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’. (Part One, Part Two) In this video Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the “hypocrisy and prejudice” in his work. What do you think about his statement? Write a short reflective commentary.
The trajectory of Martin Parr‘s career and elevation to national treasure status can be seen as an analogy on how photography has developed away from notions that it is a ‘slice of reality’ to acceptance as an artform as subjective as painting. It is difficult to remember how controversial Parr once was, in 1994 his membership of Magnum nearly scuppered by Peter Jones Griffiths impassioned argument that accepting him would be like “embracing a sworn enemy”. He dramatically described Parr’s pictures as fascist because of what he saw as his negative portrayals of the working class who Griffiths regarded as “victims of Tory violence”. Parr gained membership by one vote and is now President of the agency and one of its most senior members.
‘The Last Resort’ series which made Parr’s name no longer shocks on aesthetic terms – the garish colour palette of the images, accentuated by the use of flash, is both recognisably Parr’s signature style and has also used by many other photographers – so many that it could be termed cliched, or at least derivative. The unflinching representation of working class people spending their leisure time in the run down New Brighton resort does still provoke a strong response however – a sympathetic reading could be that Parr is pointing a spotlight on a society that is falling apart, alternatively, he could be said to be sneering, or at best patronising, his working class subjects from a comfortable, middle class perspective – making literal gain from their pathetic situation. Griffiths certainly thought this was the case. Of course, later series’ applied this same view to middle classes and even the super rich, and while this often cited defence of Parr makes sense, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable that it is not these works that he built his career and reputation on. There is a sensationalism in ‘The Last Resort’ and feeling of superiority, although closely followed by guilt in my case, when viewing these pictures. In the introduction to the 2009 edition of ‘The Last Resort’, Gerry Badger argues against the extreme criticism of the series on its release. Although he acknowledges the images are acerbic, he also sees a great deal of tenderness and affection and speculates that it is perhaps the critics own class prejudices, reflected back at them through the pictures, that make them feel uncomfortable. Val Williams agrees, stating that the project is “an exercise in looking” which Badger expands as being a sharp, penetrating vision – something to be praised in photography. One picture that stands out to me in the series is of a young woman selling ice cream in a packed shop. She stands side on, hands on hips in a confrontational manner, facing Parr and us with a powerful gaze that makes us question our assumptions as viewers we may have made and put us firmly in our place.
Parr’s earlier series ‘The Non Conformists’ makes an interesting counterpoint to his later work. For this project he photographed the community of Hebden Bridge where he also lived for six years and to my eye the engagement with the people in the images and clear affection he feels for them is evident. While I would agree with Badger that there is evidence of affection in Parr’s later work, his style becomes that of the outsider, observing life as it unfolds and actively looking for the unusual, kitsch or sometimes grotesque. This is not a problem for me, and Parr’s ways of working appear to be similar throughout his career, but, it does show the difference being part of something rather than separate can have on a body of work.
The acknowledgment by Parr that his work is based on “hypocrisy and prejudice” is provocative but is also something I agree with when considered as part of the fuller argument he presents in the video we are asked to view. He argues that his choice of subject matter is not that which is the traditional subject of photography such as famine and war in the third world and this is surprising as these are not subjects we are used to seeing photographers pursue. The contradictions of his photographs are made plain: by commenting on consumerism by making objects that are also part of what he is preaching against, in his pictures of New Brighton he shows the fabric of the country falling apart and yet celebrates the stoicism of people getting on with things and life going on. His ‘Boring Photographs’ explore how the idea of something that is boring for its own sake can be appealing in a world that is designed to keep our attention. By including himself in his ‘Bored Couples’ series he makes a provocative statement about the nature of photographs themselves and how appearances can deceive. Likewise, ‘Small World’ explores the how the expectation created by the tourism industry is often at odds with reality. I feel a particular resonance with his comments about ‘Think of England’ which address his confusion and ambiguity with his feelings for England – something I share, particularly with my local area, and recognise how it is possible to have feelings of pride and disappointment simultaneously. If we find Parr’s work uncomfortable it is because the prejudices we see in his images are our own – Parr’s gaze is not neutral, clearly his choice of subject and style is for particular effect, but I would say that his work is not cruel, in fact it is often affectionate. The strength of the work is the acceptance of that a photograph can be read both ambiguously and in multiple ways, often at the same time.
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (2002) Martin Parr: Photographic Works 1971-2000. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/parr.pdf [accessed 9th April 2018]
Parr, M. (2009) The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Soth, A. (2007) Badgering Parr. Alec Soth’s Blog, July 1st 2007. Available at: https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2007/07/01/badgering-parr/ [accessed 8th May 2018]