Martin Parr is an amiable man. Perhaps his composed – and somewhat abrupt – demeanour comes from the fact that he’s taken part in around 50 interviews over the past three weeks, or that he’s had over 50 years’ experience within his field. Yet one thing’s for sure, is that ever since he first picked up a camera at the age of 13, he has continued to make work that’s innately British.
With permanent collections in the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art, Martin is recognised globally for his poignant documentation of the western world. His most prominent project, Last Resort (1986), captured the attention of all, and having recently closed his Only Human show held at the National Portrait Gallery – a series of photographs depicting a divided nation in a time of Brexit – this has, even more so, firmly rooted the man as one of the most prestigious and influential British photographers of our time.
Although, a lengthy career means that some things can become harder to remember, especially when discussing the subject of childhood memories – “I don’t have many really,” he admits, quite bluntly. Whether or not Parr likes to bring up his former times, we caught up with the photographer to find out more about his journey, the challenges he faced as a “dyslexic starting to get demented,” and why he likes to talk about his own death, less so his past.
INT You grew up in suburban Surrey, do you remember what it was like?
MP Yes, I do remember this. Suburban Surrey was quite dreary, but I wasn’t aware of this until I went to Yorkshire and visited my grandfather – I didn’t really know what the rest of the world was like. I got on with my friends, played around and the stream was just down the hill. I was originally brought up in Chessington and moved to Ashtead, where we got a bigger house – I guess this was upward mobility. But I’m not that clear about much of my childhood. However, I do remember going to Hersham sewage works every weekend with my father on a Saturday. I would get a bit bored there; imagine a teenager going to Hersham sewage works every Saturday, it wasn’t good news really. I started trainspotting to relieve the boredom of it all.
INT What kind of child were you?
MP I have absolutely no idea, precocious probably.
INT Well, you’ve written that your dad was a birdwatcher and that he was rather obsessive about it.
MP Yes, so my obsessive genes come from him.
INT What kind of obsession is this, in terms of sourcing photographs or a desire to look for things?
MP I guess I became an obsessive photographer a bit later on in my life, beyond my childhood. When I was young I had a museum in my cellar, full of things like bird pellets, skulls and dead moles – it was a natural history museum. The obsessive gene really kicked in at this time.
INT Is that still true? I’ve heard you’re a little bit of a hoarder, a collector. What do you look for when you’re collecting?
MP Yes, I am a collector. I look for a particular idea. First off there’s photography books, which is a pretty obvious one, then there’s the more obscure collections like Space Dogs and Saddam Hussein watches – they are just these things that appeal to me and things I get obsessed with. And with the internet now, you can search for them and find what’s out there pretty quickly.
“Controversy is a good thing. I don’t really understand why something is controversial but it happens.”Martin Parr
INT How did you first get into photography? Would you say that your grandfather was your main influence?
MP I guess he was. He looked after me, he lent me a camera, we went out shooting together, we processed film, we made prints – he got me hooked on the idea of being a photographer. So at the age of 13, that’s when I decided to do it: “It’s what I will do for the rest of my life, until I drop dead.”
INT Not only did this relationship spur you on to start photography, but it ultimately led to your first project, Home Sweet Home – a series of peoples’ homes and domestic interiors.
MP Yes, that’s what I did at college, and it was the diploma show we put on. They tried to throw me out at one point, and then later decided I was OK. I ended up getting a First, but I had a pretty rocky relationship with the college, the tutors and everything.
INT How so?
MP Because they didn’t much believe in me. I didn’t do very well in my critical, in my theory or my technique – like reciprocity failure – so I failed those exams. It was because of my first-year tutor that I actually managed to survive; he was the only person who really believed in me. I wasn’t academic and I only got one A-level.
INT They say that for a lot of creative people, and for photographers as well –
MP – Well, we’re all dyslexic, apparently, and starting to get demented. We’re all slowly going downhill, right?
INT Your relationship with your grandfather also prompted your love affair with the North. Why were you so drawn to this part of the country?
MP It’s because the people there are so real – they’re more friendly, more open and warm. I really liked it, particularly in comparison to Surrey.
INT This also led to a very prominent series of yours, The Last Resort. Why do you think it captured the eyes of everyone?
MP It is, yes. I suppose it was the right time and the right place – it was exciting being in colour and it just seemed to hit the mark, which is not something you often do in life.
INT It was during the peak of Thatcherism and you were particularly drawn to the seaside. What were you trying to capture in this series? Did you have a plan at all?
