Below, we've excerpted Phillip Prodger's essay from Phaidon's newly released Martin Parr: Only Human. Purchase the book, along with brand new editions by the celebrated British photographer, and read up on what makes Parr such a groundbreaking—and contraversial—photographer.
There is a famous passage in Chuck Palahniuk’s dystopian novel Fight Club (1996) in which a gas explosion tears through the narrator’s fifteenth-floor flat, destroying everything he owns. Seeing all his possessions reduced to ash and scattered on the ground below, he reflects on their destruction, and the excitement he once felt selecting each item from the Ikea catalogue:
"The Alle cutlery service. Stainless steel. Dishwasher safe. The Vivid hall clock made of galvanized steel, oh, I had to have that. The Klipsk shelving unit, oh, yeah. Hemlig hat boxes. Yes. […] It took my whole life to buy this stuff. The easy-care textured lacquer of my Kalix occasional tables. My Steg nesting tables. You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what else goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you." - Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Faced with the wholesale loss of these once-cherished items, the narrator realizes the folly of shopping as a means of self-improvement. At the same time, he comes to understand that his purchases have taken on an unexpected psychological dimension. His furnishings were no longer just useful objects: they had become an extension of his personality, or at least of whom he perceived himself to be. Well-made, practical and stylish, they were self-anointed emblems of his character, carefully chosen to reassure himself and impress others. But how much of this was really him, and how much had he merely succumbed to effective merchandising? And if the latter, what did that say about him, anyway?
Martin Parr excels at portraying these many external elements that surround and define us. Not just the things we buy, but the clothes we wear, the sports teams we champion, the clubs and political parties to which we belong, and the traditions we honor. Do we wave the Cross of St. George or St. Andrew? Are we Brexiteers or Remainers? Do we go barefoot on the beach or wear white socks with sandals? What do our homes look like, our dining tables and our teacakes? The people Parr photographs are surrounded by evidence of the choices they have made.
To those unacquainted with his photography, the world Parr portrays may seem unsettling. Through his lens, the resplendent artificiality of contemporary consumer culture seems to vibrate with energy. Tinsel, icing, neon, bunting and fairy lights glow in hyper-saturated hues, while textiles flatten into broad, bold expanses of color. The people and places he photographs are frequently improvised and disarranged by the people who inhabit them; they may appear riotous, cacophonous, garish or nonsensical. If the colors seem unreal, it is because they are resolutely synthetic, plastic and polymerized, printed in glossy advertisements and emblazoned on paper cups. Parr makes no attempt to obscure their manufactured character. Frequently photographed with flash, his subjects are plainly laid bare, denied even the modesty of shadow. Sometimes positioning himself at oblique angles, and cutting off the edge of the frame in unexpected places, Parr allows blur and extremes of focus to enter his pictures. The results may appear haphazard, yet their success hinges on small, acutely observed details.
Questions of identity and self are among the most enduring in photographic practice. Traditionally, portraiture has been viewed as a reductionist exercise, a paring down of information to arrive at the essential elements of personality. Consequently, the job of the portraitist has been to strip away extraneous information to arrive at a sitter’s genuine self. This somewhat romantic approach is based on the belief that while who we are is ultimately mysterious and unknowable, a glimmer of understanding may be achieved through mediated encounter; that while true identity is fundamentally elusive, people nevertheless betray inner thoughts and feelings through revealing gestures and expressions. The skillful portraitist makes these moments visible to the viewer. Much studio portraiture subscribes to this model, in which the photographer becomes guide and the picture a substitute for face-to-face meeting. In the right hands, such pictures can be extraordinarily effective. The best offer insight into the life of the sitter, the photographer—and sometimes even the viewer. However, such photographs are not without problems, since what the camera is able to capture is limited and there are many different ways of thinking about self. And there are other ways of triangulating on personality, as Parr demonstrates.
Identity itself is a complex and elusive subject. In the museum of our minds we may think of ourselves one way, but we are not always the most reliable judges of our own character. We may also aspire to be something other than what we think we are, a ‘true self ’ that may or may not ever materialize. Our families will have one view of us, co-workers another and so on. Moreover, personalities are by nature fluid, subject to change and adaptation. An adult may display some of the same qualities as he or she did as a child, but each of us is learning and evolving every day. The way we behave also depends on circumstances. Under pressure, we may act one way, relaxed, another. We have public and private personas, conscious and unconscious behaviors. And we may seek to hide the darker sides of our inner selves – our selfishness and irascibility, insecurities and petty grievances. Ultimately, the myriad of qualities that distinguish us from others is cumulative and ephemeral and, strictly speaking, unphotographable.
