The big picture: dancing on the beach in the Camargue, 1957

Every May the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue hosts the Gitan Pilgrimage, a gathering of French and Catalan Gypsies. The town’s medieval church houses the statue of Sara-la-Kali, the Black Madonna, which is carried down to the sea, as a signal for the partying to begin. The photographer Lucien Clergue first photographed the pilgrimage in 1955. He had grown up in Arles, just to the north, and was searching for a visual language of the Mediterranean that captured both ancient tradition and the stirrings of postwar hedonism. The pilgrimage, its dancers and its guitar players, rooted that idea. This picture was taken on the beach at Saintes-Marie in 1957.

Clergue had met Picasso in 1953, having waited outside the bullring at Arles to show him some of his photographs; he was only 19 at the time of this encounter, but the pair became friends. Clergue’s first book, Corps Memorable (1957), a collection of images of nudes on French beaches, came with a cover by Picasso and an introduction by Jean Cocteau. He shared many of Picasso’s preoccupations, making series of pictures of bullfights, and animal corpses and harlequin troupes.

In 1970, with the writer Michel Tournier, Clergue created the famous summer photography festival at Arles, which now attracts 150,000 visitors annually. This year, the festival includes a celebratory retrospective of Clergue’s photographs of the Mediterranean – including this one – curated by his daughter, Anne. Clergue, who died in 2014, aged 80, never forgot the bombing of the city during the war, which destroyed his family home; the festival was a brilliant antidote to that history. His pictures often dwelled on life and sun and sea and sex, but there was always an undertow of melancholy; on a shoot on the beaches of his beloved Camargue, he was once heard to exclaim: “Look, I am photographing my tomb!”

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