Martin Parr

Martin Parr - documenting subjectivities 
Martin Parr, who was born in 1952, and who grew up in suburban Surrey, today exhibits widely. In addition, his work can be found regularly in newspapers, magazines and journals. Nationally and internationally respected, Parr and his work are described in Contemporary Photographers (1995:800) thus:

Martin Parr can be considered generally as the leading light of the ?New Colour Documentary? school of eighties British and European photography. As such he has been a major influence upon young photographers, both as a protagonist and a teacher. His style has been imitated extensively, but in the original, is marked by an aggressive, typically British coolness and a gleeful propensity for eccentricity and the foibles of human existence. These qualities are presented for our inspection in a manner that seems somewhat insistent and unyielding compared to the methods of the traditional documentary photographers.

Parr is fascinated with holiday resorts such as Scarborough and Morecambe, and the ?brash side of English life,? as he has described it. One of his earliest photographic essays was made at Harry Ramsden?s fish and chip shop just outside Bradford, when he was about 16 years old. He says himself that he portrayed the shop as being bleaker than it actually was, as quite a sad sort of place. Even at this early stage he was searching for a way of expressing the fact that he identified with the places that he was photographing. He knew that they would soon become outdated, as society and culture moved on.

This theme of Britishness characterises much of Parr?s work. He is interested in the way people decorate their living rooms and socialise on holiday; in the values, attitudes and ways of life that are being eroded or are under threat. The trivia and ordinariness of everyday life appears regularly in Parr?s photographs, and represents a resistance to the homogenisation of society and the erosion of individual national identities. Thus, in the exhibition The Last Resort (1986), a study of the seaside town of New Brighton on the Wirrall, Parr photographs the ways that family groups act and behave together. He includes the screaming, the crying, the good and the bad points which are revealed and on display during a day out at the seaside.

The best way to describe Parr?s work, then, is ?subjective documentary?. Writing in the catalogue for the exhibition On The Bright Side of Life (1997) Brett Rogers describes this school of contemporary British photography as follows:

The revitalisation of documentary begun by (Tony) Ray Jones and continued by such individuals as Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, John Davies and Jem Southam was motivated by radically new perception of its function. Like their American counterparts, the British photographers had undergone a disillusionment with documentary practice, realising that its objectivity was mythical, that its claims to reveal the ?truth?? were spurious, and finally but most fundamentally that it had failed to effect any real change in the world. The ethical problem they posed themselves was how to respond to the radical social and political changes occurring in Britain while not succumbing to the old myths about the power of the documentary aesthetic.

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In using photography to explore the physical and cultural climate of Britain in the light of the economic, social and political changes and the post-industrial climate of the late twentieth century, Parr and his contemporaries are arguing that photography is fundamentally subjective. It is about re-presentation, not representation; that is about the ?re-presentation? of visual material in a way that acknowledges the thoughts, feelings, preferences and ideologies of the photographer; it is about acknowledging the subjectivity of the photographer who, even within the tradition of so-called documentary photography, can never portray a subject as it ?really is?. The photographer always works from a specific and individual point of view.

© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved