14th December 2019, Bristol

On entering the Martin Parr Foundation, I was welcomed by Amano who had organised this talk. There were a few students milling around, looking at the current exhibition of photographs by Tony Ray-Jones, who Parr said is a photographic hero of his. I’d not heard of or seen work by Jones before, so it was interesting to see one of Parr’s influences. I felt there were definite similarities.

During the talk, Parr went through some of his history, where he started in photography (his grandfather was a keen amateur photographer and so by 13 Parr had decided to pursue photography seriously), and then spoke about various collections he’d worked on. We could ask questions throughout, but there was a Q&A session at the end.

Parr collects political ephemera, and he doesn’t shy away from expressing his political views. Like most of what he showed us, my initial reaction to his collections, political and otherwise – like a Mrs Thatcher dartboard, Saddam Hussein watches or Laika the Russian space dog merchandise – was laughter. But I think there’s an underlying serious question about a society producing these things.

Photo courtesy of Amano Tracy

Parr’s early work was in black and white, and it wasn’t until William Eggleston made the use of colour photography legitimate for anything but snapshots that Parr began to shoot in colour.

The Last Resort is Parr’s most famous work, and when he was asked he said it was his favourite. However, when it was exhibited he was criticised for it. Interestingly, he said that when it was first shown in Liverpool, nobody batted an eyelid because they knew New Brighton and understood it. However, when that work was shown in London people were shocked. But Parr said that he realised the criticism was actually a positive thing, that it’s better to be criticised than ignored.

“It’s better to be criticised than ignored.”

He spoke about Small World, and was asked questions about how he works, if he asks permission, how people react, and it was interesting and useful to hear about how he approaches his photography. What was really nice was to hear stories about individual recognisable images. He said that his images aim to show the difference between the mythology vs the reality of a place. Interestingly, Parr doesn’t go on holiday. He travels to take photographs, he said his wife goes on holiday, but he clearly doesn’t feel any need to get away from anything, there’s nothing to escape from.

In 1995 he got himself a macro lens and a ring flash and started to take images of British food, and clichés. The food images are gross, again they’re funny (to me) and I really like the humour. He talks about this as a turning point in some way, maybe a different way of doing or seeing things or a new way of working.

Parr said he has a love hate relationship with our country, and through photography he can articulate the tension he feels as a sort of therapy. He’s shot images around the broad theme of Brexit. He shows a real understanding of how this has come about, mentioning for example that St George’s Day is the only saints’ day that doesn’t come with a national holiday.

“I have a love / hate relationship with our country.”

I think Parr demonstrates a real warmth for the people he photographs. One of my favourite images is of a woman sunbathing in Benidorm. She is shot against a blue towel, wearing blue sun goggles. He said she was asleep at the time, totally unaware of his presence. This was also the case for the images shot for Japonais Endormis. I found this interesting, that he doesn’t have to ask for model release forms or anything. Not really photographing people, I’m not clear on what the ‘rules’ are, but it seems that in the context of a subject in public there aren’t nearly as many as I’d assumed there would be. Parr admits that photography, by nature, is somewhat exploitative, and that he’s looking for the oddest, strangest thing. But he thinks it’s important that we continue to make these images anyway so that we have a record, and being able to look back on his work confirms that view.

Parr waits for things to be the way he wants them to be, so for The Last Resort, he’d wait until there were piles of rubbish on a Sunday afternoon. There was a discussion about the ethics around street photography, for instance that there are images in The Last Resort that he wouldn’t be able to take now; if you tried to you’d probably be arrested. Despite the note of caution with images of children, he encouraged us to shoot in a public place as no-one can really object in those circumstances. He also said to take everything, just decide later if you’re going to use it. He gets everything printed before he makes decisions, and that was really interesting to hear as I rarely print. Although someone is employed full-time at the Martin Parr Foundation to print, initially Parr sends images to a printer in Manchester that return them the next day so that he can look at them and make decisions. That’s because he shoots so much that it would take staff all day to print out the initial shots and so it’s not a good use of their time. That puts the amount of work he does into perspective.

“I’m looking for the oddest, strangest thing.”

He was asked a few times about individuals or sets of images and how they were shot. Somebody mentioned that the people in the images don’t even seem to be aware that he’s there and are not looking at the camera, but he points out that it’s editing – there are a lot of images where people are looking at the camera, but he stays and works until he’s essentially forgotten, or people have become so bored with his presence that he can get the shots he wants.

He showed some images from Playas, which has “appalling graphics”. He chose a bad printer and “encouraged them to make as many mistakes as possible”. This work was a collection that he’d shot over several years and I got the impression it wasn’t a collection of images he’d set out to capture, but one he realised he had when he needed it. I found that reassuring, that there are these two quite distinct modes of working – it doesn’t all have to be about having a clarity of vision for a particular collection of images.

Autoportrait is interesting, and I really like it. I looked at it for my first assignment as I had an idea that was in a similar vein. He told us about how he goes to these photographers while he’s travelling and chooses to get portraits taken in a certain style. In all of them he has a deadpan expression which often clashes with the bright, colourful surrounds he is photographed in. Digital imaging has obviously made these images more varied than ever.

Another deadpan expression, photo courtesy of Amano Tracy

In terms of portraits he takes, he says that he doesn’t let people smile, but he finished up on a portrait of him, the only one I saw of him smiling, taken by dating profile portrait photographers, Hey Saturday.

After the talk and Q&A session he stayed around to sign books and so at that point I got a chance to talk to him individually. I asked him about how people respond to him if they recognise him; he said that occasionally he gets recognised at exhibitions, but that when he’s photographing people they don’t recognise him. I had wondered if people now know who he is, especially well-known people who are more likely to be protective of their image. But when he’s working it seems that people are oblivious; he’s just one of many photographers. I found that reassuring, because although he clearly has a position as a Magnum photographer, I don’t think it’s something he makes use of in terms of his day-to-day work with the public and so I suppose in theory anyone could go out and take the shots he gets; his work is not about him having access to the rich and famous, it’s about a connection he makes with normal people and the attempt he makes to understand them. I get the impression that he would be doing this same work whether or not he was well known, that he just loves what he does and is really enjoying it.

Martin Parr signing books, photo courtesy of Amano Tracy

Because I’d travelled to Bristol the day before and stayed overnight, I didn’t bring a proper camera as I was travelling very light so my photos are iPhone images. Someone asked Parr about using his phone. He said he has a smartphone and uses it to take photos of books he needs to buy, things like that. He uses his camera for everything else. I’m going to take that lesson now and drag my camera around with me a lot more often!

Thanks go to Amano for organising this visit, and for the use of his photographs.

Yes, unusually for me I did get a book signed.
iPhone photo. Next time I’ll take a camera!