Robert Doisneau, an early supporter of Les Rencontres d’Arles, holds a negative to the sun alongside Yvette Troispoux (right), nicknamed “the photographer of photographers,” in 1986.


How Arles Became a Summer Destination for World-Famous Photographers

For more than 50 years, the annual Rencontres d'Arles festival has drawn artists to the Provençal city.

June 7, 2024

In 1965, a pair of childhood friends set out to turn their hometown of Arles, France, into a destination for photography. Today, artists from around the world still flock there en masse to learn from the greats and shoot their shot.

You don’t need to possess an artist’s eye to recognize the beauty of Arles. From the first century, the Romans considered the town—then known as Arlate—one of the Empire’s most important economic, political, and cultural centers, given its strategic position on the banks of the Rhône. Nearly two millennia later, it gained a different sort of prominence as a haven for artists like Vincent van Gogh. In 1965, local photographer Lucien Clergue teamed up with historian (and childhood friend) Jean-Maurice Rouquette to build a collection of photography at the city’s Musée Réattu, where Rouquette held a curatorial post. Then came the magic: Over the ensuing years, the museum received more than 400 donations from the likes of Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Jean Dieuzaide, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Photographer André Kertész (left) trades snaps with another festivalgoer in 1979.

  • Arthur Tress, captured by fellow photographer Pierre-Jean Amar in 1974, takes a picture of his shadow.

    Pierre-Jean Amar
  • A 2010 exhibition charting the career of rock legend Mick Jagger plays with irony in the Church of the Holy Trinity.


This overwhelming support moved Clergue and Rouquette to consider the prospect of a festival dedicated to the medium. They enlisted the help of celebrated author Michel Tournier, who had a summer home in the city, to launch the first Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles in 1970. Now known as Les Rencontres d’Arles, the festival is more than an art fair: It is a place for photophiles to come together to learn, share, and support each other in their practice.

Even the most inauspicious spots in Arles—like a bench on the Place de la République, shown here in 1981—can become a canvas for photography.

Veronique Vercheval

Of the fine arts, photography is often considered the most egalitarian—all that’s needed is a camera and some film—and least dogmatic. The festival’s reputation reflects that: “People were drawn in by the warmth of the town, lively meals where unknown talent could rub shoulders with the masters, and the possibility to show their work,” says historian and photography curator Francoise Denoyelle. “There was nothing like it anywhere else.” Many who visited in the early stages of their careers later returned as exhibitors, including Magnum Foundation president Susan Meiselas, who received the festival’s Women in Motion award in 2019. “There are few festivals that are as inviting to wander, discover, and connect with other artists and the public,” she says. “There are always surprises!”

Workshops like this figure work session at the 1997 festival turn the city’s historic sites into classrooms.


Over the years, Les Rencontres d’Arles has hosted groundbreaking exhibitions and retrospectives of works by photographers like Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and Diane Arbus, some at historic sites made accessible exclusively to festivalgoers. Today, many of the art world’s most celebrated names—including Arthur Tress, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nan Goldin—continue to participate in the festival, contributing to its ongoing success. (A record-setting 145,000 people attended in 2023.) And this summer, as the festival enters its 54th year, visitors will once again descend on the storied French city as it champions the next generation of photographers shaping the way we see the world.

To discover more of our favorite hotels, museums, shops, and more in Arles, click here!

Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a frequent documentarian of Diego Rivera, is pictured reviewing a portfolio in 1981 at the Hotel L’Arlatan.