels

And in that squeal factor resides the beauty of Arles. It’s a delight; a visual, intellectual, cultural feast. Sure, among the many thousands of images that passed over my retina in our three-day trip, there was work that failed to move or engage me. But what remained a constant joy was the absence of pomposity, embodied, funnily enough, in the festival logo. Indeed, the very sight of a pink rhino all over town became a cause for celebration. However disparate the work on display, the overall ethos of the festival is hallmarked by a formidable seriousness of purpose, shot through with a kind of antic humour, as sudden and surprising as the Mistral itself.

Words and interviews: Max Houghton