This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
PHOTOGRAPHIC WORKS 1971- 2000
FOR KS2-4, FE & HE STUDENTS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, ART,ENGLISH, HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES.
New Brighton, Merseyside, from The Last Resort, 1983-6 (original in colour)
National Museum of Photography Film & Televsion, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD1 1NQ
This major retrospective exhibition, curated by Val Williams, explores the career of Martin Parr, arguably the most influential and innovative figure in British social documentary photography. Bringing together around 150 works and several installations, the exhibition explores the humorous, provocative and incisive nature of Parr’s internationally established and distinctive vision. The exhibition includes a selection of Parr’s lesser-known black and white work, much of it created in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester in the 1970s alongside several colour series’ from the 1980s, including The Last Resort and The Cost of Living. More recent featured projects include Common Sense (1999) and Cherry Blossom (2000).
Martin Parr was born in 1952 and brought up in suburban Surrey. His was an uneventful middle class childhood, spent for the most part in a thirties-built bungalow that Parr was later to describe as drab, suburban and dreary. His father was a keen ornithologist. Martin would often accompany him on bird-watching trips, and family holidays (often to Norfolk or France) were usually characterised by his father’s love of nature, and enthusiasm for birds of prey. Religion also played a part in Parr’s early life, both parents being practising Methodists, and he himself attending Sunday School. Parr’s father had a keen interest in collecting, demonstrable through his hobbies, and Martin inherited the bug. Evidence of this interest can be seen in Parr’s work - his choice of subject and method of portrayal, but it can be witnessed in his personal life too, as several now well-known collections have made evident: Boring Postcards and Autoportraits in particular. During his childhood, Martin made regular visits north, to see his grandfather, George Parr, who lived in Bradford,Yorkshire. George Parr, Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, was a selftaught, working-class, amateur photographer whose enthusiasm for the subject had a deep impact on Martin. It was during these visits that George Parr took his grandson on regular day trips, often to northern seaside resorts.These resorts were the sorts of places Martin never visited with his parents and he quickly became fascinated with (what he described as) the ‘brash’ side of English life, found at places like Scarborough, Blackpool and Morecambe. At the age of about 15 Parr began to visit photographic exhibitions. Soon he was introduced to the magazine Creative Camera. An early visit to an exhibition by photographer Bill Brandt had a profound effect upon him. He described the feeling in 1992:
Well, I just went round and thought God! photography is fantastic, this is what I want to do ...(photography) was graphic, immediate, accessible, all those sorts of things. I mean you can’t really explain why people are hooked into these things, but I definitely just felt the bug, and you know, I’ve had it ever since.
Parr shot one of his first photographic series’ when he was about 16 years old. It was taken during one of his trips to Yorkshire, at the famous fish and chip restaurant Harry Ramsden’s. Demonstrating confidence, obvious ability and an enthusiasm for social documentary photography, Parr portrayed the shop as (in his own words) quite a sad place, bleaker than it really was - to emphasise his strong feeling that many places that interested him would soon be lost – outdated victims of a homogenised and sanitised society. It was about two years later, in 1970, that Martin Parr moved to Manchester to study photography at the Polytechnic. College life was exciting and exotic in comparison to life in Ashtead, and Parr was delighted to be able to devote all his time to exploring and photographing the ordinary, day-to-day things that he enjoyed so much about British culture and society.
Princess Anne’s wedding, from the Home Sweet Home installation, 1974
His personal interest in exploring ‘Britishness’ soon became a major theme in Parr’s photographic work. It was in particular evidence in his early work and in that undertaken with college colleague Daniel Meadows.Together Parr and Meadows worked on joint projects, initially at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, and later at June Street in Salford where they photographed people’s living rooms in an ordinary terraced street. Influenced by British photographer Tony Ray Jones’ quirky and charismatic photographs of English customs and places, Parr developed his fascination with human life and behaviour:
The thing that impressed us most of all was looking at the work of Tony Ray Jones… Suddenly here were some of the ideas and thinking that we had seen from the American greats… taken into an English context. All the surreal qualities and the offbeat way of looking at things were there in Tony Ray Jones, so he became sort of like a benchmark of what was possible, and was certainly one of the most revealing sets of photographs that I had ever seen at that particular point in time.
Butlin’s fascinated Parr. It provided a wealth of opportunity to view and experience British social life at its loud and exuberant best – it was different to anything that Parr had ever experienced previously. Parr and Meadows became employees at the camp, living in a chalet with free board and lodgings and only Saturdays off.They took countless photographs of the resort and its guests. In 1972 the resulting exhibition Butlin’s by the Sea went on show at Impressions Gallery in York.
