Thursday, 25 November 2021

Martin Parr CBE

 It has been announced by the Martin Parr Foundation that Martin Parr has been awarded the CBE for "services to photography". Well, congratulations, Martin! I suppose... I must admit, my reaction to this news is mirrored by that of photographer Paul Reas, one of the photographic and art-world notables quoted in the MPF newsletter #96, which I received this week:

"When I heard he had been awarded a CBE I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled that his contributions to photography had finally been acknowledged but wary that that source of recognition had all those uncomfortable imperialistic associations. Would he do a John Lennon and send his “gong” back, I wondered? Regardless, he is so deserving of the acknowledgment. I can think of nobody else who has so selflessly supported the work of people he believes in."

Well, exactly; apart from the word "thrilled", perhaps. In all honesty, that was not the emotion that the news induced in me: "mild curiosity swiftly followed by a reflex anti-establishment contrarianism", perhaps. But it's not as if anybody involved with photography at that level gives a fleck of flyshit what I think. Besides, what does a person have to do to earn the right to refuse a knighthood these days, or indeed a seat in the Lords (setting aside donors to the Tory party, obviously)?

Anyone thinking "so who is this Martin Parr?" has clearly arrived at the wrong website, but any non-Brits would be perfectly justified in wondering, so what exactly is a "CBE" anyway? I realised I wasn't sure, either – perhaps it is a knighthood? – so I looked it up. I'm not going to explain it, that's what Wikipedia is for: here's the link. So now you know. The "Empire" bit has been a source of controversy for some time, not least among those who got the rough end of the imperial stick; I like the idea of changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, although the Order of British Exceptionalism (or even Eccentricity) might be better.

But to return to Martin Parr. Martin is a very admirable man, whose photographic style and chosen subjects have exerted an enormous influence on a certain kind of documentary photography, and who has dedicated his considerable energies to advocating the work of others and photography in general. He is also much misunderstood, as people mistake his wry critique – highlighting those visual incongruities that can illuminate society's contradictions as well as people's pretensions and well-meaning idiocies – for a kind of cruelty. But Bruce Gilden is cruel; Martin Parr is more like a fearless, clear-sighted stand-up comedian. For what it's worth – and here we're back in fleck of flyshit territory –  I think his best work was done quite early on and that he has not yet developed a "late style" that is the equal of his groundbreaking work –  The Last Resort (1986), say, or Small World (1995) – and he does seem at times to have become the prisoner of his own signature stylistic moves. But, what moves! Few photographers have created and inhabited such a distinctive style, palette, and subject matter, used to such consistent effect [1]. You may not like it, but you know it when you see it.

In September 1992 I did a four-day residential workshop with Martin at Duckspool. Although I knew that his style of "street" documentary would never be mine I was an admirer of his work, and had already acquired copies of Bad Weather (1982), A Fair Day (1984), The Last Resort, and even One Day Trip (1989), his photographs of "booze cruise" channel ferry crossings, commissioned by the Mission photographique transmanche of the Centre régional de la photographie Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was an interesting, though not transformative experience. I think it's fair to say that Martin is a very incisive speaker about his own work, and the work of others working a similar vein, but not a great teacher, in that he has (or had: he may have improved over three decades) little useful to say about other approaches to photography, or even about simply bad, derivative work, which is what mainly turns up at workshops.

As it happened, Duane Michals was receiving an Honorary Fellowship at the Royal Photographic Society during the workshop, so Martin arranged for us all to travel over to Bath to hear him speak, which surprised and pissed off a number of participants – "not what we've paid for!" – but I suspect I derived more memorable "takeaways" from that entertaining hour than the entire workshop. Mind you, I did have to leave a day early, having received an urgent SOS message from my workplace, so I missed out on the intensive group "critique" of my own portfolio. Which was probably just as well. I don't think Martin Parr CBE would have found much to connect with in what I had brought along. Although I do treasure the memory of Peter Goldfield's comment, having taken a preliminary peek, that Fay Godwin would really like my work, and that I should keep an eye out for the new direction her photography had taken. Now there's someone who never did receive her due recognition from the establishment, but that's another story.

1. Top Parr Tip: get close, look in a different direction to the camera, use a ring flash.


Kent Wiley said...

Now, those are two different pictures. Definitely not the standard Hat fare. Nice to see the ladies for a change. Hope they approved of their inclusion.

Mike C. said...


Well, I understand that one the principles of "street" photography is that anyone is fair game, no model release required...