Petit Journal # 56: Parrworld
The Collection of Martin Parr





His work is exhibited and published all over the world. A member of the Magnum agency since 1994, British photographer Martin Parr has had a profound influence on the values and themes of contemporary image-making with his bracing and abrasive mix of high art and popular culture. His work for the press and his documentaries have opened photojournalism to societal themes such as consumption, leisure, mass transport and luxury. Parr is not only a prolific and esteemed photographer; he is also a tastemaker. A good part of his time is spent exploring the art scene, where he takes an interest in little-known or new work as well as historic figures. The orientation and extent of his personal collection affirm his rather unorthodox vision of visual images, which is at once critical and empathetic. Part of the considerable and invasive corpus laid out in his house in Bristol, which he thinks of as material for a travelling museum (the forty-one simultaneous exhibitions of his “Common Sense” series are in the Guinness Book of Records) is exhibited here in a thematic presentation. Parr‘s passion for photobooks – he has a unique collection and continues to add to it when his travels provide the opportunity – is, as he himself puts it, a real addiction. His collection also includes postcards and countless objects reflecting popular takes on an event, a public figure or a particular theme. At once ordinary and amazing, comic and tragic, fraught with contradictions and obsessions, Parr sees these items as signs of the growing madness of our world.
Initially presented at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and conceived by Thomas Weski in close collaboration with the artist, the exhibition “Parrworld: the Collection of Marti Parr” at Jeu de Paume includes an additional exhibit in the form of a commission from the daily newspaper The Guardian, along with five photographs of French racecourses which are recent additions to Parr’s “Luxury” series. There are also forty photographs from “Small World,” Parr’s cult series about mass tourism, which will be displayed in the Tuileries gardens. This ensemble reflects the eclectic vision of an artist for whom the act of collecting and the photographic exploration of the visible are two complementary ways of trying to understand the world, the vision of which offered by this exhibition is highly unpredictable. Here is a vision of the caustic and nonconformist world that is “Parrworld,” a world that may not quite be our own, but does look remarkably like it.


Martin Parr was born in 1952 in Epsom, Surrey (on the southern fringe of Greater London). His middle class parents were passionate ornithologists and his father took him bird-spotting every week. It was his grandfather, a member of the Royal Photographic Society, who got him interested in cameras.
Parr was not an academic child, but he did have a strong affinity for the arts. Great Britain had a long tradition of documentary photography which was promoted by Creative Camera as of the early 1960s, but remained fairly marginal. Also at this time, pop culture was beginning to move photography into the field of the fine arts. Parr was able to get an idea of the medium’s different forms and languages and was inspired by both these tendencies. He read Creative Camera and the Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibitions that he saw in London in 1970 both made a lasting impression. The same year also saw him start a rather technical course at Manchester Polytechnic, which is where he developed his interest in postcards and chromolithographs. His first attempt at photojournalism, done in a psychiatric hospital, met with a mixed response from his teachers, but this did not deter him from pursuing his distinctive form of social chronicling. For his degree piece, in 1973, he constructed an environment comprising objects, postcards and his own photographs, all displayed in a cosy bedroom setting sprayed with cheap perfume and saccharin pop music. Its title: Home Sweet Home.
In 1974, Parr moved to Hebden Bridge, an abandoned old mill town north of Manchester, with a group of photographer friends. The following year they opened an exhibition space, the Albert Street Workshop. Parr was beginning to make a living from his work and did several photographic pieces about the townspeople, recording both their traditions and the stigmata of economic decline. He spent a long time working with people who frequented a Methodist chapel, Crimsworth Dean, whom he photographed in black-and-white, while his wife, Suzie, recorded the interviews. This period, which was when he developed his social consciousness and experienced closeness to a local community, was seminal for the young photographer.
However, what made Parr famous was his publication about England’s proverbial Bad Weather, in 1982. These black-and-white photos introduced Parr’s distinctive brand of humour. Still, these photographs no more set out to mock other people than they were determined by the “smile shutter” (the technique of pressing the shutter release the moment the subject smiles). Wim Wenders points out that every camera photographs in two directions, and this is particularly true of Martin Parr. It is indeed part of what makes his work authentic. Parr himself likes to insist that his works can be viewed as a kind of self-portrait as well as a vision of contemporary society.
As the 1980s went on, so Parr’s compositions became increasingly complex, while refusing to flatter his models. Parr started using the vocabulary of popular imagery and loud colours, taking them to the point of excess, overriding the traditional opposition between high et low cultures. He was sometimes criticised for adulterating his documentary approach with an aesthetic of seduction using exaggeration and the grotesque. His aim was to avoid the traps of so-called “good taste,” an attitude that always made him eager to bring together images and objects – “souvenirs” or “spin-offs” – and to accumulate decorative elements or illustrate utensils of the day. His aim is to bring out both the cultural specificities of countries and the way globalisation is levelling them. Viewers can thus associate certain signs of globalisation with visual experiences and connect the individual and the collective, while appreciating the singularities that prevail in spite of it all in each person’s way of doing things.



