British photographer Martin Parr, whose work straddles documentary and fine art photography, argues that photojournalism “has to get modern” to regain the attention and support of mainstream magazines. In this month's "State of the Art Report: Photojournalism Survival" (PDN August), Parr asserts, “You have to disguise things as entertainment, but still leave a message and some poignancy." In a recent interview, we asked him to elaborate on his theory.
PDN: How do you disguise documentary photography as entertainment?
Martin Parr: I went recently to the Beijing car show. It struck me as being a very interesting place to look at [the new world order]. Obviously the explosion of cars in China is a big issue. The best way to illustrate that is to go to the car show where you see people and cars together in huge quantities. I’m unlikely to get that commissioned. I just decided to go anyway, and got Magnum Photos [Parr's agency] to help me fund it.
PDN: How did your approach to that project differ from a more traditional photojournalistic approach?
M.P.: I’m not waiting to be assigned. I go to places I want to go and see how they fit in. If I wait for the phone to ring, for me to go to the places I want to go, it’s not going to happen. So I determine where I want to go, and then try to get the magazines to help. If I do something about the Chinese car show, I can mention that there are 9 million new cars on the road in China this year alone. You can bring in your agenda with weird pictures of the car girls, or with images of people photographing cars. To me, dealing with the issues of the new world order is absolutely fascinating. Potentially magazines and newspapers will run those pictures, not in the traditional sense that I’m a campaigning photojournalist. I’m not going out doing campaigning photojournalism, because nobody wants that anymore. You have a few people that commission that—Newsweek and Time, for example—but there are very few opportunities there unless you’re at the top end.
PDN: What do you mean by campaigning photojournalism?
M.P.: The more traditional humanistic approach as personified in the older Magnum, for example. We still have within magnum photographers who take that approach, but even they give it a new spin, like Paolo Pellegrin for example. They make eloquent poetic pictures that people want to run. I shoot interesting subject matter but disguise it as entertainment. That’s what people want in magazines. I like to play the game where you can get interesting ideas in, but almost in disguise.
PDN: So what’s the message you disguise in the Beijing car show images?
M.P.: The message is ambiguous and open ended. I’m not preaching. I’m not saying the phenomenal growth of cars is entirely right or wrong. Like everything in the world, there’s a good side and a bad side. There is the old approach, whereby you try to change the world. Nobody is going to obliterate war, famine, AIDS, and all the other things that are the usual subject matter that more campaigning photojournalists would be attracted to. I’m not pretending that my going to the Beijing car show will influence whether more people buy cars, but it gives me chance to bring onto the agenda a place and situation that I think is interesting.
PDN: Has Magnum found venues for these pictures?
M.P.: I’m bound to in the end get a good folio of these images published.
Another story I did last October was about millionaires in Moscow. I did the Gulf art fair. All these things in the end have been quite beneficial to me in terms of sales. And they’re constantly adding to my portfolio of work. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle I’m trying to work out as we go along about my relationship to the world we live in.
PDN: So global capitalism is the central theme?
M.P.: It’s one of the things I’m interested in. I’ve been doing a set of pictures called Luxury. Wealth to me is as much to me the front line as poverty traditionally was.
PDN: You’ve never taken a traditional approach to photojournalism, have you?
M.P.: I don’t regard myself particularly as a photojournalist. I’m a documentary photographer. The idea of my work is to try put my finger on the zeitgeist of what’s happening. That’s constantly changing and shifting. I’m not interested in photographing things that are disappearing, although I’ve engaged in a slight bit of nostalgia. I’m interested in things as they are now.
PDN: Are you seeing other photographers taking an entertainment approach?
M.P.: I don’t really know. I see degrees of some overlap with some of my colleagues at Magnum and other photographers. Despite the fact that everyone says photography in newspapers and magazines is dead, I think if you’re ingenious&hellipyou have got to be a lot more ingenious these days to get commissioned and to get editors and photo editors excited. Simon Norfolk does a very good job of dealing with wars and war zones in a different way. He has a very good relationship with The New York Times Magazine. Within Magnum, Alec Soth is very successful as you know. He can get work on his own terms. That’s the idea: you have a voice, style, and approach and you get commissions to fulfill that.
I’m currently working on the biggest assignment I’ve ever had. I’m doing ten 16-page supplements about different British cities. It’s expanding the idea of an editorial assignment into something much bigger, with all genres: editorial, cultural, books, exhibitions. All the boundaries are blurring if you play the game well. It’s new to everyone involved, and it gives me a fantastic platform to publish pictures I want to.
PDN: So we can talk about all these alternative channels, but if you don’t have a distinctive point of view, you aren’t going to get access to them, are you?
M.P.: It’s a highly competitive market. Clearly one of the things that potentially distinguishes you is that you have a known voice in photography.
PDN: Which is easier said than done&hellip
M.P.: I agree. But nonetheless picture editors like to commission new, exciting photographers. They’ll take that risk. Of course, it’s not easy. If it was easy then everybody would be at it. There are more magazines now than ever before. But they have to be filled with something. I agree that I’m in a better position than most. I’m in is a very privileged position, and it has taken years to get there.
PDN: How do you get there?
M.P.: A lot of times photographers don’t have enough imagination in terms of what subject matter is going to appeal to editors. A good idea and good story, well executed, is going to have a much better chance than a tired old story. Most photographers don’t really think about what they’re shooting. There are certain expectations about what photographers should shoot, and they stick to that.
PDN: What advice would you give them to get out of that rut?
M.P.: It’s very difficult. You have to be more ingenious, you have to think carefully about the appeal that your subject will have and how it will fit into a modern magazine that’s going to shy away from a more traditional humanistic approach. How to make it look interesting, and entertaining, and at same time have a level of poignancy and zeitgeist: I can’t tell people how to do it, can I? In the end, it comes down to the personality and individuality of photographer to express that. But when people say to me the magazine market is dead, I just don’t believe it.
--interview by David Walker Read more about Martin Parr ...
"But the canon had to change, to have a completely different look. It not only had to contain the beauty of the old landscapes, but also the more structured landscapes of today."
So the 60 photographs in the Nettenfabriek in Apeldoorn include shots of Schiphol Airport and the Betuwe rail link. The exhibition is part of the International Triennial, a celebration of culture, gardening and landscape. It continues through the summer until 28 September. See for more Nature as Artifice ...
"The idea for a landscape canon only emerged at the last moment, but that turned out not to be an obstacle."
In fact, the plan received support from all quarters. The Dutch provinces were immediately positive and the then State Advisor for Landscape, Dirk Sijmons, lent a hand. Van Blerck says that "He was actually too busy, but he thought it was so important that he agreed to help out straight away."
Together with photographer Michiel Pothoff, Van Blerck got in a van and drove all round the Netherlands.
"It was great fun. You get to see once again how beautiful our country is and how friendly the people are. Once we told them what we were doing, everyone wanted to help. A farmer got out his tractor and dragged a liquid manure tank out of the way so we could get a better picture."
He is enthusiastic not just about taking the photographs and about the canon, but about the Dutch landscape. He defends the Betuwe Line photograph with a fierce passion.
For van Blerck, the Betuwe Line and Schiphol Airport are part of our modern landscape. They were conceived by people and stand in stark contrast to the Geul valley in Limburg or the Dommel valley in Brabant - areas which are much more reminiscent of the Verkade books.
But those books lack the very thing that appeals to van Blerck in landscapes: they are not static. See also for the Changing Dutch landscape ...
"Put a fence round it and it becomes trite! A landscape has to remain in motion. We are currently in a pioneering phase in which new areas are being created. A new infrastructure with old rivers and familiar dyke around it. New landscapes we may be proud of in ten years time."
And that is not only thanks to human beings.
"The formation of the landscape through the centuries is the joint effort of man and nature. The Netherlands is a good example of how culture and nature combine to produce something new."
A time-consuming process, Van Blerck acknowledges:
"Harmony has to develop and that takes time."
* In the 1950s the Dutch food company Verkade gave away sets of pictures with its products for children to collect and stick in albums.