The foibles of the world

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Martin Parr reveals the secret of taking photographs that tell the unvarnished truth

By Benjamin Secher
27 Aug 2011

Girls at the Badminton horse trials in 1988

Girls at the Badminton horse trials in 1988

A game of bowls in Bristol in 2000

A game of bowls in Bristol in 2000

Couple outside prefab house

Couple outside prefab house

‘Most of the photographs in your paper, unless they are hard news, are lies,” says 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.”

Parr, 59 years old and perhaps Britain’s best known photographic chronicler of modern life, is sitting in the kitchen of his beautiful Georgian house in Clifton, Bristol. He has served me tea from a fine china pot and “posh biscuits” bought from the deli up the hill. Susie, his wife of 30 years, is stirring something on the hob. Everything looks rather lovely.

Everything, that is, except the appalled expression on Parr’s face when I suggest that sometimes, regardless of their truthfulness, pictures of things looking their best might be exactly what people want to see. “Of course,” he says, “but what people want…” He hits that last word with the force of a punch, then lapses into silence, as if the very thought of taking a photograph that perpetuates a fantasy disgusts him beyond words.

“If you go to the supermarket and buy a package of food and look at the photo on the front, the food never looks like that inside, does it? That is a fundamental lie we are sold every day. 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.”

A new exhibition, Martin Parr: Bristol and West, opening in the city next week, reminds us quite what a ridiculous, contradictory, dysfunctional and occasionally wonderful place Parr finds the world to be. Focusing on the part of the world that he has called home for the past 25 years, its 60 images, both old and new, suggest that whatever else has changed about photography over the intervening decades – the advent of digital cameras, the death of film – Parr’s gaze remains as acute and unsentimental as ever.

Has anybody ever looked their best in a Martin Parr photograph? Certainly not the mustachioed yacht salesman shot at Bristol regatta in 1989, his face, as he courts a couple of would-be buyers, frozen in a rictus of obsequiousness. Nor the group of girls Parr stumbled upon at Badminton horse trials, as much a product of good breeding and aggressive grooming as the fillies they have gathered to watch.

That picture finds its echo in another shot in the show, taken 20 years later, of a different quartet of girls of a similar age – smoking, teetering on a lamplit pavement on a night out in 2009, off-guard, half-cut, mouths open, eyes closed. Parr’s images frequently raise a smile by exposing the gap between the public faces we wear and the private motives and insecurities that, if you know when and where to point a camera, can be seen seeping out from beneath. But if there is a joke here, nobody has let his subjects in on it.

When he is taking a photograph, Parr says, his prime responsibility isn’t towards the people in shot, but to his viewer and to his own sense of the truth of the scene. “When someone says to you, ‘Oh, I don’t take a good picture,’ what they mean is they haven’t come to terms with how they look,” he says. “They take a fine picture, it’s just that their image of how they think they look is not in touch with the reality.”

I had always wondered how Parr got himself into such intimate proximity with the subjects of his photographs, who so often appear blissfully unaware of the critical lens loitering only inches from their faces. I suppose I’d imagined him to be a flatterer, or else a man of such discretion that people simply forget he is there and let down their guard.

In person, it quickly becomes clear that his chief weapon is not charm but directness. He shoots as he talks, with unflinching certainty and not a hint of self doubt. When I ask if he ever seeks a person’s permission before photographing them, that pained expression reappears. “You would never get anything done if you did that,” he says. “And besides, you still have the legal and moral right in this country to photograph anyone in a public place and do what you like with it.” So there.

Parr, who has been a member of the renowned Magnum picture agency since 1994, estimates he takes “tens upon thousands” of photographs a year. Unusually in this digital age, he prints out “maybe 15,000 of them” and, he adds, “If there are 10 good ones, it would be a good year.” Themes recur – “tourism, consumerism, the Americanisation of the world” – but his scope is dizzyingly broad: “I am interested in people and what they do,” he says, “the foibles of the world.”

As he approaches 60, Parr’s passion for his medium grips him as firmly as it did when his grandfather, an amateur photographer, first gave him a camera as a boy. “I can’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t want to take photos,” he says. “Photography for me is not work, it’s a calling.”

Martin Parr was one of the early photography trainers at Drik. His exhibition “Home and Abroad” was shown at Drik Gallery. Parr also gave a talk at the British Council, Dhaka.

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4 Responses to The foibles of the world

  1. Diane says:

    I think Martin Parr has a valid point about showing the truth of things, but the truth of things can also show unexpected beauty and dignity. What I miss, when I look at his very clever and witty images, is any sense of compassion for his subjects. His knowing, arch, ironic eye displays a certain kind of cool, privileged Englishness, but where is his heart?

  2. Dick Doughty says:

    To me it’s more useful to regard Martin’s work in terms of “idealization.” Photos designed to sell something (from a publication to a political agenda) idealize along lines that their creators regard as “true.” Sometimes they do this rather minimally, sometimes they do it a lot quite intentionally. The kind and degree of idealization tells you a lot about the agenda or point of view. (Look back at the iconic American FSA Depression photos: highly idealized stuff! Yet it was “documentary”…) Martin is a brilliant, quintessential anti-idealist, reminding us that, as people, we have uncomfortable foibles, and as consumers of images, we fall for rhetorics of idealization (and create them ourselves) far more often than we think. Thank you Martin.

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