Martin Parr

Martin Parr is an English photographer whose vivid and brightly coloured images, often composed around startling juxtapositions, have made him one of the most successful and influential photographers of the past quarter of a century. He has an uncanny ability to snatch striking shots from seemingly mundane moments and to elicit humour from the most unlikely places.

For his latest project, Luxury, he has turned his lens on the international jet set. The subjects in this piece of work inhabit supposedly rarefied realms, such as fashion shows and horse races. From ski slopes in St Moritz to art fairs in Dubai, the book charts a sea of garish hats and flashy garb, documenting various forms of ostentatious behaviour. At first glance, it seems like a departure from his previous work. Ebullient and affluent gatherings are, after all, a long way from the quirks and foibles of English beach holidays and breakfasts at the greasy spoon. But such a view belies Parr’s prodigious output and fails to appreciate the full range of his work.

“Luxury is not unusual at all,” he says. “I’ve done 50 books. There’s hardly anything that I haven’t looked at.” He has a point. For a photographer famed for his English sensibility, a surprising amount of his work ventures beyond British shores. Picking a few books at random, he has in the past 15 years investigated the homogenising impact of the global tourism industry in Small World (1995), captured ungainly limbs and lithe hips on dance floors from Gambia to South Korea in Everybody Dance Now (2009), and documented the rise of worldwide mobile communications in The Phone Book (2002).

Of course, he has also published books such as Think Of England (2000), a quest for the quintessence of Englishness, but in truth, Parr’s photographs are not easy to pin down by theme or location. His geographical range is huge. His subject matter borders on encyclopaedic. And yet his style remains immediately identifiable. Born in 1952 in Epsom, Surrey, Parr studied photography in Manchester in the early 1970s. Documentary photography in this era was monochrome, heavily influenced by the tasteful black-and-white conventions of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his Magnum colleagues.

Parr found a different inspiration in the brash and gaudy postcards sold by Butlins, a company that provided cheap and cheerful holidays for the masses in British seaside resorts such as Bognor Regis, Clacton and Skegness. He began taking similarly brightly coloured photographs of apparently banal events: people eating in pie shops, queuing in supermarkets, going on holiday to caravan parks at the seaside. By the 1980s these snapshots had become his bread and butter. Cartier Bresson talked of a photograph documenting a “decisive moment”; Parr, looked at discursive moments. Discreet black and white blossomed into saturated technicolour.

Lurid, gaudy, garish: these adjectives crop up a lot in discussions of Parr’s work. The colours in his photographs are vibrant, but the tones are not digitally enhanced in any way. “My colours are not altered in Photoshop. They are as they are. I use flash, of course. If you use flash, you don’t get any of that sort of mood, you take out the emotion, you get the brightness coming through. I really like flash.”

This use of flash has become one of his hallmarks and helped to establish him as one of the most esteemed and distinctive documentary photographers of the past two decades. His approach is not about elevating or adding. Rather his aim is to depict people and things as they are. “This is all interpretation of reality,” he says. “I think when you look at my pictures they are actually more honest and direct than most of the interpretations.”

This “honest and direct” approach has led to a surprising amount of controversy. He has been accused of arrogance, of being condescending towards the people he photographs, of looking down on his subjects as well as at them. To some, his attitude is cruel, sneering and harsh. Colin Jacobson, a photo editor and critic, describes Parr as a “gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people.”

This debate reached its peak when Parr applied to join Magnum, the photo agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour. Entry to this elite photo-journalistic co-operative is controlled by a vote. Parr did not slot easily in to the ranks of veteran war photographers. His images revealed a different kind of agony. As he said in the wake of the controversy:

“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.” The agency’s members wrangled for six years over Parr’s entry. To the objectors, he did not seem to fit stylistically or thematically with their collective vision. Magnum veterans included a lot of war photographers. Parr roamed in a very different territory. Magnum veterans often shot in black and white. Parr used colour with flash. Letting him in signalled a change of direction for the agency. It acknowledged that they would have to evolve fundamentally to maintain their creative edge. Philip Jones Griffiths, who campaigned against Parr, said, “It would be the embracing of a sworn enemy whose meteoric rise in Magnum was closely linked with the moral climate of Thatcher’s rule […] Let me state that I have great respect for him as the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in and, I trust, what Magnum still believes in.”

As Parr said in 2007, “They thought I was exploitative, cynical, even fascist. All kinds of words were used.” Eventually, he was accepted by the slimmest of margins in 1994. One might wonder why Parr was so keen to join an agency where so many members were against him (even Cartier-Bresson is reported to have described Parr as being “from a totally different planet”). But he particularly admired people like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa - two of the founders of Magnum. Their images were the benchmarks by which documentary photography was judged. “I wanted to join Magnum because at heart I’m a populist and I wanted to have this method of getting my work out,” he once said. “I thought if I joined an agency I may as well join the most prestigious agency.”

