In a way, you could say I’m coming back. I went to Arles for the first time in my twenties’, Sam Stourdzé explains from his office at Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. ‘At the time, I only had two references to photography: Musée de l’Elysee, which was one of the first Photo Museums in Europe when it opened in 1985, and Arles.’
Det skandinaviske kunsttidsskriftet Objektiv har et fokus på fotografi og film og utkommer to ganger i året. Da vi lanserte vårt første nummer for seks år siden var formålet å skape en slags tidskapsel for dagens kamerabaserte kunst. I løpet av våre årganger har vi invitert kunstnere til å reflektere over mediet i samtaler med andre kunstnere, og til hvert nummer har vi invitert en kunstner til å utvikle et bildeessay spesielt for oss.
Artikkelen ble opprinnelig publisert i Objektiv. Objektiv er en av samarbeidspartnerne i Morgenbladet sin tidsskriftportal. Se mer fra over 25 norske tidsskrift i PORTALEN.
The wall behind him in the office is bare. A photo might once have hung there, but now all is packed up and the office is waiting for a new director: Stourdzé is moving out by the end of the month to start his new job. ‘I want to bring the magic I experienced back to Arles’, he says.
As a penniless student in Paris, Stourdzé found a way to get into the festival. ‘I knew the festival invited several Parisian galleries – it was important to be represented there (we must remember, this was long before Paris Photo). I contacted the galleries and offered to collect all the work from them and drive it down to Arles, asking them to pay my entrance and accommodation in return.’
I ask if he took any photos on his trip, since they would make great illustrations for this interview, but Stourdzé just laughs and says he didn’t stop once during the eight-hour drive.
‘Finally there, I was welcomed by one of the gallery curators and he took me to Place de Forum for a pastis. I was so excited. We sat with a group of people and someone asked the guy sitting next to me: ‘Ralph, could you pass me the water?’ I discreetly asked the curator if it was Ralph Gibson, which he confirmed, and then he told me that the guy asking for the water was Helmut Newton. This was magic! This is what the festival’s about. You can be a curator, photographer, or in my case a truck driver, but in Arles you’re all one big family. This is why it’s not actually called a festival, it’s called Rencontres: a meeting. It’s really unique. There’s no place like it.’
So, what’s his recipe for the magic?
Stourdzé laughs. ‘This is a huge challenge. It’s the photographers’ festival, and I want to make sure it continues.’ All kind of images fascinate Stourdzé: ‘Moving, found or still, I want all these different approaches included. I do, however, also want to open it up for more curatorial approaches. Rencontres d’Arles has been, and should always continue to be, a place for reflection on photography. It should make a statement about where the medium is, and give a perspective on its future. This answer can be given by the photographers, but I also think the curators should have their say on this.’
The Frenchman says he really got to know photography in California. He studied art history for a short time in Paris before moving to San Francisco, where he started working with the archives of Dorothea Lange.
‘The first photobook I saw was a knock-out: The Americans by Robert Frank. I said to myself that I wanted to work with photography, be close to photographers. I discovered a very strong photo scene in San Francisco, where I met the son of Dorothea Lange. I’m very interested in contemporary photography, but I have a passion for the historical archives. It’s always interesting when it’s not just photography, but when the work also speaks of art and something else. Lange worked in this historical time when photography was used by the government as a propaganda tool. I was fascinated by this idea of a federal institution that understood they needed visual representation of the poverty to make the public really grasp the situation.’
Stourdzé reissued the book that Lange had published in 1941 called An American Exodus – A Record of Human Erosion containing her images and her husband Paul Taylor’s interviews with the workers. The book came out, together with the first European retrospective on Lange, curated by Stourdzé, in 1998.
‘Lange defines the photographer as a social observer, and shows us the possibilities for a documentary photographer: she can also be an artist. From that time, I never stopped doing exhibitions, and I always saved time for research: to work and study for two or three years before doing the exhibition. In a way I re-find photography in this way: by looking closely at what it was then and what it is now. I think in order to make any reflections on the future of photography, you need to look back in time.’
Stourdzé took on the position as director of Musée de l’Élysée in 2010. He worked closely with the artists, following their evolution and trying to understand their outlook on the world. ‘Photography is not about the nice image’, he remarks. ‘We don’t select the most beautiful one – that’s something that belongs to the 1970s, when there was no photography in the museums. At that time, it was a political act to hang a photo on the wall: it had to compete with painting. Now, the perspective has changed; photography isn’t only fine art, it’s also popular culture.’
