“If I knew what made a good photograph, I’d give up photography tomorrow,” says Martin Parr, a man who’s become rather famous for taking very good photographs indeed. “Most of the photographs I take are bad, these are just the few that are good.”
Clearly there’s more to Parr’s work than a careful edit and a numbers game. He’s speaking at the launch of his new show at the Hepworth Wakefield, which acts as a mini retrospective of his work since the 1970s and presents a new series particularly pertinent to the gallery’s locale in Rhubarb Triangle, which documents the rhubarb fields in the countryside between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell in West Yorkshire. This body of work details the vibrant colours, muddy feet and charming stories of Yorkshire’s rhubarb pickers, and sits within a comprehensive survey of Parr’s work from the last 40 years.
The show the largest UK exhibition of Martin Parr’s work since his 2002 retrospective at the Barbican, and presents more than 300 images from series including The Non-Conformists, 1975-80; The Last Resort, 1983-85; The Cost of Living, 1989; Autoportrait, 1991-2012 and Common Sense, 1995-99.
“Most of the photographs I take are bad, these are just the few that are good.”Martin Parr
While The Rhubarb Triangle series is charming, for us the show’s real power lies in the sort of work that made Parr such an important figure in photography; the earlier work that set a precedent for the candid, often less-than-flattering and super saturated imagery that has spawned numerous imitations.
The series that most exemplifies Parr’s deft knack for documenting British life in a way that tells a vast narrative in a single frame is Last Resort. Shot over a three year period from 1983 at the New Brighton seaside resort near Liverpool, the images present a place that’s both promise and political sleight. Showing working class families eating ice-cream, queuing for chips and tanning on concrete, when first shown the images were criticised for what was deemed an unfair and unsympathetic portrait of working class life.
Exploitative or not, Parr has explicitly stated the works’ political intent. “During Thatcherism she was saying what a great country we were again,” he said. “That was all the more shocking while living in Liverpool – one of the shabbiest and poorest cities in the UK – at that time. Yet in the shabby backdrop, people would have domestic activities, go to the seaside, play with the kids, eat ice cream, do all the things we do at the seaside. It was this contrast I wanted to highlight in this project.”
This personal new direction for Parr catalysed a new movement for British documentary photography, as well as personally for the photographer. Until the early 80s, the photographer had worked only in monochrome. “In the 70s if you were a serious photographer you had to work in black and white,” he says. “I started using colour in 1982, and I loved the kitsch language of colour photography.”
Moving from 35mm black and white film to medium format six by seven changed the images’ aesthetic, and in turn their commentary of their subjects. “It became more of a critique, so it changed the form of the photographs,” says Parr. “When you’re using flash gun [in Last Resort ] it creates a language that’s very much commercial photography, or fashion.”
After Last Resort, Parr went on to create the deeply humorous and supremely witty series The Cost of Living. Shot between 1986 and 1989, it examines the life of Bristol’s middle classes, centred on sites like grammar schools, gymkhanas and the, er, glittering abandon of the Young Conservatives “mid summer madness” parties.
“Photographers are attracted by extremes, so they usually photograph the very rich of the very poor,” says Parr. “That’s why I wanted to photograph the middle classes.”
Each image is both hilarious and scathing: it shows the flourishing of the middle classes under Thatcher, a leader hated by Parr but under whom his career bloomed. This idea of conflict – of celebration and distaste, of autonomy and society – seems to underpin Parr’s multilayered work. We see humour, politics, satire, affection; and in a gallery show that forces you to spend time with each image and on an infinitely more engaging scale than pixels on a screen could offer, you notice there’s so much more at play here than you’d first assume.
“Photographers are attracted by extremes, so they usually photograph the very rich of the very poor. That’s why I wanted to photograph the middle classes.”Martin Parr
The huge white wall dedicated to the 300-image Common Sense series is an utter delight. Presenting “the flotsam and jetsam” of everyday life in the mid to late 90s, we see variously a Tellytubby flopped atop gin bottles; that perennial internet favourite, a dog in sunglasses; a sex doll; lipstick-flecked teeth; a glittery blue meringue and numerous other bizarre and inconsequential things that all together somehow feel rather important.
The Hepworth’s innovative presentation of Parr’s work sees a space between the main galleries house a bizarre series of “Auto Portraits” of the artist taken on various jaunts around the world by machines or assistants at each of the tourist hotspots. There’s Martin Parr in a shark’s mouth, hand-tinted in whimsical shades as a head-shot quartet; nestled between the legs of a Coca-Cola polar bear.
While this section may look like a bit of fluff and whimsy, it seems to provide an important pivot to the show as a whole. What Parr seems to be saying is, “Here I am, I’m one of you, I’m a subject and a cog in the weird wheel of Western leisure like everyone else.”
When you see these, irony-tinged as you may be, it seems to silence the voices that question Parr’s motives as malicious or sneering. Perhaps the reason the work resonates so much is that much of the time, those other people aren’t too different to Parr, or to us. “I photograph all the ‘isms’ – tourism, consumerism…” he says. “But I indulge in all of these things just like the rest of us. You don’t always have to only look at the extremes in life.”
The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories opens to the public on 4 February 2016 – 12 June 2016 at The Hepworth Wakefield.. Free admission.
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.