Dublin, 1981, from Bad Weather
Parr was interested in the ordinariness of life. He wanted to observe and record the way people decorated their living rooms, socialised on holiday, their values, attitudes and the trivia they possessed and discussed. He was also keen, with an almost anthropological interest, to document the many aspects of daily human life that he feared were under threat or being eroded. Fascination with the odd pockets of life that he found on his travels around the country, and fears about their demise led to his next significant body of work - The Non-Conformists. The Non-Conformists was first shown at The Half Moon Gallery in London, in 1981. It was the culmination of six years work and featured photographs of the people of Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, a community that Parr had joined upon leaving college.The exhibition concentrated mainly on the Methodist and Baptist traditions that have characterised the area since their introduction over two centuries ago, and drew on its heritage and industrial history.
Hebden Bridge,Yorkshire 1976
Steep Lane Baptist Chapel,Yorkshire, 1976
Nestling in the Pennines, Hebden Bridge is a testament to the industrial greatness of the past. Now the industries that made the region famous are gone, the mills have closed down and the town is increasingly dependent upon tourists. In the mid 1970s Parr began photographing many of the idiosyncratic characters he found in Hebden. A sense of fragility pervades these nostalgic images, which demonstrate a loyalty to tradition and a concern for the decline of traditional values and the time-honoured activities of local communities. Humour, juxtaposition, oddity, irony, poignancy and sometimes sadness can also be seen in this work. His subjects are often caught looking vaguely absurd; he has photographed them in unguarded moments.They mark the beginning of his ever-increasing collection of photographs of people and communities, but in addition, refer back to his own Methodist upbringing. Until the early 1980s, documentary photographers had been concerned with the ‘truth’ value of the image, and had produced mainly small-scale (35mm) black and white images.There was a shift in British photography during the 1980s as a new generation of photographers (of which Parr was firmly a part) began to gain attention. Breaking with a past which had been dominated by the work of men such as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Bill Brandt who, using 35mm black and white film, established a documentary aesthetic which would become an established tradition. Parr, along with others such as Paul Graham, Paul Reas and Chris Steele-Perkins began using fill-in flash, medium format cameras and colour in their work.These ‘new’ photographers began to build on the work that Tony Ray Jones had begun in the 1970s - of using photography subjectively to explore Britain’s cultural and social life from a personal perspective.Their work fed on the radical economic, social and political changes which the post-industrial climate of the late 1980s had brought. Objectivity suddenly became impossible; claims to be able to depict the ‘truth’ seemed bogus. Parr’s particular interests were class and consumerism. Previously unexplored by documentary photographers, the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s meant that consumerism and consumption were playing a much bigger role in the daily lives of the British population than ever before.The traditional subjects for documentary photographers had, for many years, been the extremes of society - the very rich and the very poor. Middle class consumerism was virgin territory, and the ‘subjective documentarist’ was a new phenomenon. Photography was changing and a new, contemporary, exciting approach was being adopted. Between the years 1983-1985 Parr photographed the British working class at leisure in the northern seaside resort of New Brighton, on the Wirral.The work, named The Last Resort, combined flash and vivid colour in a way not seen before in British documentary photography.The exhibition influenced the future of the medium and established Parr as one of the most important photographers of his generation.
New Brighton, Merseyside, from The Last Resort, 1983-6 (original in colour)
The Last Resort portrays northern families having a day out by the sea, but their chosen resort - New Brighton - is a filthy, litter-strewn town. Women sunbathe next to the bulldozers and cranes that idle for the weekend, their children paddling in a sea full of rusty cans and sodden newspapers. Babies have their nappies changed beside the filth whilst adults smoke, play arcade games, read pulp fiction, visit dreary cafés. Families eat chip lunches surrounded by litter bins which overflow with yet more wooden forks, polystyrene trays and disposable cups. The Last Resort is a depressing series of images, and they depict the British working class in an unforgiving light. But there is a profound sense of sadness in this series.The pictures, telling tales of ordinary lives, depict groups of people spending their leisure time in shabby resorts just to escape the daily grind – usually for the benefit of the children.This run-down town, temporarily full of people from other run-down towns and cities was symptomatic for Parr of a supposedly affluent society falling apart at the seams.
