Shooting star

Photographer Martin Parr is best-known for his unsparing portraits of Englishness. Is he a cultural curiosity or a talent of enduring significance?
January 25, 2012

At the turn of the millennium, the photographer Martin Parr edited a book of pictures of—though not by—himself. Titled Autoportrait, its contents were culled from a collection amassed over years of travelling. At each stop, he would have his picture taken by a local photographer, or sometimes duck into a photo booth. The resulting shots are uniformly kitsch, each inflected by the local aesthetic—or rather, the local tourist aesthetic. Parr is garbed like a sheikh in Abu Dhabi. In Funchal in Madeira, he stands with his hands jammed in his pockets against a painted woodland scene. A monkey in polka-dot shorts rides his forearm in Benidorm. With each page turned, Parr’s identity seems to grow more blurred.

On a squally day at the end of last year, I was able to study Parr for myself. Dressed in greyish beige, with brown leather clodhoppers, he looks like a geography teacher who whips out a guitar on field trips and soft-pedals on communism. As his tall frame slouches over a mince pie, it’s tempting to try to capture him in the style of his oeuvre, zooming out, perhaps, to sneak in this morning’s post scattered across the kitchen table: a mailing from the RSPB, the Toast catalogue, a subscription copy of Private Eye.

“It’s posh,” he says of his five-storey Georgian townhouse, surrounded by heritage footpaths and stepped streets in the Clifton area of Bristol. A Christmas tree glows delicately in one window but the rest of the house is unlit, the ebbing light erasing all trace of the saucy colour that Parr has sought out since switching from black-and-white film in 1982. There is kitsch in abundance—Saddam-decorated wristwatches, a bin Laden condom—but it’s enclosed in a tall glass cabinet that Parr illuminates museum-style at the flick of a switch.

Over the course of a career nearing its 40th year, Parr has become one of the world’s most successful living photographers. Beginning with “The Last Resort,” his iconic series capturing New Brighton, Merseyside’s working-class seaside spot [see right], and continuing with the upwardly-mobile of the Thatcher era, he has emerged as an unsparing chronicler of our nation’s foibles and an obsessive typologist of questionable taste the world over, reporting from a frontline of supermarkets and leisure centres.

Along the way, he has carved out additional roles as a creator of photobooks (some 60 titles and counting), a curator and, more recently, a documentary filmmaker. Though he only ever describes himself as a photographer, his rise also tells the story of the medium’s transition from a commercial to an accepted fine art form. As Martin Newth, head of the Fine Art BA at Chelsea College of Art and Design, notes, “Perhaps Parr’s most significant contribution has been to bridge the gap between photography’s status as an editorial, documentary ‘craft’ and the medium’s place within the world of contemporary art. If nothing else Martin Parr is hugely popular. This popularity has managed to transcend some barriers that previously existed between the worlds of art and photography.”

His best-known work is defined by a bluntness, its shots composed with a knowing carelessness that suggests unvarnished veracity. Nevertheless, there is something slippery about their intent. To some, he’s helping us laugh at ourselves; to others, his aesthetic is inherently patronising. He’s been seen as ridiculing his subjects, folk who lack refinement or have been caught doing something they’re ill at ease with, like eating in public. Perhaps surprisingly, Parr has never been hit by one of his subjects.

For his own part, he insists that people see merely what they want to see in his photos. “I never condemn. If it’s condemned, it’s because someone else wants to condemn and I’ve just helped them do it, yeah? But hopefully in an entertaining way, because first I want to engage, and it’s easier to engage with entertainment than with over-serious photojournalism.”

These days, Parr spends more than half his time abroad. He’s just returned from a trip to China, a country he’s been visiting since 1986. Later this year, he’ll tick another destination off his wishlist when he travels to Cambodia. Though everywhere is photogenic, he admits that it can be tough photographing “neat countries” like Scandinavia. (His own home is very neat. Bathed in this wan, wintry afternoon light, it recalls some of the stylish interiors from the hit Danish TV thriller, The Killing.)

