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Friday, 11 February 2011

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I found myself thinking about Parr's photos the other day as I was walking round the Henri Huet exhibition in Paris. Huet made me feel connected to my fellow humans: suffering, poor, scared. Parr is all external, an arrogant gaze on figures of ridicule, stripping them of worth, taking himself to be so much better than they are.

I always assumed Martin was laughing at his subjects.

I very much enjoyed reading amcananey's comment.

"Parr is all external, an arrogant gaze on figures of ridicule, stripping them of worth, taking himself to be so much better than they are."

I have met Martin a couple of times, and this is exactly how it felt.

I suppose the same could be said of Bruce Gilden- that he also looks down upon his subjects. Both can produce unflattering portraits of their fellow citizens. And perhaps I'm just shallow enough that I "forgive" the both of them because to this day I remain so mesmerized by their images.

I will say one thing however, Parr's gaze is an equal opportunity critic of all levels of society- and his book entitled Luxury is testament to exactly that. Another way of looking at The Last Resort however, is that it testifies to our basic human resilience- our eternal struggle to make the best of our circumstances, no matter our economic or social strata.

The Last Resort is an extraordinary photographic vision with compositions rich in the details that reveal stories within stories throughout the confines of every frame. Although Parr's work is more "minimalist" these days (his compositions don't have quite so many things going on at once), he still pumps out unique and revelatory work. But I'll always regard The Last Resort as the epitome of his artistic vision.

Photographers do tend to treat the world and everything in it as straw dogs. Sometimes more uncomfortably than other times.

Mike

I grew up about 10 miles from New Brighton, where the photos were taken, and I vaguely remember Thatchers 80s. I alternate between being angry with Parr for being exploitative, and being angry with myself for seeing something to be embarrassed about. There's nothing wrong with working class people - that was and is the reality of life for many and you could probably make the same book today in most countries. I think I have finally settled on seeing it as a valuable social document, and but I still think I'd call Parr a p***k if I saw him.

I had the misfortune to work at Butlins Bognor Regis as a photographer one summer in the early 80's and feel that The Last Resort really does capture the feeling of an English seaside resort of that era pretty well. I think for a lot of people not having to endure the embarrassment of English seaside culture with its "Kiss Me Quick" hats, donkey rides on the beach, and penny arcades on the beach it is difficult to understand Parr's work. The trashy, faded glory of places like Blackpool, Bognor, and Skegness coupled with the less than clement weather, and then an ample dose of I'm going to enjoy myself come what may really comes out in the book. It's a peculiarly English working class thing and it's not meant to be taken seriously and I think that's why the book works for Parr has tapped into the English self deprecating sense of humour and translated it to his photographs.

"And Parr has since grown to be a leading voice in British photography, primarily as a photographer, but also as a critic, commentator, educator, and author.:

I'm not with you on that one, Mike. Martin Parr's British work (I know he has also a body of work internationally, through Magnum) is very one-sided, art with an AGENDA. Some of your other commenters have expressed unease or distaste, as do I, but what I feel when looking at his British work is that he just doesn't like being British, and portrays us in the worst possible light. That's a fair enough point of view, but it does not give him credibility as a balanced observer. To introduce him as a "leading voice" gives him a platform he does not deserve, on this side of the pond. It just isn't the case.

I just lucked into a book, Parr by Parr; Quentin Bajac meets Martin Parr, Schilt Publishing, 2010. Parr talks about his working process for selecting the prints for the Last Resort exhibition. As he couldn't afford colour contact sheets, he made black and white contact sheets, and then would make black and white 8 x10s, only then selecting which ones would get blown up.
"QB: So the paradox is that this body of works, which is today considered as a landmark in the history of colour photography, was edited without having a look at the colours?
MP: Yes, ironically, as it is a work that is known also as my first colour work. It's really quite insane. I was selecting them for what was going on in them. The colour was just a bonus. I never selected them because of the colours, though it's essential that they were taken in colour."

