Return to Manchester doesn’t mark Martin Parr’s first retread around the city that shaped and informed his earliest practice. But it does stand as proof of the boundless, almost frighteningly acute sense of curiosity that has stood at the heart of his work for the last 40 years.
It’s an eye that has swept over decaying seaside towns in The Last Resort (1986) and The Great British Seaside (2016), epic depictions of the ceaseless purgatory of the English middle classes in The Cost of Living (1989), right through to snapshots of everyday ennui in the self-explanatory Bored Couples (1993). In truth, it’s tough to think of another living British photographer that has done quite so much to shape the way we see ourselves, or translate both the endearing and bitter absurdities of our recent past into something intelligible, if sometimes controversial and oblique.
As origin stories go, it’s not a bad one. The young, disaffected suburban 70s hippy with a clear sense of his own creative mission, colliding with a vibrant, if still down-at-heel city, full of opportunities and comparatively absent of constraint. Parr spent 1970-73 studying at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), where he launched himself into early black and white triumphs, including images of Prestwich Mental Hospital and – later on – the then regional curio of Yates Wine Lodge and shoppers at play in Salford.
In the work we can see the first springs of the classic Parr concerns; kitsch and domestic life, filtered through an affectionate if unsparing lens. But it’s the city that stands as the central point. Parr revisited Manchester in 2008, as part of a Guardian Cities project, to chart a city in the process of being radically altered by the fag end of the Blair years. This year, he returned again to document the central pillar of the long proposed Northern Powerhouse, bang flush in the middle of a radical phase of gentrification, and a newly retrieved, if contentious, self-confidence.
It’s striking, when you take it all together. All the little details and quirks that have already been lost to the past. The ‘hypermarkets’ and hairstyles, working men’s clubs and woefully dated ‘media pods’ in Salford’s Media City. A complex, slightly overwhelming portrait of a city in constant flux. I meet Parr in the cafe of Manchester Art Gallery to discuss the show and his enduring connection with ‘the north’ as both a reality and a mash of nostalgia and memory.
“I just feel very comfortable. In fact, I still do, whenever I come back up here. Nothing against Bristol (where I live) or the south, but there’s a warmth here that you don’t really get anywhere else”, Parr tells me over lunch. “My grandfather was from Yorkshire. I got excited in photography through him. Of course, I was very happy to end up in Manchester, as I knew it would be a good place to get images. And sure enough, it was".
Those early Yorkshire excursions offered more than just a training in the basic technical rudiments. They offered a glimpse into a world as conceptually far removed from Parr’s own beginnings as possible, from the Greenbelt dreariness of Ashtead in Surrey, to a wholly different side of British life. One teeming with community feeling, arcane collective social institutions and the kind of hearty ‘authenticity’ so conspicuous by its absence in his own dowdily suburban upbringing.
“Those trips were a taster of the pleasures of the north of England, almost like a drug", as he puts it. The college years spent in Manchester and – for half-a-decade running from 1979 – nearby Hebden Bridge, served as a fleshing out of those childhood snapshots of an idealised north of England. Though Parr’s initial association with the city wasn’t the result of any conscious plan, but the unintended happy consequence of flunking his A-Levels.
“I applied to four colleges and had gotten into all of them, because I had a half-decent portfolio. But the only one that would take me in the end was Manchester because I only got the one [A-Level]”, he laughs.
It was a vastly different time. The Prestwich Mental Hospital series is a case in point, as Parr’s first documentary project undertaken while still a student in 1972. Access was granted in a way that would be impossible now, a matter of simply walking in and asking permission, as opposed to the inevitable months of negotiation that would bookmark such an undertaking today. After building a rapport with patients and staff, the images take on an unforced tenderness, by no means an inevitability in what could easily have been an unbendingly grim institutional setting.
Equally, the June Street series of the same year (in conjunction with Daniel Meadows) that captures domestic life in a long-since demolished terraced street in Salford. What could, in lesser hands, have risked the accusation of exotifying the working class residents, becomes something much more thoughtful and valuable, in its documentation of ornamentation in a community on the verge of extinction. Even if the initial goal was to find “the original Coronation Street”, as Parr puts it to me.
And what of now? The 2018 series shows a city much the same as any other of Britain’s major urban centres. Overpriced, undersized cakes in trendy cafes commingled with huge, joyous Pride celebrations and an increasingly diverse populace. Yet something essentially Mancunian remains, though it’s tough to identify what exactly that means.
Though Parr is keen to stress that his work in Manchester is now complete, to be taken whole in the new exhibition- it’s something that will afflict the 2018 set just as much in the coming years. What is documentary for, if not for capturing the taken-for-granted things that will soon seem as alien to us as Ford Cortinas, Kwik Save and 20p pints of Newcastle Brown.
“All the things we’re surrounded by now that seem so current. The smartphones and whatever else – you just don’t know how things are going to be. And that’s why I want to photograph it”.