One of the greatest names in contemporary photography came to Brazil in May, looking for “well-dressed people, drinking champagne and wearing hats”. The quest was for project “Luxury”, that has taken him to fashion shows, car fairs and some of the most incensed events in the world, hunting for one of his favorite themes: the ostensibly rich. “I went to the International Art Fair in São Paulo, the kind of place I imagine would be attended by people who have money around here”, he said. While he was here, he promoted a workshop (R$ 1.474,00 a day) and gave a lecture, which I attended.
On May 12th, punctually at 7pm, the tall man, with a rather bad posture, walked onstage of a packed auditorium at the Museum of Image and Sound. “Hello. I’m Martin Parr”, he introduced himself. He wore a short-sleeved, checkered shirt, high-waist trousers that went up to his belly button and leather sandals. There stood the Englishman who, taking pictures of common people in markets, parties, beaches and tourist spots, polarizes critics while entertaining and offending people in equal proportion. Parr seems to have found the impossible equation for successful documental photography: his photos have artistic status and sell like porn.
Interesting pictures in the world’s most boring places
The photographer was born in 1952 in Epson, Surrey, “from a quite middle class family”, as he likes to point out. His talk is paused, made up of short sentences loaded with an accent and humor typical of the British. Repulsed by theoretical digressions dear to many contemporary artists, he uses a tone of calculated simplicity when speaking of his work, leading to the mistaken conclusion that his choices are natural. One of his first pieces focuses on empty streets, snowy landscapes and wide open spaces. “I wanted to see if I could take interesting pictures in the world’s most boring places”, he explained. In Bad Weather (1982), the motto is the same: “They say you should only take pictures when the sun is shining and the sky is blue. So I decided to take mine when the weather was awful”.
Parr was already familiar with the works of Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, some of the main “street” photographers of his days. He decided to develop his own work when he came across the images of fellow-countryman Rony Ray-Jones, a seeker of picturesque situations in simple scenes of English daily life in the 60s. Parr would later retake many of Ray-Jones’ themes, such as beauty pageants and British suburbs. It was probably from him that he learned to search for the poignant hidden in the banal; to chase clichés instead of avoiding them.
This is also where his interest for boredom emerged. Parr says that while other photographers go on crusades in search of war and hunger, he turns a corner and walks into the local supermarket. “For me, this is the front”, he jokes. In The Last Resort (1986), Parr searched for images of leisure in the decadent suburbs of New Brighton, near Liverpool: crowds frying their skins under the sun at a crammed public swimming-pool or fighting over a spot by a buffet table, in the best freeloader style. He ended up being accused of ridiculing lower classes. “I love the fact that my work is contaminated by hypocrisy and prejudice, the kinds of things people don’t expect photographers to look for.
Instead of trenches, the supermarket
The following two books focused on middle classes. “The Cost of Living” portrays with irony the effort of a share of the population to keep appearances of a way of life that is by that point out of their reach. In “One Day Trip”, English consumers stuff their packed carts with alcoholic drinks at a French Duty Free Shop. “People don’t like their prejudices. I wanted to use mine”, he justifies. Exaggeration, visual pollution and saturation of colors became his characteristic aesthetic. “I like kitsch. I think the world is getting more kitsch by the day, more screwed-up by the day, and that’s great for me”, he says ironically. “Photographers don’t admit to this often, but I’m an explorer. I explore people’s images”.
When he tried to join Magnum agency in 1988, Parr faced strong resistance. The very Henri Cartier-Bresson, then 80 years old, declared that what he does “is not photography”. “Coming from him, I thought it was huge compliment”, says Parr with disdain. “Many had doubts over whether his sort of work had a place at Magnum, but the truth is that he alone sold more photos than all of us”, admitted Thomas Hoepker at Paraty em Foco festival in 2008. Parr was approved by one vote and took to the job of bringing the agency to the 21st century. “Magnum needs to change. Stories in black-and-white no longer find a place in magazines. Nobody wants to see them, nobody wants to publish them. Editors like my work because it is more attractive, more accessible”, he states. “Deep down, I’m a populist”.
Cricket and hat contests: the ridiculous English elite
Parr’s most important piece was found in his backyard. “Think of England” (2000) is a satiric and caustic view of all levels of English society. From a tacky and miserly interior to the squandering aristocracy, from greasy foods to flowery motifs, everything is there: all clichés, consumerism, ostentation, kitsch, prejudices (including the photographer’s own, as he makes a point of emphasizing). The incitement starts at the title – “Think of England”. “Lie Back and Think of England” was a current expression in Victorian England, used for someone who was about to face an unpleasant situation. Its origin is attributed to Lady Alice Hillingdon (1857 – 1940), who supposedly wrote the following about her husband: “I am happy that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door, I lie in bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England”.
The book gathers photos taken throughout many years and synthesizes Parr’s anachronistic feeling towards his country, which he says he loves and hates at the same time. Labeled as elitist at the start of his career, at this point he aimed his lens at the other extreme of the social pyramid: high class ladies bedizen themselves at a traditional hat contest, an old man comically stretches for a cricket match, a young man all done up tries to yank a piece of bacon fat from his sandwich. Parr enjoys the excesses of the upper class in their outdated rituals, contemporary consumerism and secular bad taste.
He says the paranoia about image credits is making it hard for photographers to capture images on the streets. His enclosed framing, usually cutting out people’s heads , responds partly to this question. After the talk in São Paulo I asked if he thought the world was getting too serious, if he intends to make people laugh at themselves more. “I don’t take pictures to laugh at people, I take them to laugh at myself”, he refuted diplomatically. “I photograph people at markets, fairs, events. If people find that controversial…”, he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. “I like controversy”.