Interetsing comments. I saw 'Luxury' a few months ago and the key impression I left with was of the cruelty of Martin's photos. At face value there is not a lot of evidence of empathy for his subjetcs in that work.

At the same time there was an exhibition of work he owns including some of Chris Kilip's work and that was outstanding. Of particular interest for me, being of a certain age, was the change in the human and urban landscape over short a short period. Looking back, some of Killip's work from the 70s and 80s looks like the 50s or earlier.

Mike

amcananey - Perhaps you have to be a Brit to 'get it', although I like to think certain aspects of the human condition are universal and a skillful photographer can communicate them to any audience.

I think your failure to get to grips with the Last Resort is to do with your prejudices:

"I find his pictures are so cartoon-ish, so in-your-face about the terrible conditions or how ridiculous the subjects look, that it is hard to actually imagine what it was like for them to be there—to empathize."

You may see the conditions as "terrible" and the subjects as "ridiculous", but the point is - they don't. Of course on one level they understand that New Brighton is crap, but they are doing their best to enjoy themselves regardless.

Your need to empathise, to put a shallow, overly romantic gloss or interpretation on the images, is irrelevant and is causing you to miss the point.

For example, the first picture in the ice cream shop, isn't about the rather naive "thrill and anticipation of a kid...etc." but about the awkward evolution of desire and how it changes through childhood. To capture that through the 'happy accident' of the interplay between the three main subjects is fantastic.

This sort of photography isn't about romanticising life, or creating a fantasy of a happy holiday. Instead it shows us a little about what it means to be human in a world that doesn't always live up to expectations.

While I certainly don't hold Parr up as a neutral observer, his objectification of everything he photographs punches through the intensely subjective view we have of our own lives. The reality is that, as much as we see our own lives as significant and our own experiences as "important," our day to day lives are mostly much as Parr depicts them.

The last resort is not an attack on the working class, it wouldn't get past the working class chip/rock on my shoulder. Gerry Badger has said that Parr isn't mocking anybody, it's consumerism he's highlighting. You only have to look at his work to see that all sections of society fall under Parrs radar, it's an attack on consumerism not class.

I'm 40 miles from New Brighton 50 Miles from Blackpool which has the sad reputation for having one of the worse beaches in the UK. But Man I loved Blackpool, I've swam in the Sea there and it's brown. I've seen all those things in the last resort, done those things. You can be sure that Parr spent many a day at such resorts as a kid, every British kid has.

It's a viewpoint and it's a valid one. Simon Roberts has his own in We English and it's just as valid but different. http://we-english.co.uk/photos/We-English-37.jpg

But I Identify more with Parrs photographs

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I'm 21 in those photographs. I'm in Blackpool "The Vegas of the North" There's litter on the beach, the sea is brown, we're drinking too much & eating too much crap food. We've struck lucky as the sun is out, always a gamble in Blackpool. No it isn't Cannes, but I've only fond memories of Blackpool and New Brighton. There's a lot truth in last resort, it's not the whole truth. It wouldn't have been the way Bresson would have done it; old Henri had a dig at Parr for his cynicism

Parr retorted. Why shoot the messenger?

"I have met Martin a couple of times, and this is exactly how it felt"

Funny, I've met him a couple of times, too, and this is exactly how it didn't feel. MP is a funny, humane person, with a profound commitment to photography, and a shockingly bad collecting habit.

In part, at least, I think his work back then was a reaction to the formulaic phoniness of much "humane photojournalism", but MP explains himself well in the book "Parr by Parr: discussions with a promiscuous photographer -- Quentin Bajac meets Martin Parr", well worth a read.

Mike

There's no arguing that Parr is ridiculing his scenes and subjects with his lens. But so what? After all, isn't that what Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and countless other 20th century "documentary" snappers did to earn their fortunes and fames? Of course it is. I actually see his work as a closer relative to that of William Eggleston than to "street" photographers. I've no doubt that if William had been raised a "Yankee" he would have been doing plenty of Parr's style of work.