Though Parr remains best known for chronicling Englishness, his work is more popular abroad. The French in particular revere him, drawn to his flair for sending up their old foe. Parr, though, prefers to think of his work as mischievous, or “mis-chee-vious” as he pronounces it, overacting its meaning.

What makes his work provocative, he believes, is the way he gives the lie to most of the photography that we consume. “I show things as they are, whereas we live in a world where the role of photography is to basically lie and be a form of propaganda.” There it is, in its flashbulb controversy: “propaganda,” a word that Parr is fond of flourishing in interviews.

“I love this word because it’s the perfect description of most of the photography which we digest. The role of photography is usually to sell something or an idea or a concept, whether it’s your family album to show that your family’s really perfect and nuclear or whether it’s something basic like advertising or a fashion shoot where you’re selling the clothes or the product.”

Yet Parr dabbles in this himself. For instance, he shot the summer 2011 look-book for the fashion chain Urban Outfitters. “Oh, I’m very promiscuous,” he says, aiming to shock. “It’s a form of prostitution, the only reason you do it is because they pay a lot of money, and you acknowledge that you’re forsaking your agenda for someone else’s, but you apply your style and technique and language. The reason I could never work for big-brand fashion companies is because I am too subversive. I don’t actually believe in the outright glamour of it all. I do occasionally dally with labels like Louis Vuitton—or they dally with me—but they drop me pretty quickly.”

Clearly, Parr enjoys a verbal scrap. He complains that British journalists are out to get him, treating each interview like a battle they have to win, yet admits he never turns down requests. His membership of Magnum, the legendary photographic agency run as a co-operative and founded by photojournalists including Robert Capa, was hotly contested and finally granted in 1994. He looks back on the acrimony leading up to it with great pride. “When I got this fax from Cartier-Bresson saying I was from another planet, I thought, wow, this is fantastic!”

But how subversive is he? In the broader culture, his vision of England has grown increasingly mainstream. Wouldn’t he agree there’s something of his perspective in TV’s Little Britain‚ for instance? “I guess,” he admits. “And of course David—Walliams,” he adds, because not everyone is on first-name terms with telly royalty, “He does tell me that he saw my ‘Think of England’ documentary as one of the show’s triggers.”


Mischievous, provocative, subversive: they’re the go-to poses of the contemporary visual artist. But as we talk on and Parr shows me round the collections and his top-floor book-lined office, it’s a lesser word, a verbal tic, that seems most revealing of his work: “Yeah?” Ubiquitous as a teenager’s “like,” it peppers more than punctuates his sentences. It slyly implies room for debate while leaving none: a conversation stopper rather than starter. “I’m showing it as I find it, yeah? Which inevitably doesn’t correspond with what it’s expected to look like, because representation comes with so much baggage. Of course, I’m subjective as well, yeah? I come with my own baggage.”

Parr’s baggage is that of a suburban grammar-school boy. Raised in Surrey, where his father was a civil servant and mother a housewife, he has one sister, seven years his junior, who is a social worker in Liverpool. There are, to his knowledge, no artists in the family tree, and if any art hung on the family’s walls when he was a child, he cannot remember it. But at the age of 13, he went to visit to his grandfather in Calverley, near Leeds. A retired printer and amateur photographer, Grandpa Parr quickly passed along the shutterbug habit to his grandson. “From Grandad to Martin, hoping he will cultivate a seeing eye for all beauty of line, form and colour,” reads the inscription in Parr’s copy of Instructions to Young Photographers.

Parr returned to the north for college, enrolling in a photography course at Manchester Polytechnic. While he idolised the likes of Robert Frank and Tony Ray-Jones, his tutors were focused on commercial photographers like David Bailey and Terence Donovan. After failing the theory paper and almost getting kicked off the course, he thumbed his nose at their traditionalism by creating an installation for his diploma show. “Home Sweet Home” was a freestanding set of rooms crammed with chintz and flying ducks, its rose-papered walls adorned with photos in frames bought in Woolworths and jazzed up with cake decorations. Tracks from The Sound of Music and South Pacific played on a cassette recorder.

