From Issue One of 10+: Martin Parr’s Beautiful Pictures Make Things Better
In the wall art section of IKEA there are soft-focus scenes of Paris, there’s James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and there’s a rope bridge in a misty forest. There’s a celebration of soft pastels, love hearts and a Ferris wheel. But this is Martin Parr, a photojournalist for almost half a century. You won’t find his work in IKEA.
Parr’s most famous images – his archive consists of hundreds of thousands of shots – are of the British social classes. It helps, too, that Parr is “nosy” (his word) and that he carries his camera everywhere. His pictures are invested with magic, and one of the many beautiful things about his work is the reflection you see of yourself and people you know within them, especially the British. The Epsom-born, Bristol-based Parr studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 197-s and is a full member of the Magnum Photos co-operative. These pictures – a mix of old and more recent work, some never seen before, taken while on trips to America were selected by Parr exclusively for 10+. And what follows is a conversation we recently had on the phone with him while he was at home. He explains his work, as well as his use of daylight ash, something that lends his pictures an intense, eye-grabbing quality that we’ve fallen completely in love with.
Martin Parr: The [daylight flash] helps make the pictures look quite real. That unreality is all a part of the subjective fiction that you’re trying to create based on reality… And you’ve also killed the shadows in bright sunlight.
Richard Gray: Why do you think your work appeals to people so much?
MP: I suppose their strong design and strong colours, and the pictures have some pain or some story behind them, some
contradiction perhaps, some ambiguity. I mean, none of the subjects are particularly stunning. [The pictures from America here have political and religious contexts. The unemployed worker – perhaps he was on strike – holding a handmade sign asking for food is as moving as it is beautiful. It demands questions from the viewer, engaging us, prompting us to wonder: who is this man? Where is his family? Are they hungry, too? Is he homeless or unemployed, or both?]
MP: I was in Rochester [New York state], and I saw this guy, so I stopped, got out, took the picture, gave him some money and went on.
[Once you ask the questions, you try to internalise some answers and the frequency changes again: it’s political,
you say; it’s a mirror, you say; it’s Trump’s America, you conclude. Now, that may be right or wrong, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the dialogue. What matters is engagement. What matters is the moment.]
MP: I never thought for one moment that I would be successful. I’m doing it because I believe it. We live in a day now where photographers set out to be successful, and they are doomed because the ones who are successful are the ones who don’t plan it.
RG: Everyone seems to be a photographer these days, with cameras on their phones. Is that a good or a bad thing?
MP: Oh, that’s great… More people can do photography and use all these sites like Instagram. It just means that there is more interesting photography, but we hope and expect that the people who post on things like this might be interested in seeing what other people are doing.
RG: People are speaking more and more in images and less in words, and images seem to convey more messages than words do now.
MP: I think this is why Instagram has been so phenomenally successful.
[The image of the older couple on their sun-loungers, with the chap nodding off, are Parr gold. Again, one look at the picture and the inner dialogue begins: he’s just had lunch,
she’s in her own world, she’s escaping into her book. They must have been together for years. Look, he’s finished the papers. These must be the Weisers. They’ve retired. Good for them… I need a holiday.]
RG: Where did you take it?
MP: That was back in the day when Florida was more trendy. Miami is not as trendy now.
RG: Miami has become a second home for New Yorkers now, they just jet down.
MP: Yes, it’s become very gentrified. That traditional part of Miami Beach has all but disappeared.
[The sporting events that have been captured here are ripe for great shots. People cheering, people dressed up, people losing their bets.]
RG: At the risk of oversimplifying your whole oeuvre, the pictures really are pictures of people doing things.
MP: Yes. I mean, I haven’t studied the pictures and looked at them in that light, but I guess you might be right.
RG: It must be easier to take good pictures of interesting people doing things.
MP: You can take a very bad picture of interesting people doing good things.
RG: You have said before that you’ve taken a lot of bad photos.
MP: Oh, a terrible amount – more than most people, because I shoot a lot in order to get something half-decent.
RG: What are you like when you’re editing your own work? Are you terrible?
MP: I think I’m pretty good, really – you can spot the crap from a mile off and you have to not get too depressed when you come back from an event and you haven’t managed to get anything, you haven’t managed to capture the magic of
what you saw. But, yeah, you just keep on going and hope that something will emerge. Sometimes you get lucky.
[Parr isn’t normally keen to talk about his process. Clearly, he sometimes approaches people and asks to take their photograph or he captures people unawares. But this must be increasingly difficult when everybody takes photographs, now that everybody is so very aware of cameras and of being photographed. We police how we look in selfies and on social media. Martin Parr real is really real. But arguably, in their own pictures, people don’t want that real, or rather, anything too real. See filters and sharpening tools on all photo-capable phones now.]
RG: What’s a winning photo for you? Composition, clearly.
MP: Well, again, it’s not something that I’m really inclined to dene. You have an idea when you’ve got a good picture. I guess there’s some kind of extension of thoughts, and some kind of contradiction, ambiguity. The picture has some sort
of story to hang it on. You know it when you see it, but you don’t know how to take them.
RG: So you actually couldn’t dene how you take a photo, but what goes through your head?
MP: I think, going out, day after day – I’m not saying I shoot every day, but I probably shoot half of the days very intensely – you’re gonna get something. You know, you apply it and you shoot carefully and try to capture the magic of what you see in front of you.
[Parr shoots on a Canon. Hung around his neck. He doesn’t hang around waiting, however; he’s always on the move. And he may come back to a site he’s identified, but never on the same day. And that camera hanging around his neck? In 2006, Parr moved to shoot on digital. He experimented at first with a small digital Sony and has more recently shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R.]
Want to shoot like Martin Parr? Here’s the crib sheet?
GET THAT FUNNY SHOT
Have humour at the front of your mind. Parr uses it to convey all kinds of messages about his subjects and oftentimes a far greater narrative. He asks: who are we now?
HAVE A THEME
One picture can be incredible, but Parr’s work revolves around a theme, as seen in his pictures of food, of sunbathers in Benidorm, at Butlin’s and in Albania, and his American series. He refuses to sit back and believe he has “the shot”; he’s his own worst critic. To get real insight into his work, search YouTube for his 1999 documentary Think of England, his celebration of his country of birth.
CAPTURE THE MUNDANE, CELEBRATE THE BANAL
Study the work of photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston to get a sense of the everyday. Real life, real people going about their business, is a surprising source of inspirational and magical imagery.
LOOK FOR COLOUR
We see in colour, the world is colour. Black and white photography can be powerful and evocative, but for real life, colour can be incredible. Pick your scenes and themes with that in mind.
BE PATIENT AND SHOOT ON DIGITAL
Digital is the only way to shoot like Parr. He has said in the past that switching from lm is the best thing he ever did.
Parr will often use SB29 ring ash, says Photocrowd.com. This gives “a studio light effect that in daylight gives the images their garish edge”.
“Don’t worry, most of the pictures I’ve taken are crap, too,” Parr said in 2016. “You have to take a lot of bad pictures to get something good.”
‘Only Human’ exhibition by Martin Parr is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until May 27th.