Best-known for making Arles the most important photography festival in the world, Francois Hébel is bringing stars such as Friedlander, Koudelka and Rodchenko to Foto/Industria
Foto/Industria Biennial returns to Bologna this Autumn, with 14 exhibitions based on the idea of identity and illusion in photographs of work, including image-makers such as Thomas Ruff, Josef Koudelka, Lee Friedlander, Joan Fontcuberta, Alexander Rodchenko, Mitch Epstein, Yukichi Watabe, John Myers and Michele Borzoni. The Biennial, which is back for its third edition, is produced by the MAST Foundation, a cultural centre established in 2013, and the festival is curated by Francois Hébel – the man best known for resurrecting Les Rencontres d’Arles, which he directed from 1986 to 1987, and from 2002 to 2014. First time around, he showed photographers such as Nan Goldin and Martin Parr to outrage; second time, he took an event on the verge of bankruptcy, €450,000 in debt and attracting just 9000 visitors per season, and re-defined it as the world’s most important photography festival. BJP caught up with Hébel about the third edition of Foto/Industria; read our 2015 interview with him here.
BJP: The festival is now in its third edition – what’s different, and what’s the same this year?
Francois Hébel: Foto/Industria improved its audience a lot with the second edition, and hopefully will confirm with the third. [Last time] the big surprise was to see people travelling from other Italian cities and abroad for the weekend, taking advantage of the numerous connections to this university and industrial city. We also got to know the magnificent venues of this Renaissance city better.
BJP: The Thomas Ruff show is about machines, rather than about industry per se. Similarly, the Yukichi Watabe series Stakeout Diary is tangentially related to industry. How free do you feel to interpret the ‘industrial’ theme?
FH: Absolutely free as long as it relates to work or production. This is a very broad approach, and in previous years the festival has gone from mining to office work, from corporate assignments to fictional projects and independent, critical ones. This is a great freedom agreed with Isabella Seràgnoli, who is the founder of MAST and who asked me to create this extension to her foundation – Foto/Industria.
One of the consequences is that the festival also extends to all genres of photography, all styles and periods. The relationship with work and production is an incredibly rich one, which is why from a one-off event for the opening of MAST in 2011, Isabella Seràgnoli asked me to turn Foto/Industria into a Biennial.
BJP: Some of the artists you feature are very well known, others are emerging or all but forgotten. How do you choose the projects you want to show?
FH: You name it [I do it]. A festival is a global experience, if you show famous artists you have to revisit their work. This is the case here with Koudelka, as his industrial work was never exhibited [the show is titled 30 Years of Industrial Landscapes and will include 40 images shot on commission for organisations such as the Lhoist mining group]. Similarly, Friedlander isn’t that famous for his corporate assignments [his show, At Work, gathers images made over 16 years in the US in spaces such as factories, offices and telemarketing centres].
These important characters and the festival form encourage people to dedicate more time than they would to just seeing a show – instead of spending a couple of hours at a galley then spend a whole day or a weekend, and let themselves be surprised by work they didn’t expect.
I balance the program in total freedom, taking advantage of 36 years of working with photographers [who are as well-established as Hebel]. But I am also very attentive to emerging styles and artists, and there is a “hot” dimension to a festival that is different to an institution, which may work for three years on a show.
BJP: Some of the work is archival, other images are very contemporary. What does this mix help to do?
FH: It helps the audience enjoy photography, and to show how it sometimes evolves on similar themes.
BJP: It’s great to see John Myers’ work included in the festival – how did you come across it? [Myers is a little-known British photographer currently undergoing a critical reassessment, and is showing an exhibition titled The End of Manufacturing, featuring images shot between 1981 and 1988 in the Black Country]
FH: I do my job in order to learn everyday, and often do so thanks to friends. In John’s case, Brian Griffin mentioned that I should look at these pictures for Foto/Industria. To be honest, John had sent me a catalogue with this series a long time ago, but at the time it didn’t fit in the programmes I was preparing and I forgot them. Good work always come out.
BJP: I notice there are no female photographers in the festival this year. Why do you think that is?
FH: Because I do not try to put this as a criteria, but if you look back to the probably more than 1000 shows I have produced in my career, especially in 15 editions of Arles, Beijing Photo Spring, or the recent month of photography of the Grand Paris, there are always many female photographers – especially in recent photography, there were not as many before.
BJP: Some of the series on show this year were made on commission from the companies they depict; others are taken from ‘outside’ the companies, independently. What are the pros and cons of each approach?
FH: Access and freedom are obviously the key issues. But in the selection we made this year, you will see that it didn’t make much of a difference.
BJP: The MAST Foundation is run by the Coesia Group [a group of companies that makes industrial and packaging solutions]. Are there limits to how much Foto/Industria can critique big business when it’s underpinned by a company?
FH: I never face such a situation. Before taking over the company from her parents, Isabella Seràgnoli was more into social science, and she has always been a social philanthropist. This is probably why she wouldn’t see any reason to force the program into political correctness – nor would I accept it.
BJP: What are your future plans for the festival? Is there a limit to how long a festival of industrial photography can run?
FH: I am sure this broad approach can run and run, as the photographic approach is as important as the theme; we also have an extensive public programme. Growing in size is not a necessity, we just want to keep on producing original and quality shows, in amazingly beautiful venues. Increasing the visitors is our first goal for this young festival.
Foto/Industria is open from 12 October 19 November in venues throughout Bologna city centre; Thomas Ruff’s solo show at MAST is open until 07 January 2018. www.fotoindustria.it/en/