At the Barbican

Peter Campbell

  • Martin Parr by Val Williams
    Phaidon, 354 pp, £45.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 7148 3990 6

I was reading in a coffee shop a couple of months ago when a young man asked if he might take my photograph. I said that I would rather he didn’t – which was churlish, because I have taken pictures of strangers myself. I was rude, I guess, because the more wonderfully apt and sensitive his picture of a grumpy, grey-haired man reading might be the less I wanted that man to be me. In France, where the moral right of artists and the right to privacy of subjects are particularly well-protected, there have been legal challenges to the assumption that a photographer is free to appropriate a stranger’s face – and (more particularly) make money out of it. Some say these cases spell the end of photojournalism as we know it.

A natural history of such uneasy tussles, some vocal, some unspoken, could be illustrated from Martin Parr’s work. His pictures can be seen both at the Barbican until 14 April and in the well-made book which accompanies the exhibition. They can be read as a recapitulation of the history of the unsolicited photograph: a history which begins with the first ethnographic records and ends with confessional snapshots. It is a progress which has been advanced by technology and marked by transgression. Val Williams’s exemplary text allows one to follow both Parr’s technical path and his move from being an implicitly engaged, sympathetic, amused commentator to one whose camera, like a roving spotlight, lets the audience wonder uneasily how the world can have become so tacky, how faces, clothes, food and houses just like theirs can be so bright, so vulgar or so feebly tasteful. Williams says that he has photographed ‘the British awkwardness about themselves’, which he shares, and that he has shown ‘the raft of critics, art directors and commissioning editors’ something which ‘both delights and terrifies them: the greasy-fingered, tabloid-reading people who eat in their cars, who shout and brawl’. He has also shown how they themselves can look to an unflattering eye.

Parr grew up in Surbiton but studied in Manchester. His tutors were interested in the work of 1960s photographers of celebrity – men like Bailey and Duffy. Parr and his friends were interested in documenting the unglamorous. Their aim was not to show how grim ordinary lives in poor places are, or even to sympathise with them, but to show that they are interesting and to make something interesting from them. This was, if you like, the beginning of Parr’s ethnographic phase. Seen together, the pictures become a general statement about a social group whose individual qualities must be guessed at. We know them only by their taste in clothes and room decoration. Much later, in the television series Signs of the Times, Parr and the BBC director Nick Barker extended this interest in people and interiors. But the simplification that making an artefact out of a human situation always involves left the protagonists exposed, and the photographer and programme-maker safely on the other side of the lens.

In 1974, after college, Parr went to live in Hebden Bridge, where he became closely involved with the congregation of Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel. The photographs from these years are in the tradition of aesthetic reportage best represented by the work of the founder members of Magnum: a Degas-like spatial sense in images which capture gestures and movements of a kind as imperfectly known, before they were caught by photography, as the way the legs of horses move. A man balanced on top of a stepladder cleaning a window has the assurance of a gymnast; the guests at the Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, all concentrated eyes and delving forks, form a frieze with rhythms as recognisable as those of the Parthenon horsemen. But the relationship faltered when the chapel elders realised that Parr’s interest in the chapel was aesthetic and journalistic rather than spiritual. ‘Since then,’ Parr says, ‘I’ve never tried to have that kind of intimacy with the people who I’ve been working with.’

Parr then went to Ireland, where he took a remarkable series of pictures called Bad Weather (1978-82). Monster snowflakes blurr as they drift by the lens; rain and a greyness deeper even than that of the Yorkshire Moors take over. Balletic composition gives way to calculated brusqueness – from now on you could look for the point of the picture anywhere in the frame.

The doctrine of available light, which separates art photography from newspaper pictures, has created an aesthetic which uses a full range of greys and blacks, and which, as the light of day fades or the people go indoors, produces results marked by soft focus, blurring and grainy textures. Most of Parr’s best pictures up to the Bad Weather sequence fall into that category.

Then things suddenly became very bright. In the mid-1980s he started shooting in colour using a medium-format camera and quite often – more often as time passed – a flash. In the Parr recapitulation this would equate with the moment in the 1950s when William Klein began to press his wide-angle lens close in – he didn’t care if the subject was seen to be seeing and reacting to him.

In the show the effect of Parr’s transition is giddy drama. It is not only the brightness, garishness, shininess and fine detail of these pictures: the composition, too, was – by the standards of the masters – slapdash. Parr’s various sequences – of small shops in Liverpool, of holidaymakers at New Brighton, of daytrippers on a booze cruise, of tourists all over the world, and, when he and his family moved from the North to genteel Bristol, of garden parties, school fêtes and the seasonal events of middle-class suburban life – show, increasingly, a talent for intrusion. When the New Brighton pictures were first shown some critics responded as they would to pictures of an atrocity. The discarded rubbish, the bad food, the unseemly bodies. The unease was, as Williams points out in several places, aesthetic and cultural.

Two kinds of transgressive behaviour combine in Parr’s late pictures. He chooses to point his camera at details we would rather not pay attention to (the texture of junk food, the look of sunburned flesh) and at embarrassments – how our teeth show when we laugh, how we look when we are eating. But he also transgresses aesthetically. He has caught up with many of those who have drifted out of painting into photography, in that he creates prints which are not modulated by a folk memory of painted-picture qualities. Parr in his later work – which now includes advertising and fashion – is valued for his ability to push his view of the world in our faces rather than his ability to make something graceful, tender, majestic, energetic, awe-inspiring or picturesque from it. His latest move seems to say that by the crap we make and eat, by the way we look, dress and enjoy ourselves you may know us for being less than we might be.