Martin Parr

or ‘Martin Parr and me’. I want to write a bit about Martin Parr, starting out from Gerry Badger’s essay, but trying to acknowledge both Parr’s importance in photograph and the personal significance his work has long had for me.

First let me declare an interest. Or do my first bit of name-dropping. Because these are quite personal reflections.

In 1984 the weekly magazine New Society published a short piece by me contrasting the work of Eugène Atget and André Kertész. I think it was the editor of the magazine that gave it the title “Poets of the Camera” because that title applies far more to Kertész than Atget. That small publication proved lucky for me. The National Museum of Photography, Film and TV in Bradford put on a major retrospective of the work of Kertész to mark his 90th birthday. The BBC’s Radio Four looked around for someone to review the exhibition and my little piece got me the job. And that led to me getting to meet my hero, Kertész on his actual 90th birthday at a luncheon hosted by the museum.

Afterwards I wrote two small poems of appreciation and sent them off to Kertész. Within a year he was dead.

Kertész is discussed over several pages of Badger’s essay “Ruthless Courtesies: the making of Martin Parr”. Martin Parr is a friend and collaborator of Gerry Badger and, of course, one of the most important of contemporary photographers. Badger on Parr is simply essential reading, not to be missed. I am not going to engage in detail with what Badger writes about Kertész here. It is more important to me to grasp what an interesting opposition is being drawn here: Kertész vs. Parr. Badger, like me, recognizes that both are masters. I want report here on the way in which that opposition has worked for me across decades of my own photographic practice. And I hope this will take us deeper into the questions of smiles, of mood, and especially of the tone of voice of photographs.

John Berger and myself talking photos (1980, photo by Jean Mohr who was embarrassed by the plant behind John in the photo).

More name dropping: I first encountered Kertész during a week in 1981 when I met every day to discuss photography with John Berger as he was reformulating his long essay for the book Another Way of Telling. I was completely blown away by the work of Kertész. I read him as a truly stupendous innovator. I delighted in what Badger calles his “elegant, painterly formalism” (page 77). I found, and still find, real mystery in the way in which people are reduced “painlessly, to mere formal ciphers, to compositional elements”. So much about Kertész’s work I still find exhilarating.

The joy I found in Kertész’s photos I formulated in a phrase: there is among all his astutely observed photos not one that could be called unkind.

“For all his acclaimed humanist bonhomie how deeply did André Kertész actually dig into the human condition?” asks Badger. Very deeply indeed, I would argue. But I will do that elsewhere. This post is mainly about Martin Parr. And me.

From the moment I encountered the work of Martin Parr, I recognized its importance.

Martin Parr at the first Magnum Masterclass in London

And my regard for the work, and the man, has only grown over the years. From the start, though, it has had personal significance for me. At some very deep level it defined a way I did not want to take photographs. Over decades I have admired Martin Parr’s work hugely but felt a deeper kinship with Kertész.

Badger’s essay grasps some aspects of Parr’s importance: the shift to colour, the revitalisation of Magnum, the social criticism. I am a bit disappointed that Badger’s essay does not go much further in giving us background to this remarkable career, and I wish I was in a position to fill in the gaps and to sketch it up to the present.

Parr’s revitalisation of Magnum is closely bound up with his feeling for photobooks and a genius for spotting or devising projects, and marketing them and putting them before the public. Parr is incredibly prolific and inventive in his projects. And many of them are an astute form of social criticism while at the same time being a wildly audacious marketing ploy. Parr’s importance today is as collector, editor, entrepreneur as much as it is as photographer. His acumen is just breathe-taking. But it does not always endear him to photographic purists.

Anyone who has the opportunity to review Parr’s career as a photographer cannot fail to be impressed by his long list of technological or stylistic innovations. We all carry in our heads a vivid idea of what a Parr photo looks like but over his career there have been a whole host of clever technological improvisations. The relatively cheap underwater camera with which he photographed Bad Weather, the ring-flash with which he illuminated New Brighton, were only the first in a long line of creative solutions to photographic problems. On three occasions I have heard Parr survey his own career. And my admiration, and liking, for the man has grown. [For a really good read surveying the same material I heartily recommend Parr by Parr: Discussions with a promiscuous photographer (Schilt, 2010) “Quentin Bajac meets Martin Parr”]

Parr in Leeds presenting a survey of his career

I am sure that I will return to reflect on the range of the issues Parr’s work raises for me personally. But Parr’s work takes us to an important issue for all photographers who take candid pictures of the public: the issue of how far ones responsibility to the people so framed extends. Badger’s essay goes into some detail about the Parr’s ethical approach.

What did not satisfy me was Badger’s comparison of the photographer with the writer. Badger seems to think that the objections of the people photographed or any other protestations based on our empathy for the people depicted is based on a naïve attitude toward photography. I am not convinced by Badger’s arguments. Any serious discussion of this issue must deal with photography’s special status as a recording technology.

I think it is very interesting – and relevant to my own work – to connect this issue with that of the smile. There is lots to think about in Badger’s discussion of the ‘sunny’ or ‘shady’ side of the ‘conceptual street’ and his attention to traditions in British humour. But Parr’s directness is only a starting point, not a final answer:

Have you ever heard a photographer speaking about the power he or she has over people? Yet it’s unquestionably there. Photography isn’t innocent, it’s riddled with ulterior motives.

I am a huge admirer of Parr’s work. I don’t think the feeling is mutual. (Joke) I did get to show him some of my photos at a masterclass at Magnum in London. He simply asked if I ever used flash. I had to say “no, never”. And very soon afterwards I invested in two speedlights and taught myself something about off-camera flash.

But Martin Parr did later include my dance image (on the right) in his little photobook collaboration with Joachim Schmid. Martin Parr may be the better photographer. I comfort myself with the belief that I am a better dancer. And I hope one day to delight Mr Parr with the publication of my dance photos.

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