In one of the prettiest corners of Brittany, on the furthest western reaches of Europe, the artistic compass is currently set firmly towards the east.
The medieval town of La Gacilly is a flower-laden jumble of stone and shale houses, leaning drunkenly against one another among narrow cobbled streets winding down to the Aff river.
All year round a community of potters, silversmiths, glass blowers, leather workers, wood turners and painters are busy in their workshops, while, in a handsome complex of stone buildings across the river, production on a global scale takes place, day in, day out.
La Gacilly is the headquarters of Yves Rocher, who built and based his cosmetics empire here in his home town. The company’s wholesome, organic ethos is much in evidence in the botanical gardens, vegetarium, eco-friendly spa hotel, restaurant and shop, where the products are grown, manufactured, distributed and consumed.
But those are far from the only reasons for visiting the town. Sixteen years after it was founded, the La Gacilly Photo Festival has established itself as one of the major events on the international photographic calendar. At its heart lie the pressing environmental and social challenges that beset our world; invited photographers are briefed to raise awareness of these challenges through their own individualistic visions.
For all its cultural significance and talented participants, there is something refreshingly modest and low-key about this four-month long festival. The galleries are mainly to be found in the open air; huge images hang along the riverbank and the dragonfly walks, through the water meadows, among wooded thickets, on gable ends and on the walls of disused buildings. In this variety of natural and built spaces, an impressive range of startling works contrast, blend in and infiltrate the landscape.
Curator Cyril Drouhet speaks passionately of “… a photography festival that seeks to use the power of images to highlight the fragile beauty of our planet.
“We live in an age where we mistreat the present, where we overlook simple pleasures without bothering to even acknowledge them, where individual pleasure takes precedence over collective harmony. And yet, when we stop for a minute, when we realise the vanity of our creations, Man is able to appreciate a peaceful existence.”
A peaceful existence is a far cry from several elements in the powerful collection of images that constitute this year’s theme, All Eyes East. The year 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and, with this in mind, the organisers have chosen to showcase the work of photographers in Russia and its neighbouring countries.
Some of the most striking images are captured in a series of immense portraits gazing down from a stone wall on the south side of the town. They are the work of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and, astonishingly, were taken over a century ago. Their vibrant colouring, timeless characters and universal narratives are remarkably modern and speak eloquently of the pride and dignity of the people of these remote regions: a family working in the iron mines of Bakaly, a group of Jewish children and their teacher in Samarkand, a richly clothed government official on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan.
In stark contrast are Danila Tkachenko’s bleak photographs, which evoke the chilling remains of Soviet totalitarianism through the closed, secret cities whose names no longer appear on any maps. Having just concluded the extraordinary television drama series Chernobyl, the ghostly isolation of these state controlled structures, staring down from the stone walls of the old town, make for sobering viewing.
Tkachenko was born in 1989, the year in which the Berlin Wall fell and everything changed.
“One day, I went to visit my grandmother. She lived in a secluded city whose very existence was kept secret”, he says. “This is where the first Soviet atomic bomb was developed. In the 1960s a nuclear disaster occurred but it was covered up by the authorities and classified as a military secret. However, a vast area had been contaminated. The first picture in my Restricted Areas project was taken there.”
In the soft sunshine of this early summer day, Alexey Titarenko’s melancholy portraits of his native St. Petersburg beckon strollers into a shady clearing overlooking the river crossing. They navigate us on a dreamlike wander through mysteriously empty streets, shadowy walkways and silent quays at dusk. The artist describes these instantaneous moments occurring as, “… tender, blue, diaphanous darkness falls, enveloping them, bringing them closer together, inviting a temporary lull.”
But from every turn, it is the human faces which linger longest in the consciousness. Kasia Strek’s The Last Black Faces of Poland captures the underground existences of men who extract coal from the dwindling mines of Upper Silesia.
Sergey Maximishin offers a mischievous interpretation of The Slavic Mindset; Justina Mielnikiewicz tells her visual story through the people of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, two countries which shook off the shackles of Soviet domination and rediscovered their rich cultural roots.
Most memorably, Elena Chernyshova’s Life in the Frozen Extremes focuses on the relentlessly harsh conditions endured by residents of the polluted shanty city of Norilsk in northern Russia, where temperatures plummet to – 40 degrees in winter and snowstorms close in on some 130 days of every year.
The environmental journey is beautifully set in motion in the information centre’s gallery, with Franck Seguin’s extraordinary film about freediver Guillaume Néry, the so-called Man who Walked Underwater. It contains an unspoken plea to protect the planet and, in particular, the habitats struggling for survival beneath the world’s oceans.
Around every corner unexpectedly emerge striking images of environmental threats and rebirth across the world – in the Arctic, Greenland, Canada, Togo, Rumania, California, Palestine, the Dolomites – as well as a haunting series of images recording places where nature has reasserted itself dramatically over the built environment, stranding bridges, roads and buildings in a sea of lush forest and greenery.
This accessible, friendly, right-minded festival continues right through until 30 September and is an absolute must for visitors to this enchanting, relatively little known area of Brittany.