MP I just liked the energy of New Brighton; I also liked the energy of the seaside resorts, where you’ve got this shabby backdrop and yet people are still going there for their day trips. Obviously the political part of it was to compare the two – the shabby backdrop with all this domestic activity in front of it. It’s where you went if you lived in Liverpool, and it’s where you went for your day trip: the seaside.
INT The beach is a very prominent theme throughout your work. What draws you towards it?
MP I like the fact that they’re open-ended spaces where people can enjoy themselves, where people can relax and be themselves. There are many different ways you can photograph the beach, which I’ve employed over the years; all beaches around the world are different, and all people are different. It’s where people go for leisure and they’re just lying there, you know, ready to be photographed. I’m also drawn to the fact that it’s slightly shabby in this country, it’s slightly falling apart.
INT So at this time there was some slight controversy, in terms of –
MP – Ah, look at this journalistic nose! Yes, there was. The series was shown in Liverpool first, and no-one batted an eyelid because everyone knows what it’s like. And when it came to the Serpentine, that’s when some people objected – political people, like yourself, you see. Have you been much in the North?
INT I haven’t, actually!
MP Well, there you go. You see, you’re the person who might have been shocked by this out of ignorance, because you won’t have been to a depressed town like Sunderland.
INT But there are different ways to react to it – you can be ignorant, shocked, or you can look at it and learn. People had concerns that you were perhaps exploiting the working class, so what are your thoughts on that? Obviously that wasn’t intended.
MP Controversy is a good thing. I don’t really understand why something is controversial but it happens.
INT Following this controversy, was that when you decided to photograph the middle class?
MP When thinking about how Britain was represented, the middle class wasn’t really tackled or dealt with. Everyone loves the rich and the poor, so it was the natural thing to do.
INT When did you start shooting The Cost of Living – a project that focuses solely on the middle class?
MP That was when we moved to Bristol – my partner got a job there, which was perfect, because we were living in Liverpool at the time, perhaps the least middle-class city in Britain. Then I just started photographing for the next three or four years.
INT After that, you transitioned towards photographing global tourism, turning the lens further afield and shooting in places like Venice and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Why did you make this change?
MP I like the idea of tourism, it’s a huge business – the biggest business in the world – and there’s this difference between the mythology of a place and the reality. We all have this idea of what a place will be like before we get there, and a lot of the time there’s many people trying to do the same thing. It’s a subject full of propaganda. All of the travel pages in the newspapers make it look very attractive, but they would never want to show the issues or the problems with over-popularity in places like Barcelona and Venice. It just seemed like a natural thing to do, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve published various books about it.
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Manorhamilton Sheep Fair, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1981 by Martin Parr
INT In terms of your process, do you ever start with a concept or is it more instinctive?
MP It’s very intuitive, it’s not intellectualised too much. That’s what people like you do!
INT So it’s open to interpretation?
MP If you like. I mean, we all bring our baggage to everything, right, and you’re no different to that.
INT A major theme running throughout your work is the pursuit of the western world. Are you ever interested in photographing the less wealthy side?
MP I have done it, but I don’t make a habit of it, because this subject is just as important. We’re fucking up the planet as much as anyone.
INT Over the course of ten years, and since you first started photographing the global tourism industry, how much has it changed?
MP The big thing has been the introduction of the smartphone and the selfies. Earlier I would get asked to take people’s pictures because they saw me with a camera. Now, of course, people don’t ask me so much, because everyone’s doing selfies. I’m publishing a book this year on selfie sticks. It’s a small one but a book nonetheless. But that’s the big thing that’s changed, it’s an obsession.
“I’ve had an amazing life – people have paid me to do my hobby, what’s not to like?”Martin Parr
INT I saw an interesting project around this time, called Parking Spaces – why did you start this one?
MP Because parking cars are a massive thing and – you probably don’t own a car, do you? You’re not the type.
INT How did you know?
MP Those who live in Peckham don’t, generally.
INT I’ve had seven driving lessons, to be exact.
MP Have you! So you don’t know yet the frustration of trying to find somewhere to park. That drives people insane. Therefore I thought I would do a book that shows the last car parking space in many different countries – showing that we’re all united by this absurd search for a car parking space.
INT Another major development has been that of technology. How has it altered your photography process?
MP Changing from analogue to digital, which I did in 2007 or 2008, was obviously quite dramatic but fine – well it wasn’t that dramatic at all really, it just changed when technology got better. And this new generation of full-frame DSLR cameras were introduced. Digital was particularly good for photographing in low light as you can see what’s going on, you can also change the ISO to what you want, which is something that you couldn’t do with film.
INT Do you miss the nostalgia of film?
MP Not really, all of those chemicals are horrible – smelly, polluting, nasty things.
