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Arles Photo Festival: Inspired by Black and White

by Meredith Mullins on July 11, 2013

Black and White installation by Daido Moriyama, including a fishnet frame and enlarged contact sheets, offering creative inspiration for black and white photographers

Labyrinth + Monochrome
Installation at Rencontres d’Arles by Daido Moriyama

Creative Inspiration—It’s Back in Black (and White)

Black-and-white photography is alive and well . . . and living in Arles this summer.*

The annual photo festival, Rencontres d’Arles (Conference in Arles), proclaims loudly and clearly in this year’s program that black-and-white photography is not dead.

But, how does B&W live in this world of creative inspiration? As nostalgia, poetry, humanism, a graceful simplification of form and light, abstraction, raw power, sentimentality, or timeless truth.

Man taunting lion with foreground young man, creative inspiration in a black and white photograph by Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Le Caire
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt 1993/Agence VU

The Rencontres d’Arles

Every summer, the town of Arles in southern France is transformed into a world center for photography.

The theme for the 2013 festival is “Arles in Black”—a tribute to the power of black-and-white photography and an acknowledgement of the origins of photography (in 1825) as a black-and-white medium.

Challenging the Norm

The Rencontres surprised everyone by introducing color in 1986 (upsetting more than a few people, reminiscent of Bob Dylan getting booed off the stage in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival for playing “electric”).

This year, the organizers surprised everyone again by honoring black and white and giving it its rightful place. Bravo!

Oyster farming in France, creative inspiration in a black and white photography by Antoine Gonin

Gonin’s black-and-white images show traces of man imprinted on nature.
Conchyliculture, étangs de Thau France 2010 (Oyster Farming)
© Antoine Gonin

Born in Black and White

Photography was born in black and white. The first known recorded photograph was by French inventor (and photographer) Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The life of B&W took flight from there.

View from a Window at Le Gras, earliest surviving photo providing creative inspiration for black and white photography

View from the Window at Le Gras (Earliest surviving photo)
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

American west-coast photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams defended the purity of black and white, and France’s Henri Cartier-Bresson renounced color to keep the medium of photography different from the rest of the art world.

Photographers in all genres (from documentary to humanist photography to fine art) used its unique qualities to best advantage.

Then, in the 1970s and 80s, color processes were refined, photojournalism converted to color, the art world embraced the flash and brilliance of color photography, and the balance shifted.

Legends—and Those Soon to Be

At the festival this year, there are exhibitions by legends, as well as those who will become legends. Jacques Henri Lartigue, Gordon Parks, Sergio Larraine—legends from the past—and, in the present, too many to name.

Of special note:

Light beam in black and white, creative inspiration from a black and white photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Revolution 008, Caribbean Sea, Yucatan 1990
© Hiroshi Sugimoto (by permission of Rencontres d’Arles)

Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto uses photography as a time machine.

He captures lightening strikes, meditative seascapes, sunrise spectrums, and nocturnal portraits of the universe from the edge of the sea (which he has rotated to the vertical so the sea below the horizon becomes a wall—a revolution of time and space).

He is proud to call himself a “dinosaur” of black and white.

Abstract view of mussel beds in France, creative inspiration in a black and white photography by Antoine Gonin

Bouchots, Bretagne, France 2011 (Mussel Beds)
© Antoine Gonin

French photographer Antoine Gonin’s Empreinte series is a graphic and poetic portrayal of the mark that human activity has left on nature. Although his work looks like abstract charcoal painting, the images are completely unmanipulated . . . just seen from a unique perspective.

Belgian photographer Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt’s intense gaze brings life into full focus, often with a dash of subtle humor. As he honestly admits, his photographs travel on the “wings of chance,” capturing those fleeting moments that are easily missed if we’re not looking.

Man carrying dog in basket, creative inspiration in a black and white photograph by Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Ile Maurice
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt 1991/Agence VU

For the many people visiting the Rencontres d’Arles this summer—especially those influenced by the contemporary market of vibrant color prints and diasec or aluminum presentations—the “Oh, I see” moment will (hopefully) be that B&W photography packs plenty of power.

It can be deeply moving and thought provoking, and has the brute strength to pull viewers into the muscle of a story.

For all of the photographers exhibited this year in Arles, using B&W is simply a way of expressing themselves, a choice of medium and of palette.

Dog barking at end of pier, creative inspiration in a black and white photography by Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Ile Maurice
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt 1991/Agence VU

My Own Private OIC

My OIC moment about black-and-white photography was planted long ago and continues with deep roots in my creative psyche.

For me, B&W delivers more emotional impact than a blatant blast of color (especially color that has not been well orchestrated by the photographic artist). B&W is timeless, and it enhances form and texture and light in powerful ways.

Bearded street artist and self-portrait, creative inspiration in black and white photography

Portrait of Stevan, a Montmartre artist, who praised this photograph as “full of color”
© Meredith Mullins

My love of black and white was reinforced years ago when I photographed Stevan, a street artist in Montmartre.

He resisted my artistic charm on three different occasions before I was able to convince him to be photographed. I had to persist. The image was too good to pass up. Classic B&W.

And when I returned to give him a print of the photograph, he gave me a compliment I will always remember.

“There is much color in this B&W photo,” he told me, offering some heartfelt proof that I had captured the rich layers of personality and setting.

Indeed, there is much color in B&W photographs. May this art form live forever.

*B&W is alive and well around the world, but bravo to the Rencontres d’Arles for paying tribute.

Rencontres d’Arles exhibits are presented until September 22, 2013.

You can view more of Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s work, as well as that of many other artists, on Artsy.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “Arles Photo Festival: Inspired by Black and White

  1. Thank you for your comment, Henrietta. These are such wonderfully diverse and talented B&W photographers. One can really get a sense of the range and power of the medium.

    Vive B&W!

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