Monday 16 August 2010

Profile: Martin Parr

New Brighton. 1985 - Image by Martin Parr

Photography very much relies on personal opinion. It is one of the residing strengths of visual communication and it can also be its major weakness. Over the last few years, I have posted a number of blog profile articles about photographers whose work I admire. This profile, however, looks at the work of a photographer whose photography has helped create new colour documentary styles... and yet his photography polarizes opinion. In this photographer profile post, we take a look at the work of Martin Parr.

Martin Parr was born in Epsom, Surrey in May 1952. From around the age of fourteen, Parr wanted to be a photographer and credits his grandfather, who was an amateur enthusiast and encouraged the young teenager's photography, as an early photographic influence. During the early 1970s, Parr studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic (later Manchester Metropolitan University) and finally became a professional photographer during the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s, Parr was already recognised for a couple of books, shot in black and white, documenting the north of England. In 1984, however, Parr switched to colour photography and commenced (in 1985) on the project 'The Last Resort' that would see him become a rising star in the photographic scene and something of a controversial figure within the photographic community. Right from the start, many photographers took a dislike to the work for a variety of reasons.

The Last Resort featured colourful images taken in New Brighton, a popular beach resort suburb of Liverpool.  I first came across Martin Parr's work from this project in 1987/88 when I saw a number of the photographs in a photography magazine advertising the release of the book. The combination of pin-sharp, bright contrasty colour and witty observation certainly made the photography interesting to view, but even then, I detected what I believed to be a condescension of the subjects. It seemed to visually personify the era of the brash selfish eighties. It's a pitiless representation of the north of England, summed up by one reviewer who described the 'victims' in Parr's images as “a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience". Even as a young novice photographer it seemed rather unpleasant to me too. Almost instantly, Parr's work divided opinion in the photography world. Some critics loved the work and its 'witty and humourous photographic style'. Others (like me and many of my fellow documentary photography students) failed to see the joke.... or like the photography style much.

During the late 1980's Parr had a couple of projects completed including One Day Trip in 1988 following day-trippers to Calais and decided to photograph the middle classes in Thatcher's Britain (The Cost of Living 1989). In Parr's defence, it can be said that the images were shot in the same of the subject as his working class-based 'The last Resort' had been. He later remarked about The Cost of Living that it was "very much examining my own position as a middle-class person who had flourished in a political climate that I felt somewhat opposed to”.  For many, if the photography's message was supposed to be critical, then it seemed to have been lost in transit. The photographer's images from this period seemed to celebrate rather than make any criticism of an era of self-indulgence and selfishness. It's pretty unfair to link Martin Parr's work with politics without knowing something about the photographer behind the work, however, some critics of his work did just that, believing falsely that Parr was celebrating Thatcher's Britain. It didn't help that the then prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was a fan of his work.

By the early 1990's Martin Parr was THE contemporary photographer of the moment. During my years in photographic education, i would repeatedly come up against lecturers who adored his work. Parr was the influence of choice during those years, especially for those student photographers who preferred working in colour. 1994 saw Martin Parr join the Magnum photo agency, but the members voting provided some evidence of the sharp divide that Parr's work generates. The members of Magnum bitterly argued over Parr's admission for membership for six years! The photographer finally achieved the necessary two-thirds majority by the narrowest margin ever - just one vote! His work was not popular with the likes of Philip Jones Griffiths and one of Magnum's founding fathers, Henri Cartier Bresson. The legendary French photographer described Parr as "coming from another planet”. Philip Jones Griffiths went even further commenting on Parr's work that "Anyone who was described as Margaret Thatcher's favourite photographer certainly didn't belong in Magnum. His photographs titillate in some way, but the fact is that they are meaningless." That wasn't the worst quote either.

