zaterdag 29 september 2018

Ordinary Lives Extraordinary Photographs The Cost of Living Martin Parr Photography

Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs
Martin Parr is acclaimed for his brash, colour-satured images of the lives and foibles of regular folk. As he prepares to curate the prestigious Arles photography festival, he talks to Martin Gayford about the ambiguity that lies beneath his work
12:01AM BST 17 Apr 2004

‘I’m much more romantic and nostalgic than people give me credit for,“ says the photographer Martin Parr. “People like to assume I’m cynical and sneering. In fact, I’m an absolute softy. Many things I criticise in modern life because I’d almost prefer to have everything as it was in 1950. I shouldn’t be telling you that because I’m giving the game away.“

This analysis would indeed come as a surprise to many who have criticised Parr himself. To the picture editor, for example, who described him as “a gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people“. Or the veteran humanistic French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who took great exception to the attitude expressed in Parr’s pictures. Parr, he complained, seemed to come from a different planet. Parr replied, admitting that their photographic visions “differed“ – but added, “Why shoot the messenger?“

Parr certainly seems at times to be bringing bad news. Where the photographs of Cartier-Bresson and others who inspired Parr as a young man portray a dignified humanity in terms that are at most gently humorous, Parr, in his mature work, frequently shows us crazed with desire for the most tawdry of mass-produced goods, or weighed down with the boredom of shopping and tourism. And he does so not in sober black and white, but in the most brash and lurid of super-saturated colour. Such images have made Parr one of the most widely admired documentary photographers of the past two decades.

As such, he is constantly in the public eye. This month an important study of his work by Val Williams is published by Phaidon in paperback. On May 6 a major exhibition of his work opens in Hamburg. And he is creative director of this summer’s photography festival in Arles – the Venice Biennale of the photographic world – in which he will be concentrating on documentary work. “I make no apologies that this is the focal point of the festival,“ Parr says. “It’s an incredible open canvas to put on work that I believe in.

“Most photographers,“ he explains, “are very attached to things that are exotic, and to people who are in extreme and dramatic circumstances. But I truly believe that the ordinary is much more interesting than people make out. We are so familiar with it and familiarity breeds contempt, but when you go to something like a supermarket or an Argos, or a shopping mall, they are quite extraordinary places.“ A typical Parr subject from the 1980s was a trolley jam in a duty-free supermarket in Calais, with rival shoppers frantically waving massive cartons of cheap beer and fags. About the same time he produced a series that – at least in the eyes of their opponents – stripped the mask from Thatcher’s middle classes. Hard-faced, blazered characters socialise at Conservative Party functions. Disconsolate women queue at a Laura Ashley sale.

One irony of all this is that Parr himself, as he likes to point out, is almost caricaturally English and middle class. He was born in 1952, and brought up in a bungalow in Surrey, which he has described as “drab, suburban and dreary“. His father was a civil servant. In person, Parr himself could be a solicitor, a headmaster or an off-duty police inspector – affable yet firm, tall, and businesslike. Nothing about him suggests artiness, or social criticism.

He is fascinated by Englishness. But, he insists, his feelings are ambiguous – and that ambiguity is truly his subject. “I’m torn when I think about England. On the one hand, I have great affection for things like the classic English summer fête. There can’t be anything more pleasant, or more English, than having afternoon tea in a small village in Dorset. But the very people you meet there will have the bigoted views about Europe that upset me about modern Britain. I’m classic soft Left myself, but you can’t meet anyone more pleasant than an English Tory – on an individual basis. But collectively, I think, there’s something wrong with them. My feelings about Britain are a mixture of affection and concern. I’m trying to express that ambiguity.“

As a boy, Parr visited his grandfather, an amateur photographer, in Yorkshire. There he acquire a love of old-fashioned, nonconformist communities – his family were practising Methodists – and also of working-class seaside resorts. At 15 he was inspired to become a photographer by seeing an exhibition of work by Bill Brandt. “I went round,“ he has remembered, “and thought, ‘God! Photography is fantastic, this is what I want to do.’“

One of his first projects, the following year, was to record a Yorkshire fish and chip shop, which he represented as “bleaker than it really was“, because he felt that it was part of world that interested him and would soon be lost. “I went up to the North of England from suburban Surrey and was very taken with the sense of community that there still was there. So part of my job with photography was to celebrate that, whereas what I do now is almost a critique on society. My role has changed.“ In treading that path from romantic nostalgia to social criticism, Parr was following an orthodox English route. Among his predecessors were the writers George Orwell and Philip Larkin.

Parr’s first mature work, in the 1970s, was devoted to the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, much in the gentle black and white tradition of Cartier-Bresson and Brandt. But he had at the same time a quite different variety of photographic experience. While a student at Manchester Polytechnic he worked for a time at a Butlins holiday camp. There he discovered the postcards made for Butlins by a photographer called John Hinde. These were everything Brandt and Cartier-Bresson were not – brash, lurid in colour, devoted to an everyday, contemporary world that was invisible to highbrow people.