More educational were his summers as a student in 1971 and 1972, when he took a job as a photographer at Butlins in Filey, nearby on Yorkshire’s east coast. “It was a very good learning process. I like to engage with people—part of the success of being a ‘walkie’ was you had to charm, basically. And of course, it was quirky to this middle-class kid with its strange traditions and bright colours: all very attractive. It was full of energy, that’s why I liked Butlins. I’ve always been drawn to seaside resorts, not so much because they’re kitsch, which is what most people would say, but because they’re very energetic.”

He also became interested in collecting the work of the postcard photographer John Hinde, who is one of his strongest vernacular influences. Parr has been a collector all his life, beginning with fossils and coins and lately encompassing Gaddafi watches, one of which has just arrived via eBay (they’re much rarer, he explains, than the Saddam timepieces.) Before his grandfather turned him into a photographer, his father, an avid birdwatcher, taught him about collecting. Collecting and photographing, Parr says, are very compatible. “It’s the same gene, if you like.” Later, when I ask him what he’s looking for through his viewfinder, he explains that he’s “sorting out the world. You’re collecting images to make sense of it all.”

A crucial part of collecting, of course, is categorising, which he does compulsively and with some accuracy. “Milk no sugar, I’m assuming?” he says to me, dousing a teabag in scalding water. Categorisation is central to Parr’s work. As the curator Val Williams notes in her retrospective, Martin Parr (Phaidon, 2004), he homed in on his recurring types early: “the tourist laden with guidebooks, the middle-aged woman with lipstick very bright or a little smudged, leaning forward for a kiss, shoppers, people reading or eating in cars.”

Parr agrees that his core subject matter has remained consistent, adding that he’s interested in “making these pictures function in years to come, so they tell us about the times they live in. I’m very aware of the responsibility to document and interpret in an interesting way, not to be seduced by nostalgia which is a very easy thing to be if you’re a photographer.”

Yet his vision has grown rawer, harder too, since the photographs he produced on leaving Manchester for Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, where he recorded eccentric local rituals, prize-winning vegetables, and the ageing congregation of the Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel. Consider “Gamekeepers,” a photograph from 1976. There’s a quietness to its traditional look that is compelling, even haunting. “Propaganda!” he’d say. Or perhaps he’d detect a telltale trace of nostalgia.

When Ian McEwan received an unexpected cheque for a story, he splurged on a photo by Parr, who was unknown to him then. “Jubilee Street Party” shows a washed-out northern scene. In an introduction to Parr’s Home and Abroad (Cape, 1993), McEwan praises its “muscular documentary quality,” and the ways it makes “a muted moral point—or perhaps less a point, more a delicate shading,” about community and loyalty and persistence.

Taken in 1977, it belongs to the “Bad Weather” series, completed in 1982, the year Parr switched to colour. In this he was influenced by the Americans, but unlike, say, Joel Sternfeld, whose deep hued scenes lure the eye with suggested narratives, Parr’s colour dazzles, jumping out at you rather than pulling you in. At the same time, his organisational themes tend to take over, the pictures themselves seeming to grow sloppier, too much of a piece with the throwaway culture they frequently capture. As Philip Jones Griffiths, one of the Magnum veterans opposed to Parr, observed at the time: “His photographs titillate in some way, but the fact is that they are meaningless.”

To others, that lack of meaning is their meaning. In the same year he captured the gamekeepers, Parr took some photographs at New Brighton, the seaside resort that would later yield the controversial series that made his name. In one, two middle-aged couples pick their way man-and-man, wife-and-wife, across the windswept beach in headscarves and cloth caps. Less than a decade on, litter would replace the crested waves in Parr’s vision, and the grey couples would be supplanted by ice-cream splotched babies bawling in acidic Technicolor.

