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).

To the nervous, self-conscious viewer parsing Parr’s pictures, though, this self-deprecation may not totally alleviate the sense of dread; the sinking feeling that all of his pictures expose our pursuit of enjoyment as a sort of desperation, our vanity as a pathetic delusion, our carefully assembled identities as nothing but clumsy, commoditised artifice. These playful, bright images with their artfully artless composition look completely different from the carefully composed, near-lyrical photojournalism we’re used to seeing.

This might have been why, when Parr joined Magnum, the exclusive cabal of veteran photojournalists, as a permanent member in 1994, its old guard was up in arms. While they had produced stirring images of war, disease and disaster, his pictures unfolded in the tawdry theatres of beaches and supermarkets.

Did this mean ‘the decisive moment’ was to be replaced by ‘the derisive moment,’ and the iconic image by the ironic? Was the whole of human experience to be reduced to this tapestry of kitsch? No, Parr protested. “Magnum photographers were meant to go out as a crusade…to places like famine and war and…I went out and went round the corner to the local supermarket because this to me is

the front line.”

Unconvinced, or further repulsed, some Magnum photographers made judgmental pronouncements. Cartier-Bresson said Parr “came from a different planet,” while Philip Jones Griffiths said his photos were giddy, meaningless entertainment, and that visitors to the Magnum website might have to reach for their anti-nausea pills.

If Parr were to care about every critical appellation, though, he is the one who would be seasick. He has been called a “sneering misanthrope,” and an unkind voyeur with a “talent for intrusion.”

“It is a mystery to me why I get called all this, when everybody else is showing you blatant lies,” said Parr, sitting in the brightly lit Photoink gallery. “All of it is propaganda, like your Indian Tourism campaign pictures, which have absolutely nothing to do with reality. I just like to show the world as it is, with all its foibles and ambiguities.”

There’s not a whole lot that’s ambiguous about his famous pictures of working-class New Brighton in the stunning series, The Last Resort. Parr produced these photographs in the mid-1980s, when he moved away from the painterly black-and-white meditations on small-town community life and bad weather of his early career, and switched to colour, fill-flash, and an omniscient macro lens. Through this series, Parr sought to depict the ‘decay’ of a once great British society, and the shift to implicit critique, says Parr, was merely the natural consequence of his maturity as a photographer.  The series nevertheless attracted the kind of reactions usually reserved for images of gratuitous violence, inciting aesthetic and moral discomfort.

The pictures themselves seemed to do nothing more subversive than show it like it is. Unattended babies in prams lick at ice-cream cones beneath overflowing trash cans; children scarf down junk food with the remnants of other greasy meals crowding around their feet; chubby children in swimwear clamour around a hotdog stand; elderly ladies are seen expressionlessly ministering to slot-machines in a casino while a baby gropes the shadows like a ghost; and pastel-clad prepubescent girls preen before clipboard-carrying elderly ladies in cheap frocks with perilously sinking zippers and glossy topiaries for hairdos.

Alongside these disquieting comedic tableaux was Parr’s 1995 series British Food, another set of photographs that provides social commentary; this time, making us question whether the grotesquely shiny factory-processed thing on our plates deserves to be called food. Creamed corn seethes like lava, cookies are topped with gelatinous mucous fuzz, and pink sausages slither obscenely on a plastic plate. Six images of bangers and mash, the greasy British breakfast staple, clustered together produce a near coronary of a visual jolt.

Beside the sharp notes that these two candid series hit, the photographs that Parr shot in India between 1984 and 2009 seemed decidedly gentle. There were black and white images of the vestiges of Raj nostalgia that remain in the genteel affectations of hotels and clubs in Darjeeling: monogrammed silverware, mounted antelope heads and draughty, deserted wood-panelled clubrooms. When the pictures slip into colour, some of Parr’s subversive humour gradually seeps back in, in his images of celebrant dancers in a baraat (wedding procession), and particularly in his Goa photographs, one of which depicts a speedo-clad male tourist soaking in shallow water.

“India’s beaches, which I’ve visited in Goa, Chennai, Mumbai, are quite dirty and fascinating,” said Parr. “I love their energy, the family life, and the things people sell there. You can get anything you want on these beaches—you can have your ears cleaned, get food, or buy a cow!” Beaches in general and the people who sunburn themselves there in particular, have long been a recurring theme in Parr’s work, such as in his kitsch gem of a book, Playas(2009). “I love beaches for the way people display themselves, and are literally exposed there,” he said.

Parr’s India series also includes pictures of ‘happy’ pastel swan-and-teddy bear bedecked confections, which altogether produce a collective sugar rush. “These Indian cakes are as bright as it gets,” Parr said, grinning, “and I’m drawn to anything bright like a jackdaw attracted to gold.”

Lest these observations make us think we get off easy, Parr isn’t quite done with India yet. “My shooting in India has not been particularly thorough; in fact, it has been rather transient. But I’m in the process of shooting a longer project on the nouveau riche of India, which will have a bit more edge to it.” For a start, he’s shot Delhi’s finest ‘It bag’-toting celebrities, who hide imperially behind oversized sunglasses at races and polo matches.

“This is what I’m attracted to everywhere,” he said, “people like you, with big hair and big glasses…you have big glasses, don’t you?” I vociferously professed to have nothing of the sort. He continued, “I photograph the rich the way other photographers traditionally photographed poverty. We’ve far too many rich people in the world—it’s nearly unsustainable.” He broke off, smiling. “I’m aware that I’ve made a good living from criticising wealth, and I’m very happy to be a hypocrite.”