Parr excellence

Acclaimed photographer Martin Parr recently spoke in Dublin and Caroline O’Leary was there to hear him discuss his life, work and views on photography as art

Acclaimed photographer Martin Parr recently spoke in Dublin and Caroline O’Leary was there to hear him discuss his life, work and views on photography as art

The ultimate aim of those who participate in the art world is to create something new and unique, something that has never been seen before. In the world of photography, this task can be particularly difficult: photographers are nearly always restrained by location and situation. Therefore, it is a pleasure to encounter the work of acclaimed photographer Martin Parr, who has spent his entire career creating brutally honest images of the world around us.

On Sunday, 28 September, Parr visited Dublin as part of Ranelagh Arts Week, discussing his life and work, as well as taking questions from the audience. In our modern culture of capitalist gains and glitzy celebrity, it was a welcome surprise to discover that people are still interested in and support a maverick such as Parr, whose photographs focus on the people in society and the world in which we live. Walking into the packed room in Ranelagh’s very modern multi-denominational school, the mass appeal of photography was pleasantly evident in the patient crowd.

Unlike many over-hyped events in Ireland today, there was little fuss and no media, simply a master and a crowd eager to hear him share his wisdom.
Since his early photographic training, Parr has rebelled against what is expected of a photographer and has consistently challenged himself and the perceptions of his viewers by photographing such unorthodox subjects as supermarkets, motorways and the beach as well as the middle classes. Parr describes himself as an obsessive photographer, a trait he believes he acquired from his father who was a keen birdwatcher and used to bring Parr on excursions on the English moors.

The anthropological style of his work means he does not flatter or attempt to mollify his subjects; he photographs society as it happens – normality, gluttony, pasty skin, big hair and every other mundane detail. Though he admits an element of subversion in his work, he doesn’t consider this an evil: “All photography involving people has an element of exploitation. However, I think it would be a very sad world if photographers were not allowed to photograph in public places. I often think of my photographs as a soap opera, and myself as just waiting for the right cast to fall into place.”

I am not an artist, I’m a photographer

Born in London in 1952, Parr’s initial inspiration to become a photographer came from his grandfather, a passionate amateur. He regularly brought Parr on excursions to the Yorkshire countryside and first trained him in using a camera and darkroom. Having decided on his future career, Parr was faced with limited choices for photography training in England, ultimately attending Manchester Polytechnic, where he says “we were essentially trained as photography assistants and, if we wanted to become photographers, were expected to develop ourselves by our own experience.”

From these early college days, Parr’s natural tendency to rebel against the expectations of others was evident, as he worked continually on his own projects outside training and earning the disapproval of those in his college. His pièce de résistance was his final year diploma project. Parr decided to bring his own touch to the standard blank gallery space by creating what he describes as a “really rank” 1970s living room scene, complete with garishly patterned wallpaper, shabby furniture and cheap picture frames; a homey, yet deeply unpleasant, area to house his works.
This challenge to the public’s perceptions of an “exhibition space” is a motif that has continued to inspire and drive Parr’s choice of photography subjects for his entire career.

As well as using unorthodox exhibition spaces, Parr began to experiment with different methods of printing and exhibiting his work, including a collection of portraits printed onto plates and trays. These were inspired by his growing fascination with collecting unusual objects, an interest that would grow and expand throughout his life. Among the most unusual of Parr’s collections are his numerous plates depicting the head of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – a figure he personally despises – and a garish collection of watches with pictures of Saddam Hussain for faces.

After graduation, Parr continued to look for photography opportunities away from the standard and expected. One of his most innovative collections at the time was Bad Weather, inspired by what he jokingly referred to as “the national obsession in both England and Ireland”. At a time when nearly all photographers were working in sunlight and blue skies, Parr decided to challenge people’s perceptions of the norm by buying an underwater camera — “according to the guy in the shop I was the only non-diver ever to buy one.” Parr used this camera to great effect in the monsoon-like conditions of the English countryside.

At this stage, Parr began to realise the subjectivity of images and how different techniques such as flash settings and water spots on the cameras lens could totally change an image. He started to experiment with traditionally “boring” subjects such as car parks and motorways, again questioning the exotic subjects popular at the time. With these photographs, Parr experimented with creating his first photographic book, an exhibition technique that was to become another obsession throughout his career. To this day, he passionately defends the medium as an important method of photographic exhibition.

I often think of my photographs as a soap opera

In the early 1980s Parr’s partner was offered the opportunity to set up Ireland’s first speech therapy centre and the couple moved to Leitrim. Though he confesses the move threw up challenges — “We couldn’t get a phone where we were, which was a bit of a problem for someone trying to work as a freelance photographer!” — Parr revelled in the photographic opportunities that Ireland offered.

