Martin Parr’s True Colors

Paris’ Maison Européenne de la Photographie salutes British photographer Martin Parr with a retrospective of his work. While in the ’80s most serious documentary photographers were using black and white film Parr pushed the limits of the medium with exaggerated color pictures often portraying banal subjects. His pioneering series – “Last Resort” (1986), “The Cost of Living” (1989) and “Small World” (1994) – now rank as a major turning point for contemporary photography. Parr gained his reputation through his ironic look at British middle and working class consumer society. The MEP’s exhibition includes not only his legendary depictions of Great Britain’s Thatcher era, but also some of the photographer’s early work in black in white created during the 1970s – as well as newer pictures such as “Common Sense” and “Cherry Blossom.”

One of Parr’s most controversial series “The Last Resort,” which unflatteringly captures the British working class while on holiday at Brighton Beach, shocked many fans of B&W while others heralded it as the dawn of a new era in social documentary photography. The beach scenes shot with medium-format color film show overweight, sunburned people surrounded by screaming children on cluttered beaches eating repulsive looking food, and wearing laughable fashions…

The laughable part is what grates some people. Is Parr laughing with, or at his subjects? When asked if he thought his work was exploitive, he said: “I think that all photography involving people has an element of exploitation… However, it would be a very sad world if photographers were not allowed to photograph in public places. I often think of what I photograph as a soap opera where I am waiting for the right cast to fall into place. In more recent years, I have photographed much closer where bits of people and food become part of the big picture, and one advantage of this is that it means people are less recognizable.”

Parr didn’t just break with previous documentary work because of his use of color film. His visual attitude is miles away from the humanist photographers who dominated the genre from the ’50s onwards. It was reported that when Henri Cartier-Bresson saw Parr’s exhibition in 1995 he said “You are from a completely different planet to me.” Where photographers such as Bresson attempted to convey a certain nobility in the human spirit, Parr’s pictures appeal to our voyeurism. His in your face style brings the tackiness and banality of his subjects so close you can almost smell the cheap suntan lotion.

Despite his success, Parr is not everyone’s cup of tea. Photo critic Colin Jacobson describes Parr as a “gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people.” While on the other hand fashion designer Agnès B says she likes his documentary pictures for the “affection” they show for his subjects.

Speaking of his use and widely imitated approach to high saturation pictures, Parr said “I use amateur film, currently Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 ASA for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high color saturation; there is no Photoshop used.”

Another thing that separates Parr from previous generations of documentary photographers is his embrace of fashion. “The Italian magazine Amica were the first people to commission fashion work in roughly 1999,” says Parr. I now do about four or five shoots a year. I am currently exploring the whole idea of making fashion look more believable and like the idea of doing street casting, indeed trying to make fashion not look like fashion.” Parr’s “Fashion Magazine” pictures, including work he did for Amica, Citizen K and Jalouse, are being exhibited on the second floor of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche department store, in association with the Magnum agency.

Parr, like his pictures, can be brutally frank. He muses at the age of 53 whether his best work is behind him. “I think the energy and passion you have when you start is difficult to match. I still enjoy working but one reason why I try many new challenges is to stop me going stale and keep me on my toes.” One of his recent challenges last year was to be the guest artistic director of France’s prestigious “Rencontres d’Arles” photography festival.

From documentary to fashion with some TV along the way – he did a video on the Pet Shop Boys – it seems that Parr still has a lot to show us.

Photo caption: Martin Parr/Magnum/courtesy