Haunting photos from off-grid

Foglia’s off-grid photos Wow Arles
Les Rencontres d’Arles 2012 is one of the world’s key photo exhibitions. this year it has an off-grid theme.

In the centre of town, the biggest and most well-attended show is a historical one: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka. The book, first published in France in 1975, is one of the defining photobooks of the 20th century. Koudelka’s brand of poetic sadness is more powerful today given that the world he photographed has all but vanished in the intervening years to be replaced by a new Gypsy generation which prefers concrete and mains power to caravans and wood fires.

The most haunting image in the collection shows a beautiful, bewildered young man in handcuffs. He stands in the foreground as if mesmerised by Koudelka’s camera while, behind him, a string of onlookers and a pair of uncertain policemen await their parts in this mysterious drama. The exhibition is augmented by letters, layouts and original editions of the book, all of which provide a glimpse of the restless imagination behind this now seminal body of work.

Across town in the disused railway sheds that yearly become exhibition spaces, American Lucas Foglia, a young graduate from Yale showed A Natural Order, a series looking at people who, for various reasons – religious beliefs, environmental concerns, apocalyptic visions – have retreated from society, off the grid.

Foglia specialises in a kind of gentle yet incisive documentary approach in which he befriends and spends time with his subjects, then photographs them when they are totally at ease in his presence. In one arresting image, a naked child perches on her father’s chest as he floats, eyes closed, in a lake. In another, three serene, long-haired teenage girls wade in a river, fully clothed.

The vision is often idyllic, but in Foglia’s photographs all is not what it seems. A young man sits in his room in a camouflage jacket, an assault rifle lying on a table in the background. A decomposing bear lies in a clearing like some nightmarish vision of nature’s deepest, darkest forces. Mennonites turn out to be ex-Hells Angels; a once-virgin woodland has been turned into a car park; utopian dreamers fleeing the digital overload converse on laptops and cellphones. This is formally beautiful, thought-provoking work from an already assured talent.

Arles, France; until 23 Sept

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