He is shrewd about the benefits the furore brought. “I fully realise that controversy doesn’t do you any harm, so I happily live with it. The thing we are all scared of is just to be ignored.” Much of the flak comes, he argues, from how his approach contrasts with the way a lot of imagery is used nowadays. “The thing you have to remember is that we are so used to consuming images which are basically lies and propaganda. All the PR pictures we look at and half of the pictures in newspapers are created to sell things or basically not to tell the truth about something. We are so used to devouring these pictures that of course when someone comes along and shows life as it really is, they assume that this is cynical and nasty. Most of us are programmed to look at pictures which are basically false depictions of what goes on. Fundamentally, all this criticism comes at me because people forget that most of the pictures they look at are lies.”

Luxury (from the Latin luxus, excess) is a stronghold of visual invention and manipulation. Regardless of their artistic brilliance and merit, the images of fashion photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino and David LaChapelle are all created to publicise and sell products. Signs, billboards, hoardings and magazines compete for attention and seek to coerce consumers to buy one product or another.

As the art critic John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing: “Publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.”

Parr - who at times adopts the visual language of the publicity shot - deftly dissects and subverts this process. As a result, some of his images can leave uninitiated viewers feeling a little cheated. Take, for example, his shots from British race events, such as The Epsom Derby, Galway Races and Ascot. In an extreme close-up of the back of a woman’s head, there is a tasteful emerald-coloured dress, a glistening gold neckless and - look closer - a fly perched on the rim of her hat. In another, a woman lies languorously by the piste basking in the sun with a sleeping baby nestled in her arms. It seems like familial bliss, except in the background people are struggling to put on skis and cram their feet into boots. All the subjects in their garish apparel seem to blot the pristine, snow-capped peaks beyond. Such deft and incisive composition is key to Parr’s approach in the book.

“Traditionally a photographer would do a story about poverty,” says Parr. “I am approaching wealth with the same spirit.” The photographs in Luxury span five years and a string of countries, including England, France, South Korea, Russia and the UAE. For Parr, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were obvious places to visit for this project. “Part of my job is to think about global trends. The Middle East, particularly Dubai and Abu Dhabi, led the way in terms of this hedonistic, consumer culture, so it was inevitable that I would be drawn there. Of course there is a very good mix of the Arab world and the expat world. The two things got along together quite well, so for me it was the perfect place to come.”

It is not hard to see why. The mix of different cultures and nationalities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai creates a never-ending stream of contrasts. It is just the type of environment in which he seems to thrive. “You have all these different factions and all these different interests: Somalians, very keen on racing, no alcohol; Arabs, watching the horses tentatively; and the expats, who are not really into the racing, basically getting drunk.”

One kind of event which appears often in the book is art fairs. Luxury includes five photographs from the Dubai Art Fair and one from the Sotheby’s exhibition at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, as well as many other images from art events around the world. In this context, art is a commodity packaged to be bought and sold. Contemplating and appreciated art is reduced to a transaction like any other.

“Art is very good because it is the ultimate luxury item,” says Parr. “That is why I went to art fairs. And, of course, art is usually quite dynamic, so you can have fun combining people with that strong graphic.” The sequence from the Gulf Art fair in Dubai 2007 is a great example of such comic amalgam. A man in a crazy-patterned shirt contemplates a Pollock-style canvas; a woman wearing a dotted shirt looks at a classic Mini car painted with similar dots; a woman in a green, leaf-print top regards images of lush, tropical waterfalls: life mimics art and becomes art again.

Parr’s work was displayed in the UAE in March 2008. Images from the Luxury project formed an exhibition at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai. Part of it was an instant show: Parr took photographs at various venues in Dubai, which were printed, mounted and exhibited within 48 hours. It was well received, but he has no plans for other exhibitions in the UAE any time soon. It is a shame, because one gets the feeling that he genuinely likes it here. In an interview he referred to the Dubai World Cup as “probably one of the most democratically attended events in the world.” Democratic is an apt term. To Parr’s lens, all subjects are equally anonymous and equally interesting. Celebrity hierarchies hold no sway. Lists of famous people are irrelevant.

“I’m not interested in celebrities per se. It gives me a great advantage because I am interested in everybody and how they look. All I am looking at is how they look in front of the camera, whereas most people are hooked in to how famous they may be or do we know these people. Likewise in society pages, if there are any remotely C-list celebrities, they are in there photographing them. I might well have photographed C-list celebrities without realising. In one of my pictures there was a well known Indian film star, for example, and I had no idea and don’t care.”

As a documentary photographer, Parr’s work has kept pace with the social changes since the 1980s. His subjects have altered with economic booms and busts. He has been in synch with these ups and downs. In his introduction to Luxury, the British fashion designer Paul Smith writes: “The meaning of Martin’s Luxury pictures has shifted since he started taking them. The timing of their publication now couldn’t be better.” The cause of this shift is, of course, the financial meltdown in September 2008, which crippled many countries and led to a global recession. Luxury was not wiped out when the bubble burst, but it has calmed down at bit. It lost its glitz. It has became more low key. Much of its colour has drained away. In one sense, the images in the book are therefore curiously anachronistic. In another sense, Luxury questions wealth as well as documents it. As such it stand as a stark reminder on how the world reached this low point.

“It is good in a sense to look back now like an epitaph to this five- or six-year growth period, which is where it all went completely crazy and to look at, if you like, manifestations of that growth and that bubble. I think therefore it is perfect timing.”

Published in The National on 31 October 2009.