INT Some would say that –
MP – Well, young people today – all those weirdos that follow you – are going back to film. I don’t know why, but they are. I guess they want to challenge the norm, and you champion that, of course.
INT I think it all certainly revolves around that essence of nostalgia, and some people are drawn towards that. I guess going digital has enabled you to take pictures more freely. Then there’s also Instagram – how do you think it’s changed the medium of photography?
MP It’s a good platform. It means anyone can get notoriety if they’ve got good pictures – these people smell it out. We’re not reliant on the old gatekeepers of publishing and magazines – so I think that’s great. It’s more democratic.
INT Has it ever taken you hours to get the right image?
MP I suppose so, I’ve been photographing all my life and I attempt to go on. It’s not easy to get good pictures, but obviously you can say to a certain extent that all my knowledge helps me.
INT When you’re in a setting and you’re looking for something to photograph, do you usually have an agenda set in your head?
MP Well you’re looking for interesting pictures of interesting people; if you’re in an art gallery you’ve got to work on showing the relationship between them and the art that you’re looking at – or pretending to look at. [What strikes me is] people engaging, chatting, or whatever really. It’s difficult to know and describe until you’re there.
INT What’s been the most interesting scene so far?
MP I love the beach, but then there are great things like when the Chelsea Flower Show closes and everyone walks out with their plants – there are great moments like that are very photogenic. I’m also very happy just in a car boot or a summer fate, whatever really.
INT Do you get to know the characters that you’re photographing, like those in your Black Country Stories series or in Last Resort?
MP It depends, because when I worked in the Black Country I got to know quite a lot of people. New Brighton, much less so – you would talk to people and the Scousers are friendly, but you didn’t build that particular relationship. You might see people one weekend after another, but not particularly. In the Black Country, it was more to do with seeing what they had to say for themselves.
“You also need some stamina, as the industry lets people fall away; people are lazy, they’re not as obsessed as I am.”Martin Parr
INT You recently closed your Only Human exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. What were your reasons for starting this series?
MP It’s Britain in the time of Brexit. The series sees pictures taken over the last few years – I went to shoot some heavily voting Brexiteers, photographing the Lincoln show, St George’s Day parade in West Bromwich and Cornwall. I just accumulated pictures. But it wasn’t all about direct references to Brexit, it was just an atmosphere of a time we live in.
INT So what are your thoughts on Brexit?
MP Oh, I’m a classic remoaner, like you are – we don’t need to ask. I mean the people who read It’s Nice That are not Brexiteers.
INT Well, you never know.
MP There might be a few, but generally speaking.
INT It’s stereotyping, but it could be true. Reflecting on your past experiences, what would you say is your role as a photographer?
MP I can’t speak on the general role of photographers, because some photographers have other agendas – we all do. For my role, I’ve created an archive about Britain during a time that I’ve lived here – it’s a very subjective one and I suppose that’s a part of my legacy. One of the roles of the Foundation here is to preserve that, so when I’m dead, which will happen sooner or later, this will continue to keep going. It will not only look after my own output but also other British photographers who I think are underrated.
INT Is that why you started the Foundation, to collate and preserve?
MP I also want to preserve my own archive. We’ve only got one daughter, and I don’t want to lumber her with this huge task of looking after this very complicated estate. I love talking about my own death, because it unnerves people, right?
INT You’re obviously not afraid of death, are you?
MP Not particularly, no. It would be a nice rest.
INT Looking back on your archive, does it make you proud?
MP There’s a sense of achievement with the NPG show and things like that, but I’m not dwelling on this. I’m thinking about how to make [the Foundation] work, how to make sure we’ve got interesting talks workshops and exhibitions – we’ve got a great crew here too.
INT Do you have any major regrets or wish you’d done anything differently?
MP Not really, no. I’ve had an amazing life – people have paid me to do my hobby, what’s not to like? I’ve been all around the world, and if I want to go anywhere, I can just go. I’m a very privileged person, but I acknowledge that I’ve earned that privilege.
INT Is there anything that you wish you could tell your younger self?
MP Just stick with it, basically. That’s all I’d say. You also need some stamina, as the industry lets people fall away; people are lazy, they’re not as obsessed as I am. But you know, I see many other obsessed people and they’re the ones that flourish. I like photography because people think it’s easy, but in fact, it’s just as hard, if not harder, than any other medium. It appears to be very easy because all you have to do is pick up a camera and you don’t need any technical knowledge anymore; a camera does it all for you, and you click away. All you see is lazy photography everywhere.
Martin Parr’s Beach Therapy is published by Damiani at £30.
Only Human by Martin Parr, published to coincide with the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, is available at Phaidon.com.