Ironically, Martin Parr has become one of Magnum's most commercially successful photographers, if not THE most successful currently. Recent work has included subjects such as luxury, photographing the rich and super-rich and holiday resorts in South America. The majority of his commissions, around 80%, come from overseas, and yet Parr still hasn't won over many of his critics back in the UK. This has been put down to the level of success that the photographer has achieved and the resulting bad feeling. According to Parr's supporters, envy is the key problem. Photographers envy his success. While that may be partially true, many photographers will have already made their own minds up about the photographer's work right from the start. Martin Parr as a photographer hasn't changed his style drastically and his influence has been immense. His style, use of colour and attitude has been favoured by many young contemporary photographers for years. Much of the criticism of the work may also stem from the easy way Parr's photojournalism work has been embraced by certain fine art photography circles - that can be an uneasy issue for many photojournalists For most people though, it is the photographer's work that remains the basis for the sometimes intensely critical regard that Martin Parr receives in his own country. Is he laughing at us? To be fair to the photographer, Parr seems to regard his subjects in the same manner regardless of geographical location.

A couple of posts ago, I commented on how I was trying to formulate why I had no liking for Martin Parr's photography. I don't hate it, in fact, I rather like some elements of the visual style of Parr's work, it's just the message the photography often conveys that I dislike. I don't see the humour. Often I just see detached cruelty, especially in his early work. I  have to admit that some of the contemporary photojournalism, taken by photographers who are often strongly influenced by Martin Parr, also leaves me cold. So in answer to the question of why I don't like photography, it comes down to the photographer's message, attitude, approach, call it what you will. I could maybe come up with other reasons too. I would be very interested to hear from blog readers about what they think about the work.  Whatever your thoughts on Martin Parr's photography, his commercial success and influential appeal reflects the fact that LOTS of people really do love his work. As an influence on contemporary documentary photography, young photographers and the culture of photography in general over the last twenty years, no other photographer quite frankly even comes close.

All Images by Martin Parr

Top Left - Martin Parr, 2004: Portrait by Bill Jay
Top Right - The Last Resort [ice cream girl] 1983-86
Middle Left - Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire from 'The Cost of Living'
Middle Right - Auchan hypermarket, Calais, France, 1988, from "One Day Trip"
Bottom Left: - Russia. Moscow. Millionaire's Fair. 2007
Bottom Right - Hollywood, attendees at a charity function, 2000

Martin Parr Portfolio/ Magnum
BBC Genius of Photography
Martin Parr/ The Sunday Times
Magnum Photos Blog/ Martin Parr
The Guardian/ Photographer Martin Parr's best shot

Books by Martin Parr

The Last Resort
Small World


Rick Medlock said...

Hi Richard

Here are some thoughts on the above

Parrs work will always be controversial. The very nature of his subject matter will always put somebody's back up. This will largely depend on your social, economical, cultural, etc background in how individuals will relate to his work. I think Parr is a damed if he does or damed if he doesn't type character within the work he portrays. This is bourn out in the fact that people do not like his work because of Margaret Thatcher liking it. That has more to do with political stance than content I feel.

Henri Cartier Bresson remark when meeting Parr "coming from another planet” was meet with the reply “well don’t shoot the messenger” What a great reply and I feel that sums Parrs work up. My own opinion of his work is that he portrays it as it is and captures the everyday with a quirky manor. I do not feel he is exploiting anybody but more showing it as it is and in his defense we all exploit in one way or another it is just that he is by the nature of what he does more public.

Rick Medlock

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard, thanks for this well written profile of Martin Parr. Maybe because I am not British I do feel the humour in Parr's pictures: to me he documents typical british behaviour of people and archives that by taking pictures. He has a keen eye and favours the moment. And there is not much depth in his work one might say, but he puts the mood and feeling of the situation in the picture.

But again, I am not a Brit! And I do understand that you have doubts as described in this blog entry. The Brits are in my opinion a marvelous group of people, because they have the ability to laugh about themselves. We Dutch like to laugh about others and not about people pointing at our own little faults and silly things! It is my personal opinion that Parr and his pictures are an invitation to make people laugh by portraying people just as they are and behave in daily situations; a bit voyeuristic some times maybe.
I remember a documentary about him. I wondered how he got away with taking those pictures from a short distance. His charm and wit helped him. But it felt like being a voyeur at arms length to me!
But that voyeur feeling was all mine; seeing him work that way created that feeling on my side.

He shows people in daily life. In situations we can relate to. And that might be an explanation why he is so successful right now. At present he displays the material world of the new rich with the same tongue in cheek. They like the attention, he offers that to them, gets paid and makes us laugh all in the process.