Throughout the 1980s the population of New Brighton dwindled.There were times during these years however that the resort was unusually busy and enjoyed crowds, on the odd hot Sunday or Bank Holiday. In the main it was these times that Martin Parr photographed. At other times, the resort was often nearly deserted, with businesses and residents struggling to make a living from the scarce visitors. Parr’s photographs have changed over the years as his interests have developed but elements remain, notably the saturated colour and fill-in flash, introduced during The Last Resort days, which reflect the language of mass tourism – flash-lit and brightly coloured postcards, brochures and snapshots. At variance with every convention of documentary photography, Parr’s pictures continue to concentrate on the details of contemporary culture and make a spectacle of the ordinariness of everyday life. Medium format cameras, wide-angled lenses, colour, flash and a new subjectivity have given Parr’s photographs a new sense of immediacy and urgency. Parr was able to influence the future of social documentary photography directly by taking up a teaching position at Newport in Gwent. He encouraged his students to experiment with negative film, medium format cameras and flash to capture what he called the ‘brashness’ of the 1980s, despite the prevailing attitudes of photography critics who still believed this to be the language of the advertising photographer. Martin Parr and Paul Graham also taught at West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham and a number of now famous names emerged during their time there such as Anna Fox, Paul Seawight and David Moore. All these photographers have continued extending, subverting and challenging the documentary aesthetic. In the mid 1980s photography was still a marginal art form and as such, many photographers experienced considerable difficulty in securing venues for the exhibition of their work. In partial response to this, the Arts Council of England supported many photographers of the day by awarding Publishing Grants to enable the distribution of work in book form. Often, photographers working in the context and style of the new documentary aesthetic found themselves in receipt of these grants and Parr was no exception. Additionally, being able to find a prestigious London venue for The Last Resort in The Serpentine meant that he was well and truly on the way to being one of the the most important documentary photographers of the decade. The Last Resort was produced during 1983-6. Shortly after its completion in 1987 Parr and his family moved south, from Wallasey to Bristol. Because Parr’s photographic reputation had thus far been built on photographing in the North, the move was dramatic. During the years that immediately followed Parr photographed his next major series The Cost of Living.
The Cost of Living focuses on the middle-classes. For the first time in his work Parr began to scrutinise his own position as someone who (like many of the other subjects of these photographs), had flourished financially during the Thatcher years, despite it being a time and political climate to which he was opposed. Recognising himself as the product of middle class suburbia, The Cost of Living sees Parr exploring his ‘own’ class, rectifying any imbalance left after The Last Resort and its examination of the working classes.
Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire, from The Cost of Living, 1986-9 (original in colour)
The work is preoccupied with consumerism. Asserting still further his right to photograph subjectively, the pictures concentrate on the then newly affluent middle class – the retail generation.
The subjects of the photographs make small-talk and chit-chat.They eat strawberries from little plastic bowls at functions and the extra sugar is optional.The absurdity is accentuated by the frozen, ludicrous expressions which Parr has stolen, to make them look intense, smug, bored, disapproving… but never intentionally and probably never even consciously. Laura Ashley is never far away.
The builders are just finishing a thatched-roofed detached Tudor house in Milton Keynes, and Morris Dancers jig and tinkle in front of McDonalds. People are choked by barbecue smoke, hang ruched satin blinds in front of a perfect English landscape, arrange pink paper napkins in sundae glasses… No one ever overdoes it in these photographs: a kiss is a peck on the cheek, a paper plate is more practical than china. No one smokes or gets drunk or sniggers at pottery owls.
Conservative victory party aboard the SS Great Britain, Bristol from The Cost of Living 1986-9 (original in colour) 10
During the 1980s The Last Resort and The Cost of Living were Parr’s most important projects. In 1988 he began his association with Magnum, and began the lengthy process of becoming a fully-fledged member of the famous co-operative photographic agency that had been established by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa in 1947.The nineties saw Parr’s career become even more notable and acclaimed. A high point was the 1992 TV series produced in collaboration with BBC TV producer / director Nick Barker, Signs of the Times. Signs of the Times was a series of documentary programmes about the way people decorate the interiors of their homes. Featuring various people from all walks of life and carefully selected from a cast of thousands, these unlikely stars talked about their taste and articulated their hopes and aspirations to the nation. It was tremendously powerful television, incisive, invasive tragic, funny. Val Williams describes it thus:
What Parr and Barker chronicled was what happens when design becomes transmuted into popular taste. They reported on the death throes of the ruched venetian blind, the mug tree, the dried flower and the pine kitchen. Barker chose people for his films that, try as you might, you could not help but laugh at, even if you felt a bit ashamed when you did so… ….Signs of the Times may ostensibly, have been about taste, but really, it was about our dreams, our desires, to be better people than we feel we are, to be more glamorous, more impressive, more satisfied.
