Last week I went to a talk by psychotherapist Susie Godsil and photographer Martin Parr. It was one in a series of Connecting Conversations, organised by the Rowan Arts Project.
Parr is renowned for his observational photographs of Britain – seaside scenes, burnt Brits eating chips, striped windbreaks, seagulls – which both document, and – arguably – mock the seaside culture.
(from the BBC)
Susie Godsil asked him about his response to critics claims that he was laughing at the working classes, particularly with his first book: The Last Resort. Parr explained that after taking the photographs, on the Liverpool Wirral, he exhibited them for the locals to see. They liked them; didn’t see them as being in any way controversial, as they simply captured life as it was. When they were exhibited at the Serpentine, however, there was uproar (from the middle and upper classes).
“All photography, you could argue, is a form of exploitation,” said Parr, but he is not intending to mock. He compared the images produced by photo journalists in war zones to his own – explaining that he could never photograph dying/ dead people. But others can. And so the concept of exploitation is subjective.
Godsil, though not long a fan – it seemed – had done some research and so probed Parr on his fascination with the mundane: seaside fish and chip shops, empty 60s supermarkets, McDonalds. He explained that, as a photographer, his job was to capture the present so that in the future people could learn from his work. And, of course, the present doesn’t always have to conventionally beautiful.
He is a self-proscribed collector, viewing his photography as one aspect of his obsession with collecting. The obsession began when he was a child, growing up in Surrey, and his father introduced him to bird pellets (the regurgitated bones of rats, pigeons, spat out in neat pellet shapes by bigger birds once the flesh has been removed). He collected the bird pellets, then moved onto stamps and, later, photography books. He reckons he has the biggest collection of photography books in the country.
Though not academic – Parr failed the photography theory in his first year at Manchester Poly – he has always worked hard. He firmly believes that hard work is the only key to success as a photographer. As a tutor, he can open the students’ portfolios and immediately see who has put in the hours. The only good work, he says, will be the work that has taken time and consideration – you can’t rush and still produce something impressive.
Another of Parr’s fascinations is tourism and our consumption of the world. He travels to far away lands – Machu Picchu, for example – and rather than capturing the 15th century Inca site, he’ll photograph the tourists photographing each other. He says that when embarking on a big trip to one of the wonders of the world, we envisage a place of beauty, with no one else there. When you arrive and encounter swarms of tourists, the magic is removed, and so he loses interest in the landscapes and monuments and becomes fixated on the tourists posing. His work is both an example of, and comment on, the destruction being caused by easy access to once sacred sites.
His photography questions happiness, contentedness, boredom. He remembers being taken on a trip down the M1 as a child, “for a treat”. They stopped off at a service station and there were postcards of the M1. Everything, he says, was once novelty. And this is why he has spent his adult years snapping everything before it disappears. He produced a series of postcard entitled: Boring Postcards, which – being controversial – whipped up a media storm. They are postcards of the once-novelty M1, shopping arcades, airports, tower blocks.
He knew Blockbuster would soon be closing – “Who buys DVDs?” and so began a project photographing the inside of all the shops. It has now officially gone into administration and Parr’s work will be one of the reminders of the once thriving chain, in decades to come.
Parr thanks his happy, conventional – but uneventful – childhood in Surrey for his obsession with northern seaside towns. When he was taken on trips to Scarborough and Blackpool – he was amazed by the lights, the kitsch scenes. This preoccupation with bright lights and seasides has continued to resonate throughout his lifelong body of work.
He made one particular comment during the talk (which was more of a presentation than a conversation, as Godsil kept her questioning to a minimum and Parr was happy to lead) that stuck.
He said that photography is about setting a scene, capturing a fleeting moment and – for that reason – is all propaganda. If Parr photographs a couple sitting together, who look bored, we will view the image from his stance. But that was one moment. The couple could be content, even ecstatic – prior to, or post that photo being taken.
If you get a chance to hear Parr speak, take it. He is funny, articulate and a good story-teller.
His new book ‘Life is a Beach’ is out now.