A Cup of Tea – The History and Photography of Martin Parr

All photographs copyright Martin Parr.

“Fashion pictures show people looking glamorous. Travel pictures show a place looking at its best, nothing to do with the reality. In the cookery pages, the food always looks amazing, right? Most of the pictures we consume are propaganda.” – Martin Parr.

On the surface, the work of Martin Parr is filled with whimsy, garish color, and playfulness, but deep down this humor both highlights and masks a harsh critique of society. Born in England in 1952 to a middle-class background, the documentary work of Parr has focused intently on modern life, including the culture and social classes in Britain, wealth and luxury, consumerism, and travel. Parr understands the important of grabbing the attention of viewers, and so he uses humor and peculiarity as a way to achieve this purpose. His photographs find a way to toe the line between beautiful and ugly.

“The fundamental thing I’m exploring constantly is the difference between the mythology of the place and the reality of it… Remember I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment. That’s part of my mantra. I make the pictures acceptable in order to find the audience but deep down there is actually a lot going on that’s not sharply written in your face. If you want to read it you can read it.” – Martin Parr.

Beneath the surface, Parr’s photographs are filled with oddness, idiosyncrasy, understanding, and unease. His photographs force us to pay attention to and question the ordinary. Particularly with his critiques on British society, Parr captures everyday moments and objects in a way that make them feel surreal and absurd. An ordinary cup of tea in an ornate teacup looks beautiful and regal. It is photographed in a way to make it appealing and proper, but this forces us to question it at the same time. A plate of food, which would normally be photographed in a pleasing way, is captured in all its ordinariness. “I think the ordinary is a very under-exploited aspect of our lives because it is so familiar.” – Martin Parr.

The Non-Conformists

Parr’s first major group of work, The Non-Conformists, took place in the rural communities of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and Ireland from 1975-1982. He focused on rural life and the decline of farming communities by photographing at the local non-conformist chapels. While his work was in black and white at the time, much different from the color that he is most known for, you could see his style developing. The photographs were not as harsh as his work would become, but they still focused on the ordinary and did not set out to glorify or beautify his subjects. They were as they were. Ordinary and humorous moments were pervasive, but the entire project has an overarching feel of sadness and decline.

The Last Resort

The next project that Parr would take on, for which he is most widely known for today, was The Last Resort, focusing on the past-its-prime beach town of New Brighton. The focus was on the leisure activities of the working class. “Of course, New Brighton is very shabby, very rundown, but people still go there because it’s the place where you take kids out on a Sunday.” It can be easy to mistake the humor in this project as a form of mocking, but that is because the images ring so true with intimacy and understanding for his subjects. Parr’s aim was not to mock, but to give honest look into the working class world. “[Parr] was attacked by some critics for his scrutiny of the working classes, but looking at these works, one merely sees Parr’s unflinching eye capturing the truth of a social class embracing leisure in whatever form available.” – Karen Wright

“At the time, when I first showed it in Liverpool, no one batted an eyelid because everyone knew what New Brighton was like. And then when I showed them in London [at The Serpentine Gallery], there was all kinds of responses; people were somewhat shocked.” – Martin Parr

The beach has been a recurring theme throughout Parr’s life. It was always where he went to test a new camera or way of shooting. As many city street photographers have their favorite corner, the beach was Parr’s favorite corner. “You can read a lot about a country by looking at its beaches: across cultures, the beach is that rare public space in which all absurdities and quirky national behaviors can be found.”

The Cost of Living

In 1987, Parr would move with his wife to Bristol, where he photographed his next project, The Cost of Living, which focused on the middle class as they became wealthier under Thatcher. He captured a variety of middle-class activities including shopping, parties, and events.

Small World

Parr shifted his eye toward a critique of the mass tourism industry, which he also saw as a form of conspicuous consumption. He stated, “the thing about tourism is that the reality of a place is quite different from the mythology of it.” Parr set out to attack this mythology of the travel destination by focusing on the ordinary follies of tourists in them. What he showed was people so disconnected from their surroundings that it looks like they are in an amusement park and not an actual place.

Common Sense

Parr would take the critique of consumerism further by focusing an entire project on it, Common Sense, from 1995 to 1999. He focused on the trivial and absurd realities of consumer culture and projects, often photographing strange objects, and taking tight detail shots as one would do for a magazine shoot. But instead of being classic and beautiful, the objects in Parr’s photographs look strange and almost ridiculous. Their flaws are the focus of many of the photographs.

Luxury

In 2009, Parr released a book titled Luxury, which continued his focus on photographing different classes of people and critiquing their lifestyles.

Photobooks

Over the years, Parr has built one of the largest photography book collections in the world and was the co-author of The Photobook: A History (in three volumes), which covers more than 1,000 photo books from the 19th century to modern day. Parr has been a strong voice for the value of the photo book in the photography world.

“I firmly believe that the photo book is still an underestimated asset in the cultural history of photography. Speaking as a photographer, it is the one vehicle for photography that has influenced, not just me, but many photographers in a very big way. Finally, in this last decade, there has been a strong revival of interest in the photobook.”

Quotes from Martin Parr:

“With photography, I like to create a fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”

“My black-and-white work is more of a celebration, and the color work became more of a critique of society.”

“We are drowning in images. Photography is used as a propaganda tool, which serves to sell products and ideas. I use the same approach to show aspects of reality.”

“I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly.”

“Part of the role of photography is to exaggerate, and that is an aspect that I have to puncture. I do that by showing the world as I really find it.”

“I photograph wealth.”

“Photography is, by its nature, exploitative. It’s whether you use this process with a sense of responsibility or not. I feel that I do so. My conscience is clear.”

“If there is any jarring at all in my photographs, it’s because we are so used to ingesting pictures of everywhere looking beautiful.”

“I try to photograph my own and society’s hypocrisy.”

FRANCE. Calais. Auchan hypermarket. From ‘One Day Trip’. 1988.

“The idea of England in decline is very attractive.”

“You have to take a lot of bad pictures. Dont’ be afraid to take bad pictures… You have to take a lot of bad pictures in order to know when you’ve got a good one.”

“I accept that all photography is voyeuristic and exploitative, and obviously I live with my own guilt and conscience. It’s part of the test and I don’t have a problem with it.”

 

View Martin Parr’s work here.

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