In a traditional portrait, the objects and manner of dress that appear in a picture may be purposely arranged to reflect notable aspects of the sitter’s personality. Thus, a vicar might appear holding a bible or a book of hymns, a judge might carry a gavel or an author might hold a pen. Such conceits may seem quaint in a consumer culture in which branding is paramount. This is an area which Parr’s colleague, the Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom, has explored since 1992 with his project People of the Twenty-First Century. Working in two-hour sessions, Eijkelboom photographs people he sees on the street who have made parallel decisions of style or taste, then making the images into grids. In 19 August 2003, for example, he found a dozen men in Amsterdam wearing T-shirts decorated with John Pasche’s famous ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stone. Eijkelboom’s works point to one of the paradoxes of mass-produced goods: although they may be chosen to reflect our unique personalities, it is likely many others will have them, too.
If Eijkelboom shows us our plumage, Parr exposes our feathers, feeding habits and nesting grounds. He describes himself as a ‘social documentary’ photographer, associating with a tradition of picture-making historically identified with movements for political and socioeconomic improvement. This may surprise those who view his photographs primarily as mischievous entertainment, since it suggests a sincere wish on the part of the photographer to affect social change. Yet Parr’s photographs frequently transcend the apparent triviality of the circumstances they depict.
Increasingly in recent years, the term ‘social documentary’ has been challenged, since the words ‘social’ and ‘documentary’ are both potentially contentious. Because portraits cost both money and time, their ‘social’ point of view has been regarded as one of privilege; particularly in the past, this has meant that marginalized groups have not been adequately represented. The word ‘documentary’ is additionally fraught, as it suggests a photographer observing the world with rigorous objective detachment, which is seldom desirable, and arguably impossible, to achieve. All photographers have an attitude towards the things they photograph, even when the results look comparatively neutral.
Nevertheless, the phrase is still useful for an artist who is otherwise hard to pigeonhole. In his daily practice, Parr is both a fine-art and commercial photographer, exhibiting and selling prints through galleries while at the same time accepting commissions for editorial, fashion and, less frequently, advertising work. His images are also marketed through the Magnum agency, where he is a strong presence, having served as the organization’s president from 2013–17. In reality, there is little meaningful distinction to be made between these various categories, since in most cases work made for commercial purposes can be repurposed as exhibition pieces, and vice versa. "I am a firm believer in high- and low culture and photography working together," Parr explains [Parr by Parr: Quentin Bajac Meets Martin Parr, 2010.]
Parr is not usually thought of as a traditional portraitist, although a number of the photographs in this book—notably in the ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Autoportrait’ sections of Only Human—approach a conventional definition of portraiture. Such pictures represent only a small fraction of his output. Most of his pictures of people are what might be called environmental portraits, images in which identity of person and place intertwine. Time and again, people are shown in circumstances that provide a window, however small, on personality.
At the race track, women choose feathered hats and fascinators to match their vibrant dresses and sunglasses, while men wear bowlers and top hats. Every visitor to the beach displays her or his own distinctive towel and swimsuit, carefully chosen to taste. Dozens of surfers on the beach at St Ives carry a variety of surfboards, each slightly different in shape, color and decoration. In Britain, questions of social status often sneak into the frame, as when an immaculately dressed official with a Burberry-style jacket, stud earrings and high heels looks on in scrutiny at the Lincoln Show, standing unwittingly next to a sign reading ‘Class Judging, 1st, 2nd’.
When the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote to Parr in 1995 protesting that Parr’s works were "from another planet," it was arguably pictures like these which provoked him. Parr rarely shows us a "decisive moment," as CartierBresson had it—the photograph as stage, in which everything resolves into meaningful synchronicity for a flicker of an instant. Instead, he takes us behind the scenes, revealing us as we never intended to be seen, our actions unrehearsed and unpolished, our facial expressions awkward. Such times are representative of our daily selves and of the web of decisions that shape and snare us. Parr’s world is experiential, exaggerated and fragmentary, its visual logic inscrutable. Aesthetically, Cartier-Bresson may well have lived on another planet.
