Exercise: Martin Parr territory

Brief

Read the document ‘Martin Parr: Photographic Works 1971–2000’ by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

Watch an audio slide show of Martin Parr talking about his progression from B&W to colour photography and The Last Resort.

In this video Martin Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the “hypocrisy and prejudice” in his work. What do you think about this statement? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

Response

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Martin Parr Putting on a Jumper, 2016 by Rob Townsend

I’ve blogged about Parr more than any other photographer over the last few years – from reviewing The Last Resort and his joint exhibition with Tony Ray Jones, to attempting to first of all better understand his appeal and then emulate his style – and I’ve moved from dislike to ambivalence to respect, as I gained a greater understanding of why he works like he does.

My real epiphany was an exhibition I saw at the Hepworth in Wakefield earlier this year, followed by a talk by Parr that I attended at Photo London in May.

I finally ‘got’ Parr. From my Hepworth post:

“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.”

From both the video clip and the NMPFT essay, one thing that comes across increasingly is the level of subjectivity and authorship in his work. The clip includes Parr discussing setting up an ‘arguing couple’ shot for the From A to B project (1995), where he cheerfully admits that he asked the woman to “look miserable”. Similarly, the essay quotes Parr describing his teenage project at Harry Ramsden’s chippy as portraying it “bleaker than it really was” (NMPFT 2002). So Parr clearly isn’t one of those photographers who just neutrally shoots what appears in front of him… he is seeking out particular pictures that present the message he is interested in conveying.

One of the things that I realised over the years about Parr is he is an equal opportunity satirist: he is as comfortable puncturing the upper class and the working class, and especially his own comfort zone, the middle class (this is also where a little acknowledged hypocrisy comes in). He spots the absurdities in all strata of society and picks them out, magnifies them for examination. This expansion of subject matter and approach is discussed in the NMPFT essay:

“The traditional subjects for documentary photographers had, for many years, been the extremes of society – the very rich and the very poor. Middle class consumerism was virgin territory, and the ‘subjective documentarist’ was a new phenomenon.” (NMPFT 2002)

Regarding hypocrisy: his full quote is:

“But I’m a very big hypocrite, insofar that I’m making things and objects which become part of the thing that, if you read my photographs carefully, I’m preaching against. I love the fact that my work is surrounded by hypocrisy and prejudice, and all these things that people don’t expect photographers to be pursuing.” (Parr 2000)

I think he’s being very honest here, more so than most photographers! He’s much more self-aware than I originally gave him credit for. Lots of photography, including documentary photography, is inherently hypocritical – an accusation usually denied except in Parr’s case.

Regarding prejudice: Parr is equally refreshingly open about his reflexivity and authorship. I made a note of something he said at the Photo London talk, about how people react to his photos: “People bring their own prejudices” (Parr 2016) – so prejudice isn’t just something that the photographer brings to the photo, the viewer adds their own. Parr holds up a mirror to the viewer. It’s quite fascinating, psychologically.

I think the closing words of there NMPFT essay summarise Parr extremely well:

“Parr gives us symbols, icons, clichés and trivia. He is a cultural commentator but doubles as a pessimist. He is a satirist and an exaggerator. He is consummate photographer with a love of tradition, and a wicked streak.” (NMPFT 2002)

It’s taken me a while to realise the extent to which Parr has helped to change the face of documentary photography.

Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJinAgBYaLs (accessed 29/07/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/parr.pdf (accessed 29/07/2016)

 

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