Show It Like It Is

Martin Parr will take a miss on war and famine. His inspiration is the supermarket

01 April 2010

BRITISH PHOTOGRAPHER Martin Parr’s candy-bright odes to the absurd are his visual signature, like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s lyrical geometry, Steve McCurry’s colour-saturated portraits, or the spectral blurs that haunt Antoine D’Agata’s photographs. Every holiday season, his best-selling photo books land on thousands of laps, regaling their new owners with images of humankind’s foibles; a hundred visual ‘aha!’ moments hitting like a good punchline: a mottled bottom in clingy, star-spangled swimwear; a tourist being attacked by one of the pigeons she is attempting to feed in Milan; a large, camera-toting white man slouching grimly in front of the spectacular temples of Luxor; the way a tattoo spreads across a slumped and aged belly; a lady whose wrinkly Shar Pei-like torso is encased in a dangerously slumping tube-dress, dwarfed by the towering advertising image of languorous, deathless youth behind her.

On display at Photoink in Delhi, as part of the first Martin Parr exhibition in India that ran February through March, were three series that brought together photographs made both in Britain and India. The Last Resort (1986), and British Food (1995), two of his most famous series, express a typically English cultural self-deprecation—the first, a series of despair-tinged images of working-class recreation in New Brighton. The second, disturbing sights of the horrifically insalubrious pap that passes for ‘British food.’ Alongside them were less sharp, less famous images from a series entitled Martin Parr in India (1984-2009).

In these series, as well as others, Parr closely scrutinises our hopped-up, globalised consumption of luxury, our forms of entertainment—particularly travel—and our embarrassing imperfections. With deadpan ethnological curiosity, his camera peers at our unsightly neck-folds, our tasteless cardigans, our lipsticked rictuses, the receding hairlines we attempt to stow away under hats. His unflattering close-range perspective may have invited angry comparisons with a housefly’s gaze, but Parr has shown that he’s also not afraid to capture his own ability to look absurd. His Autoportrait (2000) series features him posing impassively from behind a multiplicity of risible cutouts—ranging from a shark’s jaws to the figure of a hula-skirted damsel. He also makes a cameo appearance, striking a feeble dance pose, in his book, Everybody Dance Now(2009).

Shruti Ravindran is a journalist based in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Outlook, Outlook Traveller, Geo and Tank.

Keywords: India tourism Luxor Antoine Dagatas photographs Magnum photographers the decisive moment Shruti Ravindran supermarkets Martin Parr