Study visit: Martin Parr

The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories: Photographs by Martin Parr

The Hepworth, Wakefield 4th February to 12th June 2016

My first official study visit, led by Derek Trillo who just happens to be my tutor for this course – nice to meet a tutor face to face for the first time.

I came into this exhibition from a stance of being pretty ambivalent about Martin Parr and his work, possibly borderline negative. I know he can be somewhat divisive. Having discussed him with other students I’ve found quite a few people that neither love nor loathe him but find him ‘good in parts’. I recently captured my own thoughts on Parr in a learning log post for the Gesture & Meaning course.

I’ll run through the component parts of the exhibition before summarising my views.

Review

The Rhubarb Triangle

Not necessarily a classic Parr set but engaging nonetheless. The red/yellow colour palette, the quirkiness of the subject matter and the sequencing makes this a more interesting series than it might otherwise have been. One assumes that part of the Hepworth show was to have a new locally-themed project, and luckily rhubarb is quite a photogenic subject.

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The Rhubarb Triangle – Martin Parr

Lots of us students commented on display method: not mounted or framed but merely pinned to the wall on bare paper. I’ve seen Parr do this before at a popup show and assumed it was due to the transient nature of the event but speaking to other students he’s been doing this on other shows recently. To me it speaks of his lack of certainty on which images will make it into his ‘permanent collection’.

Autoportraits

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Autoportraits – Martin Parr

These work so much better on display together than cycled through individually in a web slideshow. It’s a brilliant commentary on varying photographic tastes by culture. It’d be fascinating to put one person from each country in front of the set and ask them to pick out the ‘normal’ portrait, then comment on the others (which would no doubt be variously ‘kitsch’ or ‘boring’ depending on the viewer). It’s the one set that’s really ‘about’ photography.

The early works

The Non-Conformists is the oddity in the Parr oeuvre as it is in black and white, and there’s a sense of him still trying to define his style. He was very influenced by Tony Ray-Jones, especially in the sense of humour, as evidenced by the joint exhibition I saw a few years ago.

The Last Resort is an undoubted classic and while I’ve had the book for a while, it was good to see a selection of the images printed large.

The Cost of Living was a series I was aware of but not all that familiar with. More than any of the others I found this set to perfectly capture the absurdities of the era (the 1980s) that only become obvious to the rest of us with the passage of time.

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The Cost of Living – Martin Parr

Work and Leisure

These are, I understand, compilations of images taken over multiple projects rather than an intentional series. The connecting themes are, according to the Hepworth: “the labour that produces the objects, food and environments that we consume, and the results of that often, ironically, uneasy experience of leisure time“.

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OCA students admiring the Work section

While the Leisure side of the hall was typical Parr, the Work images were less obvious and therefore more interesting. It helped me understand that Parr is not a one-trick pony.

Common Sense

One whole wall is dedicated to an installation of images from Common Sense, Parr’s 1990s take on consumerism. It’s Maximum Parr, a gigantic visual assault on your eyeballs.

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Common Sense – Martin Parr

It feels like Parr taking on board all the criticisms about being garish and kitsch and dialling it up to 11, past the point of caricature. The sense of overwhelm is, I guess, exactly what Parr was aiming to emulate with the combination of the subject matter and presentation.

My thoughts

I have to say at this point that the exhibition did win me over. I feel like I ‘get’ Parr more now than I ever did before.

Intent

The turning point came as I better understood Parr’s intent. The more I read of his writing about his projects, the more they make sense. It really clicked when I saw the following quote printed on the gallery wall “I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment.” (Parr 2010)

The quote above is from Parr on Parr (2010) and in full it’s even more enlightening:

“Remember I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment. That’s part of my mantra. I make the pictures acceptable in order to find the audience but deep down there is actually a lot going on that’s not sharply written in your face. If you want to read it you can read it.” (Parr 2010)

I confess that until now I think I have been misdirected by the aesthetic and missed his more subtle observations.

Curation

One aspect of the show that helped me gain this deeper appreciation was the curation. It showed a range of his work, not just the unflattering, flash-lit beach clichés that journalists reach for. This show includes some of his more ‘serious’ output (such as the ‘work’ half of Work and Leisure). It also excludes the vast majority of the ‘filler’ material that he chomps through in any given year – I still think the man is a little too prolific and could show some more discernment.

Interestingly Parr accepts that not everything he does is a success. In a webchat with the Guardian this week he answered a question about a specific project with:

… you’ll note I’ve never tried to exhibit these photos – they are just part of the archive. I have to confess many of the projects I do do not succeed – I’m only human. I take as many bad photos as anyone else.” (Parr 2016)

This comment on ‘exhibiting vs archiving’ implies an ongoing ‘self-curation’ by Parr. So he is more self-aware than I gave him credit for.

Presentation

There was a variety of presentation methods and this gave different sections of the show their own vibe. The Rhubarb Triangle’s pinned paper prints felt temporary and insubstantial, Autoportraits suited the mis-matched frames, the early work gets treated with more reverence, and Common Sense is the tightly-packed, wall-sized sensory overload that it needs to be.

Summary

Having previously dismissed Parr with the common criticisms – cruel, mocking, patronising – I came to the realisation that he’s not really (intentionally) any of those things. He is curious, probing, prolific and highly observational. He is a thinker and a writer as much as he is a photographer. So maybe I’ve been taken in for too long by the ‘entertainment disguise’. Mea culpa.

The main thing I learned on this study visit is that my mind can be changed in the light of new information.

Oh, and it was great to meet other students and OCA staff to share the visit with. I’ll be going on more study visits. Very useful.

Sources

The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/martin-parr/ (accessed 14/03/2016)

Martin Parr webchat http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/live/2016/mar/10/martin-parr-webchat-strange-and-familiar-barbican (accessed 15/03/2016)

 

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