As a child Martin Parr spent Saturdays going bird-watching with his father. Their usual haunt was a stretch of land along the River Mole by Hersham Sewage Works in Surrey, a fertile source for wildlife. The ultimate nerdy hobby, bird-watching supplied the yet-to-be photographer with a transferable skill set, including stillness, patience and a beady-eyed concentration: ‘When I went on these trips, and my parents were leading the bird-watchers, I would of course be watching the bird-watchers.’( )
The earliest photograph by Martin Parr in the British Council Collection, Passing Naturalists, Pagham Harbour (1973), black and white, was taken when Parr was just 21, not a far remove from those bird-watching weekends. Two men, both in windcheaters, woolly hats and wellington boots, with knapsacks strapped to their backs, stride past each other down a country path in opposite directions; neither shows any sign of acknowledgement. The landscape in the distance is gentle enough: a flat horizon is dotted with oak trees like the bobbles atop the walkers’ hats. And yet the grasses in the foreground have been swept and bleached into a distraught state by the wind; it is a determined species that chooses to stalk nature on such a day.
Martin Parr was born in Chessington in Surrey, and as a teenager lived in Ashstead near Epsom, the small market town which in the Victorian period boomed as a grand day out at the races. Dickens found Derby Day a feast for people-watching: ‘a population surges and rolls and scrambles through the place, that may be counted in millions.’( ) So too Parr has found the British populace, in all their surging and rolling, pastimes, celebrations – and boredom – to be a rewarding subject. His earliest projects included photographing inmates at Prestwich Mental Hospital; taking portraits of the residents of the ‘real’ Coronation Street (the cult British soap opera), in Salford near Manchester; and working as a photographer at Butlins holiday camp, for which he was posted to the cheap ‘n’ cheerful destination of Filey on Yorkshire’s east coast.
He started photographing the traditions of the north, drawn to unexpected moments. The Jubiliee Street Party, Elland (1977). It was a broody Yorkshire day, but the party organisers have done themselves proud: paper plates of sandwiches and sausage rolls are laid out in defiance at the clouds, even if the paper tablecloths are kicking up a fuss.
Traditions, Hobbies, pastimes, boredom management strategies: these are classic Parr territory, and for his medium he has hobbyists to thank. Camera clubs and the Royal Photographic Society, set up in the 19th century to support exhibitions and debates, made photography available to a broader middle class in the 20th century. Parr’s grandfather was a keen amateur photographer, and holidays with him up in Yorkshire were a decisive factor in his move towards photography. The pair went on trips around the region, with cameras instead of binoculars, and his grandfather was keen to share the excitement of developing prints in the darkroom.
On his Butlins sojourn in Filey, a town in decline, like Bridlington, Scarborough, Skegness or Whitby, Parr started a lifelong collection of the highly coloured, kitsch postcards made by John Hinde. Photography supplied picture postcards and studio portraits and served as a documentary tool long before being recognised as a fine art and as well as the influences of American colour photographers William Eggleston and Garry Winograd, Parr’s work remains indebted to this heritage. Whereas the conventional terrain of photojournalism or reportage had been to document the extremely rich or extremely poor (and generally, to look at the latter with sympathy), by the 1970s, Britain was dominated by the middle class, and Parr takes a different attitude. Introducing colour was a shift from the ‘unmitigated affection’ he expressed in his black and white work, to a more critical position:
‘I don’t have a problem with the fact that I’m middle class going to photograph the working class. I think there’s this rather precious approach that if you’re middle class you can’t go and criticise the working class, and certainly my photographs have a critical bite to them.( )
Parr refocuses the tacky seaside postcard for the Thatcher era in his portfolio The Last Resort (1983–85), 40 photographs looking at a run-down seaside resort outside Liverpool. Parr’s image of a beauty pageant adopts the saturated look in a knowing way. Three blonds wait to make their entrance, as if from a bygone era: in glorious colour, their tans are set against white swimsuits and the crumpled shirt and brown trousers of the photographer in the foreground, the pot plants and bunting. Perhaps black and white would be more forgiving but colour shows the full vulgarity. Another image shows a family tucking into chips on a car park bench, in front of an overflowing bin. The primary colours ring loud: red paintwork, blue denims, white trainers and polystyrene cartons. The youngest is out of her pram and, like the whirl of rubbish on the floor, is twisting herself, about to throw a strop.
By the late 1960s, conceptual artists such as Richard Long and Keith Arnatt were using photography in their work, and in parallel, Parr posited the ordinary world in the art gallery. He has amassed his own vast collection of prints, souvenirs and ephemera in tandem with his growing collection of archetypal images of Englishness – newspapers on the beach, cups of tea, front lawns, sliced white bread and margarine, cricket whites, postcards of Big Ben, knitted whatnots, baked beans, seagulls pecking at chips, prize cakes.
Sandra Phillips, Martin Parr (Phaidon, London 2007)
Val Williams, Martin Parr (Phaidon, London 2002)
Martin Parr and Ian Walker, The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (Promenade Press, Stockport 1986)