These postcards, and in general what Parr calls vernacular photography – someone snapping their family on the beach – influenced the way his work changed in the ’80s. “The bright, saturated colours are there, and that’s part of the reason why I liked those pictures. If you took serious photography in the ’70s, it was in black and white.“

Parr also began collecting postcards, which were eventually published in the hugely successful series of Boring Postcards books. These bring out another aspect of Parr’s work. It can be very funny. Boring Postcards – followed by US and German versions – is one of the few photographic books that can make you laugh out loud, time and again.

At the same time, like many truly hilarious things, it is shot through with poignancy. It is touching just to reflect that anyone, ever, thought it worth transforming these scenes – The Lounge, Manchester Airport; Butlins, Bognor Regis: The Reception Hall; Brent Cross Shopping Centre – into postcards. But these caravan parks, power stations and town centres represent, Parr says, “the whole idea of rebuilding Britain after the war in an optimistic time, the ’50s and ’60s. It’s that optimism that now looks rather sad, and funny.

“Boring Postcards is a misnomer,“ says Parr, “because they are fascinating. But if you called them ‘Interesting Postcards’ no one would be interested. They show so well how our attitudes change as only a postcard can. When the M1 was first built, people thought it was a fantastic novelty. I remember going on it for the first time, and it was a real treat. Every service station had a range of 10 or 12 cards.“

As a coda to the Boring books, Parr made a pilgrimage to the small town of Boring, Oregon, where he took 468 photographs of such subjects as Boring Middle School and the Boring Sewage Treatment Facility. It’s an extended joke on Parr’s fundamental idea – that the ordinary, and hence boring, is actually interesting.

In Parr’s own photographs, many of the themes of his postcard collection are present – the vulgarity of our pleasures and pastimes, the feeling of loss. But there is sometimes something else – a sense of physical distaste.

Recent projects such those devoted to the package tour Mecca of Benidorm, and the still life series Common Sense, focus on such things as a mass of pre-cooked bacon weltering in fat. A pallid mass of uncooked sausages is contrasted with a glistening piece of chewing gum at the side of an ashtray. The bloated, reddened bodies of sunbathers are seen, close up.

Again, Parr is ambivalent about what he is doing. “I like places like Benidorm,“ he insists. “Not in a patronising way. I genuinely like the glitz and the glamour that the seaside brings. I’m attracted like a jackdaw to colour and sweets.“ On the other hand, “In our globalised, consumer world, there are many things that are unpleasant to look at. So still life is a perfect way to explore an aspect of the modern world.“

For Parr, even iced cakes can tell a story of moral and social decline (he took a memorable photograph of a tray of them, decorated as little pink pigs). “At a fête,“ he says, “you see a cake somebody’s spent an hour making, the ingredients probably cost 50p, and it’s being sold for a pound for charity. That home-made cake, slightly skew-whiff, made with love, is very moving. But a similar cake in a commercial baker’s with its kitsch colours is the embodiment of the consumer society at its worst. So a cake can embody everything that’s good or bad about the world.“

‘Martin Parr’ (Phaidon Press, £24.95) is available from Telegraph Books Direct for £22.95 + £2.25 p&p. To order please call 0870 155 7222.1952 Born Epsom, Surrey. Father a civil servant, mother “quite posh“. Salient childhood memories are of birdwatching with his parents at Hersham sewage farm.

1970-73 Studies photography at Manchester Polytechnic. Makes Home Sweet Home, a model of a Bradford sitting room with cheap perfume and The Sound of Music on loop, for his degree show.

1973 Moves to Hebden Bridge, a town in the Pennines with a small artists’ community -where he meets his wife, Susie Mitchell.

Exhibits on the emerging photo gallery circuit.

1982 Publishes his first book, Bad Weather (of bleak, monochrome landscapes).

1986 The Last Resort, a book of photographs of holidaymakers at a rundown seaside resort, brings him notoriety. Parr is accused of knocking the working classes; he says he’s knocking Thatcherism. The Serpentine Gallery exhibits the pictures.

1989 His follow-up, The Cost of Living, takes on the middle classes.

1994 Joins photographic agency Magnum, a self-electing elite. Parr scrapes in by one vote – the most controversial entry there’s ever been.

1999 Makes the acclaimed social documentary Think of England for BBC2’s Modern Times series. Publishes the popular Boring Postcards – of motorways and shopping centres. Organises Common Sense, an exhibition of photocopies staged simultaneously in 42 galleries across the world, claimed as the largest ever.

2002 A retrospective at the Barbican seals his status.

2003 Subject of one of Alan Yentob’s BBC Imagine arts programmes, where he shows off his Spice Girls crisp bags.

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