Martin Parr is one of the world’s top photographers, his intimate studies of people, places and objects forming a social and cultural commentary on modern life. His exhibition, Work and Leisure, is at firstsite, Colchester, until Sunday, October 2.
Martin Parr doesn’t look like a radical. He looks like a jolly nice chap and, in conversation at Colchester’s firstsite, he proves to be so. Funny, self-deprecating and insightful, he talks honestly and passionately about his photography, images that don’t just capture life in the late 20th and early 21st century, but say something about our lives and how we lead them. He photographs the everyday, but his work transcends the mundane. It may look gentle and even nostalgic, but there are some very strong concerns underlying the images. Yes, pictures of doughnuts and plastic sunglasses can have an underlying meaning. That’s what radical about what Martin Parr does. He made me think about Marxism, Gramsci and the means of production while I was looking at fag ends and pretzels.As you do.
You could say Parr’s photographs are the art of the ordinary. You could say they’re a celebration of the kitsch, of the clutter and little rituals of everyday life. They might seem like snapshots of the superficial, of the bits and bobs of modern life but what they are is a social document of our culture, the things we make, buy and consume. His work is a study of our material culture and in it he shows us what we’re like. With style and humour.
Parr’s pictures of sunbathers, fast food, tea cups, factory workers and ornaments aren’t obviously political, but they do, taken collectively, say something about us. The message is embedded: this is what we do, this is what we are.
There is a beguiling beauty in his depictions of people, places and things in the exhibition at firstsite. The first thing that hits you is the Common Sense, a solid wall of Parr; 350 colour-saturated images of ordinary things that become extraordinary en masse.
It’s like an Instagram feed of modern culture in gloriously lurid technicolor. There’s something about all these images together that is very powerful. Individually, they’re great vignettes, collectively they’re overwhelming. There is an alchemy in their accumulation. Flip flops, nail varnish, tacky gifts, blow-up dolls, hot dogs, lollipops, fizzy pop, bananas in cellophane. All life is here. When archeologists of the future dig up our owns and cities, is this what they’ll find? What will they make of us?
This collective power transcends the transitory nature of much of what is depicted. The ephemeral moment is captured and elevated into the epic. The fleeting moment made wonderfully permanent. A kid with dirty fingernails eating a doughnut becomes high art.
In some quarters, Parr gets accused of nostalgia, of irony, of celebrating the kitsch and patronising the working class but it’s clear he has a great interest and affection for his subject. He also respects them, as he made clear in conversation.
While Common Sense (1995-1999) is a great grid of life at its most gaudy and day-glo, The Rhubarb Triangle (2014-2016), is a much more singular body of work. It’s a project instigated by Parr, looking at the production of rhubarb in the triangle of land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell in Yorkshire, a very specialised industry with its own practices and customs. Here are portraits of workers hard at it in fields and barns, of stacks of rhubarb and all the bi-products of it… rhubarb jam anyone? It’s an intimate look at a very English slice of life.
The Rhubarb Triangle segues into Work and Leisure (1986-2015) which does what the title suggests. It’s a showcase of the world making stuff and then consuming it. First we see the world of production, where the things we consume are manufactured. Then we see those things being consumed, the leisure and luxury end of the conveyor belt. It says something about the vicious cycle of supply and demand that goes with the relentless hunger of consumerism. But as ever Parr presents it with wit and wisdom.
The Last Resort (1983-1985) is like a time capsule of bygone Britain, pictures Parr took of New Brighton when he lived in Liverpool. It’s a world that seems distant and not so far at the same time, recognisable but of another era when youngsters didn’t aspire to bulging biceps and ripped six-packs, when the only tan you got was from plonking yourself anywhere in the sun by the sea (even if that be right by a bulldozer) and kids got their kicks from running around in the great outdoors. It’s evocative stuff.
While The Last Resort looks at the working classes at play, The Cost Of Living (1986-1989) takes us into the world of the middle classes. We’re still in the Thatcher era, but we’re mixing in different circles here. Tory party fundraisers, Badminton horse trials and aerobic exercise classes in well-to-do homes. Parr’s keen eye for detail and social critique is a sharp as ever, with some of his subjects staring back defiantly.
The Non-Conformists part of the show is in a separate room, separated by a door, and it’s fitting because this is early Parr ((1975-1980) when he was fresh out of studying photography at Manchester Poly and had set up with other art students at Albert Street Workshop in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. These pictures are black and white studies of the folk of Calderdale and Calverley (where Parr’s grandparents lived), their communities and their traditions. They’re intimate and look like they might have come from the 1950s as much as the 1970s. They capture a world of quiet, reserved people with their austere lives. It’s a world away from the colourful studies that Parr was to establish as his style, but the same concerns and interests are there, that delving into candid, private worlds.
In conversation, Parr talked first of all about his instinct for collecting. He said “collecting is in my genes, it’s a habit” and described he started collected fossils then moved onto bird pellets because his dad was a keen birder. It’s a habit he proudly admits he’s turned into work and he has archives of, amongst other things, Magaret Thatcher crockery, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi watches, Soviet space dog epehmera and postcards. Some of the latter form the Boring Postcards section of the exhibition, a fantastic display of images of resorts and holiday camps influenced by John Hinde, a Butlin’s employee who developed a postcard business. You can see how these postcards have influenced Parr’s own photographs; the settings, the colour saturation, the capturing of a moment in time.
The last part of the exhibition is Autoportrait (1991-2012) an ongoing project that sees Parr use the paid-for portraits that you can get at theme parks and visitor attractions around the world to form an assortment of images of himself. Like Common Sense, these images really work as a collection, an aggregation of highly stylised, formatted images. There’s something rather Gilbert and George in the way Parr stares back at you out of these cheesy, surreal portraits. He makes you see how ridiculous these images are, like many of the things he chooses as subject matter. But you know he really likes them too.
Parr’s pictures of the world aren’t just reflections of it, but a running commentary on it, an ongoing socio-cultural documentary that lets us see the commonplace in the rarefied space of a gallery and think about it differently.
As the man said: “Most of the time, I’m trying to articulate the contradictions of modern life. A photograph can point the finger at the contradictions of the society we live in.”
There are plenty of contradictions to point a finger at.