Other factors contributed to Cartier Bresson’s bafflement, as photographers including Parr began to rethink the role of photography in the late twentieth century. Cartier-Bresson was one of a number of highly influential photographers for whom the experience of the Second World War (Cartier Bresson himself spent nearly three years in a German prison camp) created a sense a moral obligation to use photography as a constructive political tool, highlighting injustice and facilitating understanding between peoples. This so-called ‘humanist’ impulse was among the driving factors in the creation of the Magnum Photo agency, which included Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour (known as ‘Chim’) and George Rodger among its founders.
Two generations later, Parr’s decision to apply for associate membership in Magnum created controversy within the organization, since some believed Parr’s photography to be inconsistent with the founders’ legacy. In June of 1994, during the Magnum annual general meeting at which Parr was to be elevated to full member, the matter came to a head, with photographer Philip Jones Griffiths leading the opposition. In a famously splenetic letter, Jones Griffiths accused Parr of failing to uphold the founder’s values:
“Martin Parr … is an unusual photographer in the sense that he has always shunned the values that Magnum was built on. Not for him any of our concerned ‘finger on the pulse of society’ humanistic photography... Today he wants to be a member. The vote will be a declaration of who we are and a statement of how we see ourselves. His membership would not be a proclamation of diversity but the rejection of those values that have given Magnum the status it has in the world today... Let me state that I have great respect for him as the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in and, I trust, what Magnum still believes in.”
Parr prevailed by the narrowest of margins, but Jones Griffiths had identified a growing tension not only within Magnum, but within the photographic community more broadly. Those photographers who clung to the vision of the medium as an instrument of social justice were alarmed by the equivocation they perceived in the younger generation, including Parr. Yet those artists emerged at a time when right and wrong were not always so pronounced as they had been during time of war, and the mundane experience of daily life was once again open to exploration and question. It was not that the photographers themselves were ambiguous in their beliefs, only that the circumstances were complex and open-ended in a way that previous generations had not seen.
Photographers of Cartier-Bresson’s generation recognized the dramatic changes wrought by World War II, but could not have anticipated the scale of the transformation that would follow. In 1949, the American photographer Max Yavno’s photograph Muscle Beach, Los Angeles was considered an extreme of visual chaos. The storefronts and sidings advertising food, drink and gymnastic training (‘modern, clean, and safe’); women climbing on men’s backs, scaling equipment and flying through the air; the upper story of a row of houses in the background: all signify a kind of cultural anarchy, of letting loose old constraints. Unusually for the time, advertising has also become part an integral part of the scene. A Coca-Cola sign presides over the beach at upper left, while a young couple, their backs to the camera, look on.
Some sixty-five years later, Parr’s Mar Del Plata, Grandé Beach, Argentina reveals how much has changed since Yavno’s time. Coca-Cola still has pride of place, its distinctive red and white logo—little changed from the 1940s—looking on from bottom center, and from scattered deck chairs and beach umbrellas. The sand itself is nearly standing room-only, a queue snaking towards the snack bar, across the center of the frame. Dense and horizonless, and in Parr’s hands now searing with color, it shows a world Yavno scarcely could have recognized. Overstuffed and constraining—still anarchic, but no longer free. A visit to the beach no longer seems so welcoming.
Martin Parr has been accused, wrongly, of ridiculing the people he photographs. Yet the humor in his photographs never comes at others’ expense. Comedy exists where expectations are defeated, and there is a poignancy bordering on melancholy that emerges from much of his work. Parr is on our side even when the cards are stacked against us. Humans are eccentric by nature, but they are also resilient and adaptable. If it is a nice day, what harm is there in casting aside one’s suitcase and lying lumpen on the beach. Or reclining like the Rokeby Venus on hard cobblestones, discreetly hiding one’s tummy with a shopping bag. Parr may allow himself a smile over such petty social infractions, but he treats the subjects with admiration, quietly cheering them on when, celebrating Pride from a wheelchair on a hot summer’s day, a woman garlands her head with flowers, raises her hands in the air as far as she can and belts out a song. Or when the temperature at the Australian Open exceeds 40 ºC, another woman throws herself at cooling fans in a backwards dive, yelping with delight. Who cares if anyone is watching? As viewers, we admire people as focused and passionate as these. If only we, too, could cast aside our inhibitions and live in the moment, unselfconsciously and seemingly without care.