Ten’s To See: ‘Only Human’ by Martin Parr at the National Portrait Gallery
“I made a career out of people-watching,” Martin Parr exclaims as he leads a bunch of excited journos through the space of National Portrait Gallery in London, all clad in big prints of his electrically realistic idea of the world. We’re at the private view of his latest exhibition Only Human, a big retrospective of work since his big solo show at the Barbican in 2002. And it’s a retrospective in every sense of the word – both of Parr’s photography as well as the trajectory of British people and culture (his favourite subject to capture) in this period. There’s obviously one particular event that marked those years. Brexit and its aftermath have been the focus of Parr’s work in the past couple of years, which is heavily represented in the works on display. The biggest gallery in the show holds photographs taken by Parr in the most Brexit-voting counties like Cornwall and Lincoln. There, Parr – the vocal remainer – captured everyday scenarios, finding meaning in the mundane. One image Parr talked us through sees people on the beach looking into the sea, to Europe, with a red flag marking danger. Such is the eye of Martin Parr.
Other galleries in the exhibition shift focus onto activities his most engaging subjects delve into. One room has a massive disco ball spinning from the ceiling, with photographs of every possible dance scenario imaginable – from naked grinding at Manchester Pride to traditional wedding spectacles, Parr describes dance as one of his favourite things to photograph. “It’s when people are going for it, after a few drinks,” he says. There’s a room with celebrity portraits, which holds Vivienne Westwood, Ryan Lo and Zandra Rhodes, as well as an in-character portrait of Lou Todd and Andy Pipkin from Little Britain. Humour is an instrument Parr’s work has become synonymous with. In the middle of the exhibition, a café is selling classic British cakes and Martin Parr-logoed beers in a menu personally approved by the photographer himself. Fruit Cake, Battenbergs and a cuppa – all there for you to indulge in. It’s a break from the reality on display in the classic seaside café interior, completed with plastic red chairs and Parr’s images of food hanging on the walls.
It’s quite clear we’re living in a commercial renaissance of Martin Parr’s work. He has a strong relationship Gucci and has previously worked on many projects with them, and the Italian fashion house is even supporting this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. This commercial aspect is also represented at the entrance of Only Human, where all of photographer’s previous commercial collabs find themselves in the set up of a Martin Parr merch shrine. And if you want to add to that collection, the museum shop on your way out, holds some pretty fabulous photo-printed paraphernalia. You can even get that custom beer from the café in a trio set to takeaway.
Despite having a fruitful career that spans over several decades with truly iconic imagery that went all over the world, this exhibition is proof that Martin Parr’s time is not yesterday. It’s today and we’ve all got a front row ticket to it. The exhibition’s timing is meaningful too, as we all prepare for the dreadful date that is March 28th 2019. Leave or Remain? The choice is yours, but at some point you’ll have to leave the gallery. “The guards will kick you out otherwise,” says Parr.
‘Only Human’ by Martin Parr is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until May 27th. Book online.