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A spotter’s guide…to Martin Parr

By Hephzibah Anderson  

Martin Parr: chronicler of modern life

Martin Parr is the quintessential anorak. How could he not be, raised by intrepid curtain-twitchers whose weekends were spent bird-watching at a sewage farm in Surrey? He’s gone on to collect everything from John Hinde postcards to Saddam Hussein wristwatches, but his speciality is categorising people. Sharpen your pencils and focus your binoculars, Parr spotters: it’s time to familiarise yourself with some of his favourites.

The shopper
This headless, bare-chested joe clutching his Kwik Save carriers on a street in Salford in 1986 is an uncommon example of a very common species. More often, the shopper is fully clothed and female. An industrious gatherer, her native habitat is the mall and the supermarket, where she reaches and grabs frenziedly or else stands rooted to the spot by bags heavy with her haul. The shopper can be spied the world over, inspecting bruised apples in St Petersburg or hauling bolts of Laura Ashley fabric in southern England.

The lipsticked lady
Her painted mouth is pure Parr. Though she’s among the most colourful of his flock, she can be found in some of the drabbest settings. Here she is, for instance, in Talinn, Estonia, sitting at a checkout buttoned into a white polyester uniform. A long strip of receipts lolls from the cash till—evidently business is brisk but its monotony has left her with that bored look so characteristic of Parr’s people. It recalls the ice cream server from his series “The Last Resort” and makes you wonder whether she has a mother like the one from the “Signs of the Times”—whether she might, in another time and place, grow up to become the lady (the same series) who falls in love with her wallpaper.

The encumbered tourist
Guidebooks and cameras, maps and sunglasses, all the little things that add up to a hulking weight when stuffed into a rucksack or fanny pack… We don’t travel light and we never travel elegantly in Parr’s world. This woman caught in Mexico in 2002 is a classic of the genus. Peering through the viewfinder of her Canon, a sunhat tied on with a scarf and shades at the ready, she’s strapped into a backpack that’s further adorned with a water bottle. A teddy bear, just about visible, rides pillion. The clutter stands in for everything else that we take with us when we travel—perhaps not the weather but our preconceptions, our aspirations, our taste.

The eater
All things greasy are the eaters’ prey. You’ll find them hunched over full Englishes, and ketchup smears are a telltale sign of their recent presence. This is food that looks as if it might bite back. Sausage links bulge from the frame. Pink icing glistens lasciviously. Even in Italy, home of all things gastronomically gorgeous, cones of gelato look to be stifling the eaters. Their greediness makes them vulnerable—it makes them human.

The lesser photographer
Easily mistaken for the encumbered tourist, the lesser photographer—the happy snapper or eager amateur—is really a type all on their own. Whether taking family portraits, or capturing some already much-photographed scene, they epitomise Parr’s belief that photography is propaganda. While they frame their idealised vision of reality, Parr captures the bigger picture—or at least, the bigger picture as he sees it—contextualising they and their images to invariably bathetic effect. This pigeon-pecked woman in Venice is but an extreme example.

More: Hephzibah Anderson meets Martin Parr and asks, is his work art?

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