Photobooks

Martin Parr started amassing his vast number of British and international photobooks when he bought The Americans by Robert Frank as a student at Manchester Polytechnic. These books amount to a comprehensive history of the medium and constitute the heart of his collection. From advertising to propaganda, from commissioned books to artist’s books, they range over all the applications of photography, and include a number of book dummies, the layouts made by artists in order to finalise the book. In this exhibition, they are shown opposite several original photographs. With In 2004 and 2006, Parr and Gerry Badger published The Photobook: a History, a two-volume work based to a large extent on his personal collection. A new volume is planned for 2010. It will be the fruit of Parr’s exploration of little-known South American achievements in this field.


Photographs

Parr’s collection of photographs has been shaped by the social themes that interest him. It features many works that have influenced his own approach and constitutes the biggest existing private collection of British photographs. Documentary images by Tony Ray-Jones, Chris Killip and Graham Smith are found alongside works by Keith Arnatt, Mark Neville, Jem Southam and Tom Wood, among others. The international section is geographically extensive, ranging from photographs by historical figures such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, to pictures by friends like John Gossage and Gilles Peress, as well as work by Japanese photographers, whose work he has discovered more recently, including Osamu Kanemura, Kohei Yoshiyuki and Rinko Kawauchi.


Postcards

The range of postcards kept by Martin Parr covers the entire history of this printed object and includes some of the earliest examples, from the late 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, the postcard had become an inexpensive and quickly produced medium for photojournalism, but the technical potential of photography also encouraged the development of fantasy cards and inspired many artists. Martin Parr’s collection includes cards by Warner Gothard (founder of the Barnsley studio, specialising in images of accidents) and John Hinde (who in the 1950s set up a postcard agency renowned for the quality and brightness of its colours), postcards of holidaymakers and curiosities, but also boring postcards extolling such items as motorways, prefabricated buildings and domestic interiors. These cards reflect the variety of uses found for this simple, cheap and popular means of communication, and show the invention of a real visual language. The framing of these works as series allows Parr to express his interest in form, variations on themes and the possibilities afforded by the genre, all of which echo his own practice as a photographer.


Objects

Among the themes evoked by the diverse objects punctuating the exhibition we find the age of the Soviet Sputniks, the reign of Maggie Thatcher, the pop group The Spice Girls and 9/11 – all events or phenomena that have entered the collective memory, largely because of their prominence in the media and association with strong visual imagery. Parr always chooses the everyday objects he collects because the discourses that they convey reveal the paradoxes of the Zeitgeist. Their thematic presentation endows them with connotations that are more complex than they may at first seem. “I am […] very attracted to objects which are ephemeral. Their significance and cultural context changes as the world moves on. Many of these objects are associated with people or events that are bound up with the glories of a certain time and place. When these glories fade, the object takes on a certain resonance, and that is the driving force behind the collections represented here.”

In the Jeu de Paume foyer, a selection of objects with the likeness of Barack Obama, some of them quite wacky, provides a recent example of the way consumer items are transformed into political slogans. Contraceptives, food products and cosmetics proclaiming that “it’s time to clean things up” present a strange fusion of political programme, sexuality and body rituals.


Luxury (1994–2008)

In his “Luxury” series Martin Parr examines the phenomenon of wealth around the world, which, although less frequently the subject of documentaries, he considers just as problematic as poverty.
To make this new series, he travelled around the globe photographing fashion shows, art fairs, luxury markets and horse races in cities like Dubai, Durban, Miami and Moscow. In the spirit of his earlier projects on the middle and working classes, Parr casts a penetrating eye on the semi-grotesque behaviour of a newly emerging international class whose social codes are based on ostentation and expenditure. Five new photographs taken in France at the Longchamp (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe) and Chantilly racecourses provide an insolent extension of the series.


The Guardian Cities Project (2008)

In response to a commission from the British daily newspaper The Guardian Martin Parr did a piece on ten UK towns: Belfast, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. Accompanied by a text giving the artist’s personal impressions, each series, comprising photographs of the cities and their inhabitants, was featured in a supplement that was distributed for free in the relevant city and its surrounding area. At Jeu de Paume double pages from the supplements will be presented alongside a selected of the published prints. Here, Parr shows us the least picturesque and tourist-friendly parts of his country, but without trying to judge his fellow men, whom he observes with empathy but without kidding himself. Proceeding as a genuine collector, in these pieces he again preserves tiny traces that would otherwise be forgotten, yet that contain the portrait of the age.


Films

Three films of Martin Parr are presented in the exhibition: Vyvyan‘s Hotel (1998), Think of England (1999) and It‘s nice up North (2005).


Small World (1986–2005)

This series on mass tourism, which Parr began in the mid–1980s, will very appropriately be presented in the Tuileries Gardens, a perfect example of a tourist attraction. Parr’s subject here is the culture and style of consumption of the middle classes. He emphasises their attraction to stereotyped objects, clothes and destinations, a taste that paradoxically coexists with a desire for originality and adventure. Images of tourists herded by tour guides, swarming in dense crowds around famous monuments, or Brits filling their trolleys with packs of beer in French supermarkets, take on a somewhat frightening dimension. In these now famous images, spectacle is very much to the fore. Armed with video cameras, tourists seem more interested in postcards or knickknacks than in the places they are supposed to be discovering. And no one is immune to this form of behaviour.