In his boyhood, while his father trained his binoculars on birds every Saturday at Hersham sewage works, young Martin would watch the birdwatchers and do some collecting of his own, scurrying around in search of pellets for a natural history museum he made in the basement of the family home. “Do you know what a pellet is?” he asks. He tells me anyway, “So when a bird of prey regurgitates…” Pellet collecting. It’s a clunky but not inaccurate metaphor for Parr’s interest in the bright debris of consumer culture: crisp packets and ice lolly wrappers.

But this culture also repels him.“If I start thinking about all these issues we have with sustainability, I get very depressed. I mean, you and I are the problem in the world, not President Mugabe or the last famine in Africa or wherever. We are part of the wealthy west. But there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

In his book The Cost of Living, Parr described the middle classes as the “comfortable class.” Few people are feeling comfortable at the moment, least of all in the squeezed middle. We in the west remain objectively wealthy, of course, but these are straitened times and it seems likely that we will look to art, and photography, to reflect that. After all, isn’t there something fundamentally decadent in the appreciation of kitsch?

To hear Parr describe his latest projects, it seems as if the climate of austerity has already inflected his work. He is moving beyond anatomising clichés, he says, to investigate “what’s really happening.” Along with new books, he’s embarking on a four-year study of the West Midlands. Is this a step back towards the social documentary tradition he started out in?

Parr’s career straddles enormous changes in his medium. Technologically, it is profoundly altered, but in Britain, its standing in the art world has also been transformed. Parr’s first ever exhibition was held in a corridor at Kendal Milne department store in Manchester. His latest curatorial project, “Richard and Famous,” a trio of exhibitions musing on fame and documentary portraiture, is showing at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery until 18th March. It is one of the nation’s oldest dedicated photographic spaces, yet it opened in 1977. And it was just a decade ago that Parr took part in “Cruel and Tender,” which was hailed as the Tate’s first proper photography show.

Though Parr insists the art world has not “fully embraced” him, in the way that it has taken to German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, for example, his work shares something with the slightly younger generation of fine artists lumped together as the Brit Art pack. Like them, he emphasises engagement with his audience, caring nothing for the nature or depth of their reaction, only that they react (Damien Hirst and co traded on shock; Parr uses humour.) Like them, he has never cared much for the technical aspects of his practice. Ansel Adams said that the relationship between the print and the negative was akin to that of score and performance, but Parr farms the processing out. Asked what his first camera was, he’s hazy. “It may have been a Retinette. I’m not that into the gear.”

Richard Avedon, the American photographer, maintained his portraits were more about himself than the people he photographed. Ultimately, Parr’s are about neither subject nor photographer so much as the viewer—their true subject. So what about when subject and viewer are one and the same? As part of the West Midlands project, each of his subjects will receive a ten-by-eight print of themselves and an invite to the opening of the resulting exhibition. Will that private view become the work itself: a conceptualist extension of his diploma room-set?

Martin Parr is many things: a satirist and an iconoclast, a collector and a chameleon, amassing without judgement and glad to let his work mean anything to anyone. Yes, it provides a canny commentary on theories of representation and our nation’s legendary class-consciousness. But isn’t that in itself elitist: an in-joke that requires an art-history primer? I wonder if the joke isn’t ultimately on Parr. His success tells us most about how low our expectations of visual art have fallen. It’s become entertainment in the most fleeting sense of the term. Though his photos do nothing to ennoble their subjects—that would be propaganda—by equal measure, we no longer seem to expect visual art to offer a transcendent, wisdom-conferring experience. Perhaps that goes for photography especially, a medium that has become so accessible it doesn’t even require a camera for us to take a shot. A mobile phone will do fine.

As our conversation winds to a close, Parr’s wife Susie appears and asks if he’s seen their terrier. “Do you have a dog?” Parr asks me. “Would you like one?” As Susie chides him for trying to sell me the dog, he insists he was trying to give it to me and he’ll chuck in a fiver for dog food. Her assumption is instructive: Martin Parr is a man who takes even as he humorously gives.