‘I like ordinary people,’ says the extraordinary photographer Martin Parr, pushing a few high-concept smoked sprats around his plate at St John, the Smithfield restaurant.
Parr is Britain’s best-known photographer, but he is no acolyte of celebrity. Like the Italian anti-designers, his Seventies contemporaries who wanted to dull the sheen of modernism by elevating the mundane (or valorising crap, as I would put it), he is a devotee of the ordinary. But is he celebrating the everyday or mocking it? He never quite answers, although he does say, ‘I enjoy the banal.’ Ask me and I’d say the banal is what we want to avoid.
Since 2014, Martin Parr has been president of Magnum, the celebrated international photographers’ collective. But not every fellow professional warms to him or his work. Some find themselves a bit allergic to his equivocal posturing. ‘My objection is not intellectual but visceral,’ says a senior figure at the Photographers’ Gallery. ‘I just don’t like looking at his photographs.’
A Parr image of the dispossessed enjoying themselves, or falling drunk in sewers, is located in that curious territory between contrived artifice and happy accident. He is interested not so much in reportage as in pictorial opportunism. ‘It’s a soap opera and I am just waiting for the right cast to fall into place.’ And that place is usually the gutter.
Since 1972, when his exhibition Butlins by the Sea was shown at the Impressions Gallery in York, soon after he finished a stint in social services, Parr has been engaged on his big project of documenting national life, a sort of one-man Mass Observation. Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson he cites as inspirations, but so too was Tony Ray-Jones, who died of leukaemia desperately young. Ray-Jones’s deadpan work aimed to capture ‘the spirit and mentality of the English’. This task has been adopted by Parr as his own.
To this end he has published — mostly self-published — about 80 books. All are satires on leisure and consumption. ‘I love tourism. It’s my subject. It illustrates the contrast between myth and reality in interesting places.’ That, of course, depends on which end of the lens you are looking through.
Parr was born in Epsom, good preparation for his wonderful compilation Boring Postcards, which brought together a collector’s fanaticism with a camp crush on architectural ennui. Motorway services in Nantwich? I am making that up, but it’s poetically true. Awfulness fascinates him. The pathos and bathos of boredom excite Parr greatly. ‘If it’s disappointing, the more excited I am.’ He finishes his sprats and contemplates without enthusiasm a dish of rabbit.
Now, Parr has curated an exhibition called Strange and Familiar at the Barbican (16 March to 19 June). This is Britain as seen by the foreign photographers he admires. Besides Cartier-Bresson, there are Robert Frank, Candida Höfer, Paul Strand, Garry Winogrand and Akihiko Okamura. Okamura left Tokyo for the Irish troubles in 1968 while Frank, a Swiss American, did time in the Welsh valleys and Strand lived on punishing South Uist.
It is probably the most ambitious photography exhibition of its sort: a huge, visual mea culpa of egocentric self-loathing. The image used to promote the event was taken in 1980 by the French photographer Raymond Depardon for the Sunday Times. It shows a red Vauxhall Viva miserably parked outside a blackened Glasgow tenement. It is not a pretty sight. ‘There is nothing more fascinating than seeing how other people see us,’ Parr says. Cartier-Bresson once told Parr that he photographed as if he had come from outer space.
Additionally, Parr has an exhibition at the Guildhall called Unseen City (4 March to 31 July), which comprises his own photographs of the Square Mile, a partial homage to the Chilean surrealist Sergio Larrain, who photographed the City in the Fifties. ‘I don’t want to do a number on the Establishment,’ he says. ‘I’m just out to explore. The City of London does not like the Guildhall show because I am showing it like it is.’ There is a third exhibition of his own work at the Hepworth in Wakefield (until 12 June), where the subject is the Rhubarb Triangle, a part of the West Riding celebrated for the cultivation of early forced herbaceous perennials. It’s a very ho-ho but humourless Parr subject. The City is made to look ludicrous. Rhubarb fanatics are turned into heroes.
Martin Parr came to public notice with two television series. The first, in 1992, was Signs of the Times: a Portrait of the Nation’s Tastes. From A to B: Tales of Modern Motoring followed two years later. In the former, he scrupulously avoided beauty or elegance, displaying a nostalgia for mud and a sadistic interest in consumer remorse that was decisively disturbing. In the latter, his subject was the absurdity and vanity of car use and ownership. Fair enough.
‘My job,’ Parr says, ‘is to exaggerate reality.’
His technique helps. Since 1982 Parr has been shooting exclusively in colour, nowadays digitally with a Canon 5D Mark III. He uses a ring flash, a device that surrounds the lens, which removes shadows. This he finds very good for ‘objectifying’ his subjects, something he does very well. A diffuser helps give equal saturation to his spectrum. He never uses Photoshop. To say there is no chiaroscuro in his world is to reveal a truth beyond lighting. Nor is he a street-reporting photographer. Parr does not carry a camera and disdains the immediacy of a smartphone. The pictures we see are deliberate and considered.
I asked him if anyone actually liked being exposed in his mercilessly mocking pictures. ‘All photography involving people has an element of exploitation.’ To compensate, he once asked some Black Country subjects to a private view. He says they enjoyed themselves, even as they were made to look ridiculous.
Strange and Familiar presents a bleak view of historic Britain. There are coal miners, smog, terraces, poor women with wrinkled nylons, urban warfare, geezers, slums and gloom. True, the real mysteries of the world might be the visible rather than the invisible, but I found myself asking, dear God, is this where I grew up? So I asked Martin Parr a similar question. Surely there is more to modern Britain than pavement drunks, council estates, cruddy seasides, bad weather, terrorists and skin disorders? He played with the rabbit.
So, Martin, what would you say to David Cameron about your depressing image of Britain? ‘I’d say this is how people see us. What do you think?’ But aren’t you portraying a desolate and hopeless place? ‘Well, there is irony and mischief here,’ Parr says. ‘Satire we do well. Expressing ambiguity is a national trait. If it’s schizophrenic, then that’s why I am interested in it.’
Martin Parr is tall and dresses, I think a little self-consciously, like an old-fashioned teacher. He declares himself ‘of the left’, but also insists on being middle-middle class and lives in Georgian splendour in Clifton. He drives a smart Audi, although nowadays that is a good disguise. Sharp-tongued, he is not inclined to amusing tittle-tattle. In conversation, there can be silences. He does not appear very interested in other people. Perhaps he is a little self-absorbed. He is as deadpan as his style, although perhaps less colourful.
I was left wondering what judgments Martin Parr makes about the photographs he admires or takes. ‘The thrill is seeing how the camera has turned a moment into an image that can last for ever,’ he explains. This sentiment echoes what Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’. With Parr, I am always left wondering ‘decisive about what exactly?’ I think that in his work kitsch-flavoured mockery bests tolerant indifference, although that’s not to devalue his technical genius or inimitable style. But Parr’s revelation of Britain is his own. Probably not yours and certainly not mine. It is not strange and familiar, but predictable and sadly distorted.