Martin Parr gave a great talk at the AGO last night — by turns witty, irreverent (why do photobook intro texts “always seem to mention Robert Frank, or Walker Evans, or Atget? It’s boring as fuck!”), serious, and sincere. For over 40 years, Parr has been obsessively documenting humanity’s obsessions, turning his camera on formerly overlooked aspects of modern life including consumer culture, the middle class, tourism, bad weather, the British, the bureaucratic, and the boring. In the process, he has forever changed how we look at and use photography — both to examine and understand ourselves as much as the other — generating through thousands of images an exhaustive yet strangely intimate anthropology of the absurd.
There is no dearth of writing on the work and influence of this internationally known photographer, so we’ll just link to a few great articles below and leave you with some notes and quotes (mostly paraphrased) from the talk as well as a series of images from Parr’s presentation. Certainly they — and he — are best able to speak for themselves.
On bad weather:
In Britain, bad weather is a national obsession. Usually people wait for good weather to take photographs — if you go out with a camera on a sunny day, people will always say, “Great day for taking photographs!” — so I decided to go out only when the weather was bad. I found an underwater camera and flash — this was back in the early 80s — and was told that I was the first non-swimmer to purchase an underwater camera. Using the flash would transform the rain and snow into blobs on the image — and I liked these blobs. Depending on the camera settings, one can drastically change how an image represents the subject — in this way there is an inherent subjectivity to photography that is under the control of the photographer.
In 1982 Parr published Bad Weather as a photobook — the first of over 60 books, including limited edition artists books as well as mass market publications, that he has published to date.
More on Bad Weather by Harpreet–Khara
I am a collector — of books, ephemera, memorabilia…. Even photography is a way of collecting the world in images, the organization of which is a way of trying to make sense of it all. I hated Margaret Thatcher, and couldn’t fathom why someone would want to own a plate with her face on it — so I started collecting Margaret Thatcher memorabilia. I collect plates, photographic trays, postcards — sometimes the photo is so bad it becomes good, and this is a territory I am interested in. Postcards especially are illustrations of social history. When I was young and the M.I. Motorway was new, it was considered a treat to be taken onto it. Now, of course, it is not.
Martin Parr also collects Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi watches (the latter being much rarer than the former), and owns more than 12,000 photobooks. Incidentally, Parr’s greatest find from his time in Toronto is FILE Megazine by our own General Idea — the bookshop (Monkey’s Paw, we’re guessing) had only a few copies, so he’s now on the hunt for the rest of the set.
See our previous post featuring FILE Megazine
See more about Parr’s collections in these articles:
“Parrworld: Documenting or Staging?” on Metropolis M
On curating (and collecting trays): interview by Gordon MacDonald for Ideas and Ideals in Visual Culture
“The Poetics of the Motorway” by Emily Cleaver for Litro
On the boring and the British:
I wanted to find out if it could be possible to take an interesting photo of a very boring place. I am interested in aspects of modern life which are overlooked — for instance there were lots of photographs of the very poor and the very rich, but not much documenting the middle class. Everyone has their prejudices and I began to go to places I felt particularly averse to: craft fairs, aerobics classes, Conservative house parties. In this way I found I could explore my ambivalence about the UK through photography.
This body of work became the photobook Cost of Living, which Parr considers to be one of his most personal and successful projects, as he was able to “discover a technique and apply it in a way that really resonates”, defining a new style of photography for the time (mid- to late-1980s).
See a slideshow of more photographs from Britain on Phaidon’s website
I began to travel and shoot for magazines as a way to build my portfolio in pursuit of membership to Magnum — this was back when magazines had much larger budgets for photography. Through this I became interested in the disconnect between the mythology of places (Angkor Wat, the Acropolis, North Korea) and the reality of being there, jostling with hundreds of other tourists trying to get a clear shot.
In answer to a question on beauty:
For vacations, which I rarely go on since I love what I do so much, I suppose I go to beautiful places so I don’t feel the urge to take pictures.
Parr’s photobook Small World, contains some of his most iconic photos. Originally published in 1995, it was reissued in 2007 by Dewi Lewis Publishing. See more information and a brief interview about the book on The New Yorker’s website
On the future of photography:
People say that everything’s been photographed, but it’s not true. Making a connection to the subject matter through photography is what allows for original and exciting work. Now we know that all photographs are lies, and we’ve got to puncture that. Seeing the bad stuff (and I shoot lots of bad stuff myself) is important as it allows us to know when we are seeing something good. There are about 2000 new photobooks every year and I try to look at as many of them as possible.
For an exhibition in Amsterdam Erik Kessels printed out every photo uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and filled the gallery space with them. Facebook is an incredible archive of photographs — most of them boring, but a testament to the sheer amount of visual information out there. We’re lucky to be working in a time where we can print on demand. Anyone can go out and make a book for fifty bucks today.
Other mentions include:
Redheaded Peckerwood, a photobook by Christian Patterson (see Brooklyn Rail article here, images on the artist’s website here)
the Becher School, of course (info and images on the MoMA website, see our post on typologies here)
Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, of course
Alec Soth (and how he self-published Sleeping by the Mississippi in and edition of 25 before gaining recognition for his work; see our posts featuring Soth here)
and other fellow Magnum members Donovan Wylie and Larry Towell (read about their stunning show at the Royal Ontario Museum earlier this year here)
In 2008 Parr curated an exhibition titled New Typologies for the New York Photo Festival, featuring some of our favourite contemporary artists including Penelope Umbrico, Jan Banning, and Joachim Schmid. See more in this review by Sarah Coleman.