In a country on the brink of the Celtic Tiger, Parr photographed the slowly vanishing Irish countryside way of life, with particular interest in old ballrooms and show bands, as well as the Pope’s 1979 visit. In 1983, Parr compiled a book of these photos, with up-and-coming journalist Fintan O’ Toole providing the accompanying text.

In the early seventies, Parr made the great leap from black and white images to colour: “When I was at college, black and white photos were the only acceptable form. Colour was just for holiday photos.” However, after Parr’s return to England, he was inspired by the colour works coming from America, as well the slightly bizarre Technicolor John Hinde postcards produced for Butlins holiday camps, which gave him the inspiration and confidence to begin shooting in colour.

This change proved to be an instrumental one for Parr, as the saturated colour quality of his work soon became one of his trademarks. This is particularly evident in his collection of photos from the urban New Bristol beach in Liverpool, featuring crowds of Thatcherite, working class people relaxing, sunbathing and playing, surrounded by piles of rubbish and construction equipment. This stark contrast of innocent enjoyment against filth and poverty is vividly depicted in Parr’s brightly rendered images, showing some of the best and worst aspects of life in one fell swoop.

Ever one for pushing boundaries, Parr has continued to choose unorthodox subject matter over the years. While many artists have focused on poverty in society, Parr is equally fascinated by the wealthy, frequently photographing high class events such as race meetings. Yet, true to form, these images are not always the most flattering, as overly-tight dresses and orange skin abound.

He has produced collections of photographs taken in supermarkets that reflect the rapidly changing times, as well as moving to Bristol to focus on the British middle class — “Going from Thatcher plates to the people who voted for Thatcher!” Parr has travelled extensively, particularly through Asia and America, recording everything from follies to anomalies.

Unlike many photographers who focus on life and society, Parr also enjoys producing commercial work. In the late eighties, he became interested in magazine photography and the opportunities it offered. After a lengthy application process, he eventually succeeded in joining the world famous Magnum photography agency in 1994 and since 1999 has shot roughly four fashion shoots a year, as well as other work.

However, unsurprisingly, he has his own ideas about what makes an interesting photo shoot: “I love real fashion, using real people to model the clothes. Indeed, trying to make fashion not look like fashion”. He is particularly excited about a recent photo shoot for Elle magazine dubbed Essex Girls, where the magazine brought clothes, jackets and accessories out onto the street and enlisted local girls to model them for the magazine.

However, the world of photography is changing. The boom of the internet and sites like Flickr, as well as the plentiful supply of cheap digital cameras, means that nearly anyone can become a photographer. Parr doesn’t see this a serious threat or challenge to his way of life, however: “The availability of the internet only means that there is a bigger audience for photographers and I am delighted. There are few real places to exhibit photographs.”

Indeed, Parr admits that he only fully transferred from film to digital images in the last two years but he doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing: “The amount of ambient and flash control with digital is a huge benefit and with the opportunities offered on the Internet you would be mad not to use it.” Parr also disagrees with the notion that recent abundant use of Photoshop is causing photographers to need less skill in their work “I have no problem with Photoshop, I only use it occasionally as I think the world is mad enough already! But I have nothing against it as a tool.”

So converted is Parr to modern methods that his London studio is now in the process of scanning every photograph he has taken during his career, which will make transferring and printing far easier. “I am not worried that the craft of photography has changed, I think there will always be people with the ability to say something more important without being intimidated by the techniques involved.”

Modern subject matter has also become more difficult to capture as people become more concerned by the reasons a photographer wants to take their picture: “I don’t always ask for permission, though sometimes it is necessary.” Despite the abundance of unflattering photos in his oeuvre, Parr has rarely been asked to remove photographs from exhibitions and has thankfully never had any major problems as of yet.

Taking photographs in one of his favourite locations, the beach, has become particularly difficult for Parr, as has photographing children, with parents often suspecting ulterior motives.

One of Parr’s most popular and famous photographs of a young boy playing naked on the beach in the 80s later resulted in a humorous situation: “The boy actually e-mailed me to say he was the boy from the picture and that he was now a graphic artist and wanted to know how the photograph had been taken!” Sadly, such innocent images like this would probably no longer be allowed, a sad reflection of the way the world is changing.
Due to the often unorthodox nature of his work, Parr does not consider himself an artist, stating “I am not an artist, I’m a photographer”. He is not inspired by the beauty of the world around us but, rather, by the unusual aspects of human life and is driven by the weight of human expectation that he strives so hard to challenge. He has stated that he believes his best work is behind him now that he lacks the energy and passion of his youth. Yet he continues to search for new ideas and new perspectives to challenge the way we look at both photography and the world around us.