I think what chaps some people's asses is the the whole look of Parr's work. He runs around with that 645 camera outfitted with a ring light and BANG, BANG! The results are so stark, appear so documentary like catching roaches fleeing the kitchen when you turn on the lights, that it can be unsettling.

Last year I asked him how he keeps from getting his cameras, and face, smashed. In-person he first impressed me as a rather shy, back-of-the-room type of personality, certainly not the brash character his photos would suggest. He gave me a smile and slight shrug, then replied that after 20+ years of doing essentially the same thing he's learned to make quick judgments about who can take it and who won't. (That I saw not scars on his face might testify to his good judgment.)

Fun fact: Martin holds the record for number of simultaneous exhibitions of his work (40+), ostensibly I think to launch his book "Common Sense". I asked how he did this. Answer: He mailed photocopies copies of the work to cooperating galleries who then displayed them on schedule, thus setting the record and creating a publicity buzz (which Martin is very, very good at doing).

I've also never met someone who knows photo books as well as he does. He may well have the largest collection in the galaxy. Of course he and his friend Gerry Badger literally wrote the books on photo books.

Whether you like his work or not you have to admit he's awful damn good at it. Personally I enjoy and respect Martin Parr's work far, far more than Francesca Woodman's.

Anybody that thinks Parr somehow dislikes his own country or any country for that matter is simply mistaken. There's aspects of society he's critical off, he also likes to tear down misconceptions that people have of British people but some of them are our own and can be hard to take. We're not like bond villains, we don't all talk like the queen, we haven't got a monopoly on taste or manners. It's a green and pleasant land but it's not Eden. The Kids on the front cover have come right out of paradise garden in to the real world. It's still a tender shot, it's in no way cold.

He's showing nothing but regard for the people here, in words and in photographs.

http://www.martinparr.com/blog/?p=128

To me one of the saddest aspects about these images is that were Parr to attempt to take any of them in the UK of today he would consider himself lucky to be arrested before an angry mob screaming "Paedophile!" attacked him.

No-one in his right mind would ever point a camera in the direction of a child these days and plenty have cause to regret trying. We recently had a keen photographer Member of Parliament Austin Mitchell harassed by "beach wardens" at Skegness when he dared to take a crowded beach scene. This on the grounds that "there might be children in the crowd".

Simon C - the way amcananey's post reads to me suggests that he finds the imagery an obstacle to the interpretation you are encouraging. For instance, when he said, "I find his pictures are so cartoon-ish, so in-your-face about the terrible conditions or how ridiculous the subjects look, that it is hard to actually imagine what it was like for them to be there—to empathize." you responded, "You may see the conditions as "terrible" and the subjects as "ridiculous"", but amcananey didn't say he found the subjects ridiculous. He said "his picture are so .. in-your-face about ... how ridiculous the subjects look." The subtle distinction which I draw here is that amcananey suggests that the artist renders the subject so, not that the subject is inherently so.

Perhaps I am misreading, but I think he is faulting Parr with showing the subjects in a way that they look ridiculous and that he finds that presentation an obstacle to his ability to understand the subjects' perspective(s). This is what I hear you suggesting is what's important: the subjects' perspectives.

I feel the same way that I am imagining amcananey feels: the images describe a strong contrast between the scene I am seeing and the scene/experience the subjects surely are experiencing while there. That juxtaposition is probably central to the art, but I do have to infer the subjects' inner landscape with no clue outside of the subjects themselves (their facial expressions and postures, their activities, and their dress).

Anyway, thank you Simon C, amcananey, and everyone else. It's a provocative discussion here which inspired me to look at the work harder, and enjoy it more.

Dear James,

The qualifications for being "a leading voice in British photography" would have nothing to do with being a cheerleader or even a patriot. Evenhandedness is certainly irrelevant; it is not even necessarily desirable in an artist.

