This was an enlightening and unusual study visit as we were able to interact directly with Martin Parr at his foundation in Bristol. The session organised by fellow student Amano was not fully subscribed which surprised me rather as it seems that these opportunities to ask direct questions in person are quite rare.
Parr’s work has never much interested me as I don’t like his lurid aesthetic and he often puts the spotlight on things that make me ashamed to be British. Before researching him in advance of this visit and hearing him speak on the day, I had dismissed him as being a bit rude and exploitative in a Bruce Gilden kind of way.
However, his honesty is refreshing and he is not apologetic for his approach: “all photography is exploitation.” His photography is a form of therapy for him, an exploration of tension caused by his love/hate relationship with Britain. I cannot help but respect him for his confidence, bordering on arrogance, and his single-minded dedication to documenting the mundane. His stated priority is to create entertainment with a serious underlying message for those who want to look for it and his critique of rampant consumerism, poor taste and awful food is hard to ignore.
The talk on the day was clearly one he has trotted out repeatedly – a chronological romp through his life and development as an artist, illustrated by his photos. I noted that a number of pivotal moments in his work were the result of him actively deciding to do the opposite of what others were doing at the time. This unflinching refusal to follow the herd has stood him in good stead as a fresh voice in the development of documentary photography.
Martin Parr also embodies the often-cited characterisation of photographers as being obsessive collectors, with his quarry including political ephemera, autoportraits, tourist tat and boring postcards, as well of course as photobooks.
Parr’s passion for photography shines through, in his work as an educator and archivist as well as a photographer, and is fueled by his natural curiosity. “I am interested in everything – I like people.” He likes to document all the cliches of the places he visits and is fascinated by mythology vs reality in tourism. Fundamental to his nature is that he is drawn to the kitsch – when things are so bad they become good again.
- Inspired by Tony Ray-Jones, whom Parr believes is underrated, he got the confidence to use colour from Eggleston
- “Inherent subjectivity is a very important part of being a documentary photographer.”
- He never gets a model release except for commissioned commercial work.
- Often the images we see are from when his subjects have “grown tired of paying attention” – he mostly edits out those where there is interaction with him
- Photos of people at petrol pumps in the 70s may have seemed mundane and ridiculous at the time but now show so much about how things have changed (but what were his intentions at the time?)
- He claims that the communities he has photographed have not felt exploited or misrepresented by him and that he rarely faces any antagonism – it seems like instead of wrestling too much with the ethics of representation, he is happy to sidestep political correctness and just get on with making work