Stourdzé finds this dialogue between aesthetics and popular culture very interesting.
‘I don’t care if the artist uses video, stills or no camera. I don’t care if he’s the owner or taker: telling stories with images is the only thing I’m interested in. I wouldn’t use the expression your magazine uses: ‘a journal for lens-based art’; it has a technical connotation to it. ‘Lens’ means having a camera to take pictures. I think this question is central to the field of photography today. I want to see places like Arles, museums and magazines, opening up this discussion.’
In 2011, Stourdzé and Musée de l’Élysée launched the magazine ELSE, together with an editorial committee with names like Joan Fontcuberta, Erik Kessels and Clement Chéroux, to create a discussion around the medium. The articles always open with a series of images, before the essays. Stourdzé stresses the importance of seeing the visual demonstration first. For the magazine’s editorial he wrote:
Photography is everywhere. It is exhibited both in museums of Contemporary Art and of Ethnography, and artists themselves eschew categorization, using a variety of media for what they do. Within a few decades, photography found its place in the field of Art. Yet, that same question arises again: ‘Why photography?’ Yesterday, the interrogation highlighted the doubts raised about it by Art History; today, it questions … its autonomy, and encourages it to bridge gaps.
‘ELSE is dealing with this very contemporary issue. It’s a collaborative platform with the editorial committee, and has been a project we very much wanted to do. Our goal is to establish a dialogue between the contemporary and historical. We show a lot of projects, publications and exhibitions that kind of balance on this.’
For more than twenty years, Stourdzé worked as an independent curator, exhibiting photographers like Lange and Tina Modotti, and also film legends Charlie Chaplin and Fellini. ‘Twenty years ago, being an independent curator wasn’t accepted as a job. Sometimes, when I wrote texts for magazines or catalogues, the editors had a hard time finding out what to call me: they said I had to be called an art historian or museum-something. Sometimes it even turned into a semiotic fight … The curatorial work is so important. Of course, the photos are the language, but the exhibition is the story, the curator is the author who works with the given language. When I made exhibitions with moving images, like the shows with Chaplin or Fellini, it wasn’t only to show the work, but also to focus on what it means to exhibit cinema. What language is it? What does it mean?’
For the past five years he has been launching research projects for others. ‘Being the director is unfortunately not being the curator. I miss that work. It’s good to spend years on a project. But in running an institution, I decide the general line, the strategy. I’ve been very happy here at the museum, and I’m sad to leave, but I think I’ve done all I can do in an institution.’
Maybe the work in Arles will give Stourdzé this independence back, and perhaps also a new Robert Frank revelation.
‘That book represented such a change in 1957. I wonder if we’ll be able to identify the new great artist of tomorrow? Sometime there’s great emotion when you discover something. For me, it was the last show by Paul Graham, BEYOND CARING (1984) / THE PRESENT (2011) at Le Bal in Paris in 2012. Graham redefines street photography. The installation of the photos is so important: it makes the experience touching and difficult to define. If you see the images one by one, it’s almost nothing, but the total gives you the feeling of seeing something very different. In front of this show, I really thought of Frank. Perhaps we’ve found something time-changing in Graham’s work. I want to see Arles as a experimental lab where this can happen.’
And it might happen for a lucky photographer in Arles. This January, he launched the Prix Elysée at the museum, a prize open to promising photographers or artists using photography, regardless of nationality. All nominees received funding to develop their projects and the winner will be funded all the way to publication of his or her book. ‘Our duty is to help the artist find production money. The prize is more like a grant, but it’s easier to call it a prize.’ And he is taking this idea of a prize to the South of France. ‘We want to be much more present when it comes to the photobook. A lot is happening around it already at Rencontres, but not as part of the festival. The book is such a central way for artists to express themselves.’
Stourdze says the most important part of the job with Arles starts now.
‘My way of working will be like with ELSE: Rencontres d’Arles is a platform, and from September to June my team and I will develop ideas and do research. The summary of all these reflections will be exhibited in July next year. And I’ll be searching for the magic for my whole period as director.’
Les Rencontres de la Photographie foregår i Arles, Frankrike 6.- 12. juli. Artikkelen ble opprinnelig publisert i Objektiv. Objektiv er en av samarbeidspartnerne i Morgenbladet sin tidsskriftportal. Se mer fra over 25 norske tidsskrift i PORTALEN.