You seem to be saying, in essence, that because you object to Parr's sociopolitical stance (as you read it--others have disagreed) that disqualifies him from a leading role in British photography.

That's not realistic. It's like me saying Elton John isn't a superstar just because I don't like his singing or his songs.

pax / Ctein

I don't see any looking down or ridiculing in these wonderful photos. i think this attitude is more about many commenters own attitudes to what they think should be looked down on.

I ahve to agree with Simon C
"I think your failure to get to grips with the Last Resort is to do with your prejudices:"

Is Parr really looking down on the kids sunbathing or with the icecreams or the woman behind the counter? I don't see a tiny bit of that.

I haven't seen Luxury, but there seems to be a lot more love than mockery in these shots.

Christian - I wouldn't what to drag an interesting discussion into semantics, but I did consider your interpretation of amcananey's comments.

However for me the quote you present shows precisely that he is referring to Parr's presentation of what he regards as the inherent qualities of the subject matter. It's not 'Parr makes them look' or 'Parr presents them as' but how Parr is "about the terrible conditions" and "how ridiculous the subjects look".

The point you make about the contrast between the scene your are seeing and the reality for the participants is interesting and perhaps at the heart of the matter. One of the most entertaining aspects of photography for me is that it's very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to derive any objective truth concerning the content of a photograph. And the interpretation we put images often says as much about our prejudices and assumptions as it does about the photo itself.

Since I would hate to leave such a complete misinterpretation of my comment hanging out there without a response, I would like to add that Simon C got it all wrong, and Christian got it right.

I didn't mean to imply that the conditions were terrible or that the subjects were ridiculous. I was pointing out that Parr is making them appear that way by highlighting select elements of the scene he photographs, while choosing NOT to focus on the fact that the subjects actually ARE having fun. [And to be clear, I don't think they are "doing their best" to enjoy themselves, because I don't think it took any conscious effort for them to enjoy themselves. They're at the beach, on vacation and the sun is shining. What's not to like?]

Nor did I mean to imply that the subjects need or deserve sympathy, because they aren't suffering. "Empathy" doesn't apply only to negative emotions - it applies equally well to positive or joyful emotions, which was my point: the pictures don't communicate the fact that the subjects are having fun and enjoying themselves.

Regards,
Adam

Posted by: Player: "Parr's work is everything that is appealing about photography and everything that is unsavory about photography, all at once."

Perfectly observed and stated, Player. Exactly.

Player, I like that idea.

Like others have said, Parr is not 'against' any class and doesn't ridicule anyone. One should read Playas (lovely little book but not beatiful in any way, words by Susie Parr), in which similar situations are portrayed as in The Last Resort: the Parrs are amused, but also respectful and reverent; they celebrate the little rituals and beauty in what certainly also looks ugly to others.

I must say I find his work somewhat unsettling, and also very much 'outside looking in', so I understand the controversy, which in a way makes books like this even more important.

Parr is a modern-day Hogarth.

IMHO, there is a lot of Robert Franck (albeit in color) in these Martin Parr photographs. Is it contemptuous? I'm not sure... Are the settings seedy by the standards of other, more famous resort spots in the world? Sure, and famously so for decades. Read George Orwell's essay 'the Art of Donald McGill' about the 'saucy' postcards sold in British seaside resorts in the 1930s-it captures the same sensibility, though no-one can accuse Orwell, of all writers, of being an upper class snob.

Maybe it's just the setting.

I wonder what a similar body of work from the 1970s about Coney Island in New York, or Atlantic City in New Jersey would look like, regardless of the vision and intentions of the photographer?

I do agree that the pictures fail to convey a sense of the small luxuries of a day's outing to such a spot. Cotton candy. Saltwater taffy. The chilling refreshing dip in the cold water (my experience is from the US). In today's glamour and money crazed world, we no longer employ the word luxury or fun with such small happinesses, let alone employ the word in association with anything that low to middle income ordinary folks might do on an ordinary day out.

Martin Parr is so excellent.
Must get a book of his sometime.

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