Photographer Martin Parr is best-known for his unsparing portraits of Englishness. Is he a cultural curiosity or a talent of enduring significance?by Hephzibah Anderson / January 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.