A subsequent project, From A to B – Tales of Modern Motoring (1995) was about people’s relationships with their cars, and included quotes from the subjects of the photographs, as Signs of the Times had done. Small World, a long running project (completed in 1994) was about the travel business and the relative ease with which people were suddenly able to travel around the globe, purchasing souvenirs to evidence the trip. In it, Parr pictures tourists roaming around various parts of the world with video cameras clamped to their eyes, recording sites and places that are year by year less authentic, genuine and fresh.The ability to capture familiar landmarks on film determines, to some extent, the success of the trip. But Small World is not just about people’s love of photographing landmarks. It is a fascinating critique of the tourist industry and the manufacture of ‘heritage’. Often, Parr’s pictures show large groups of people massing in or around an area of special interest. Often comical, the photographs make a spectacle of the gathering, the photographing, the reverence.There is a familiarity in these pictures – to any of us who have been tourists ourselves - visiting landmarks and seeing the ‘sights’.The tourist industry strips out the authenticity (and therefore the meaning), with skillful regularity and determination.
Pisa, Italy from Small World, 1987-94 (original in colour)
In the photograph, the tour guide carries a miniature reproduction of the original painting of the mill and indicates the area which Constable painted. This confirms that the party has arrived at the site, and overcomes the tourists’ fears of failing to see the desired spot.
Consumerism and commodified culture continues to be an obsession for Martin Parr. Over the last decade his camera has moved ever closer in on his subject, picturing detail with remorseless clarity. His latest project, Common Sense depicts almost unbelieveable detail - a single piece of used chewing gum (still glistening with saliva) discarded in an ashtray; a fly on
the wide brim of a smart woman’s hat; buns shaped and fondant-iced in pink so as to look like pigs, hairy backs in Benidorm, stringy bacon, tattoos, cigatettes, footballs and dogs in sunglasses. All harshly lit and brightly coloured. Parr has moved a long way away from the familiar portraits of the idiosyncratic characters he found in Hebden Bridge, June Street or at Butlin’s Holiday Camp.Val Williams suggests that the images are a testament to Parr’s grief at the loss of much traditional British culture. In his way Parr loved the village shows and prize shallots, the Osmonds fans festooned with badges and rosettes, the ballroom dancers twirling on chilly open-air dance floors and the tiny Methodist chapels of the Calder Valley. Williams wonders if these photographs are a comment on how frivolous, insensitive and sensation-seeking society has become in recent years.
Auction of Harvest Festival goods, Pecket Well Methodist Chapel, 1978
In the 1970s Parr photographed houses that were small and unassuming – June Street, Sarah Hannah Greenwood’s farmhouse in Crimsworth Dean, holiday experiences that were basic and communal – Butlin’s, the English Seaside. Then he saw society around him change – swagged curtains, faux country kitchens, package holidays to the Gambia, three bedroomed manor houses on a new estate. Parr insists that when he began to photograph in colour in the early 1980s it was to rid himself of what he saw as his own romance and nostalgia, to make photographs that were more raw, more witty, more nerve-wracking. But perhaps the pictures of the 1980s and 1990s, from ‘The Cost of Living’ through to ‘Small World’, ‘Signs of the Times’ ‘Common Sense’ and ‘Think of England’ are just as much a lament for what has disappeared as they are a satire on what took their place’.
Common Sense is the backbone of his late 1990s work. It was published in book form in 1999. It is a staggering selection of photographs - it is like an assault.Vulgar and garish, that’s 90’s corporate culture. Common Sense is like a dictionary of sins says Williams… a malodorous concoction of the sugary, rotting and fascinating detritus of the Western World. Our individual national and regional identities are disintegrating, we are becoming homogenous.You can buy Spam in Tokyo too, you know. Parr gives us symbols, icons, clichés and trivia. He is a cultural commentator but doubles as a pessimist. He is a satirist and an exaggerator. He is consummate photographer with a love of tradition, and a wicked streak.
14 from Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo 2000 (original in colour)
References 1, Parr, Martin, British Library National Sound Archive, Interviewed by Val Williams, July 1992. From Collection: Oral History of British Photography. 2. Ibid, Parr 3. Martin Parr, Williams,Val. Phaidon Press Limited, 2002, pg 208 - 209 4. Ibid, Williams, pg 212 - 213 5. A Dream of England, Landscape Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination,Taylor, John. Manchester University Press, 1994. 6. Ibid, Williams, pg 277