Martin Parr

Martin Parr is a chronicler of our age. In the face of the constantly growing flood of images released by the media, his photographs offer us the opportunity to see the world from his unique perspective. At first glance, his photographs seem exaggerated or even grotesque. The motifs he chooses are strange, the colours are garish and the perspectives are unusual. Parrs term for the overwhelming power of published images is propaganda. He counters this propaganda with his own chosen weapons: criticism, seduction and humour. Thomas Weski

How did you start your career as a photographer?

I first got interested in photography when I was a teenager and went to visit my Grandfather near Bradford. He was a keen amateur photographer and he lent me a camera and we would go out together shooting. We would come back, process the films and make prints and ever since this time I have always wanted to be a photographer.

You studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic between 1970 and 72, what was this like for you?

In these days the idea of a college was to learn to be a photographer by becoming an assistant, so they taught us all the basic studio techniques and things like reciprocity failure. I quickly got fed up with this input and started working on my own projects. This meant I was having to justify my work and this, I guess, was good practice for fighting for what I believed in.

What photographers were you influenced by in these early days?

Before college I had seen the work of Bill Brandt and Cartier Bresson, as well as seeing copies of Creative Camera magazine with images by Frank and Friedlander and Winogrand. However it was while I was at college that Bill Jay came round and showed the work of Tony Ray-Jones and this for me was a real moment of inspiration.

What did you do after leaving college?

I first worked at Manchester Council for Community Relations for about 3 months and then started working towards my Home Sweet Home exhibition at the Impressions Gallery in York.

When and why did you change from black and white to colour?

I did do some colour within the Home Sweet Home project in the early 70’s, but it wasn’t until 1982 when I moved back from Ireland that took to colour in a serious way. This was sparked off by seeing the colour work emerge from the US from photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. I had also encountered the post cards of John Hinde when I worked at Butlin’s in the early 70’s and the bright saturated colour of these had a big impact on me.

How did you achieve these bright colours?

I used amateur film, most recently Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high colour saturation, there is no Photoshop used.

Now that you use digital, do you pump up the colours using Photoshop?

No, not at all, I just let the colour look as natural as possible, but of course flash does help saturation.

What cameras do you use?

For the 35mm it is a Nikon 60mm macro lens combined with a SB29 ring flash. This gives a shadow on both sides of the lens and is like a portable studio light. For the early black and white work it was a Leica M3 with a 35mm lens. When I moved to 6/7cm in The Last Resort it was a Makina Plaubel with a 55mm lens. I later bought a standard lens Plaubel and more recently Mamiya 7’s

For digital see later question.

Do you think your work is exploitative?

I think that all photography involving people has an element of exploitation, and therefore I am no exception. 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 recognisable.

How do you get so close to people?

If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at the people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.

When did you first do fashion photography?

The Italian magazine Amica were the first people to commission fashion work in roughly 1999, I now do about 4/5 fashion 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.

What is your relationship to humour?

I feel I am part of a long tradition in the UK in employing irony as part of my work. Although I deal with serious subjects these can be made more accessible with this element thrown in. Also that same vulnerability that comics often deal with is very similar to the vulnerability and ambiguities, I want to illustrate.

Tell us about your problems when you joined Magnum.

It is no secret when I joined, there was opposition from the more conservative wing within Magnum. However I eventually got the 66.6% required to be a member. In politics, this is regarded as a landslide!

And your spat with Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Henri came to my Small World opening in Paris in 1995 and said I was from another planet! I always cherish this remark, and wrote back, I know what you mean, but why shoot the messenger?

Whose work do you admire from contemporary photographers?

I am a great fan of the work that emerged from the Becher school, indeed these photographers changed the way in which the art world viewed photography from a marginal activity to being a central player and I guess we all benefit from this. I also like contemporaries such as Lorca Di Corcia, Paul Shambroom, Joan Fontcuberta and many photographers from Japan. There are many of my colleagues in Magnum I admire like Bruce Gilden, Alec Soth, Gilles Perres and Jim Goldberg.

Talking of Japan, why are you so attracted to this country and their photographers?

I started going to Japan in around 1990 and have been virtually every year since. Araki for example has explored more ideas in book publishing and exhibiting than any other photographer I know, and I was particularly struck by his Banquet book in the mid 90’s. They also have made some of the best designed and printed photo books since the war.

I read that you said you thought your best work was behind you?

Yes this was a remark in passing when I did an interview in 2000. I still think it is probably true and this remark could be said about many mid career artists and photographers. I think the energy and passion you have when you start out as a photographer 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.

Why did you start to use digital?

I guess it is one of those things that eventually catches up with you. So in 2006 I took the plunge by buying a small digital Sony and in 2007 a Canon 5D, later upgrading to a Canon 5D Mark 3. I am now conversant with the Canon and I really like the way you can balance the ambient light with the flash. I do this with the aid of my Gary Fong diffuser which I find invaluable. I also have a Canon ring flash, so with one camera and 2 flash guns, I can virtually replicate any of my previous techniques. The thing people do not realise with digital is that what you should be constantly adjusting is the iso.

And digital printing?

Yes we have in my studio a Canon ipf8300 pigment printer, and all new production is done on this. This is great news as we are able to control the quality of printing very carefully. I also very much like the fact that these new pigment ink prints are ten times more archival than a traditional c-print.

Tell us about the Parrworld exhibition.

This show is toured Europe and featured all my collections and my new Luxury project. The collections range between Saddam Hussein watches to recent British documentary photographs by other British photographers.

Why do you feel so passionately about photobooks?

Yes, that’s true. I firmly believe that the photo book is still an underestimated asset in the cultural history of photography. Speaking as a photographer it is the one vehicle for photography that has influenced, not just me, but many photographers in a very big way. Finally in this last decade, there has been a strong revival of interest in the photobook. I worked with Gerry Badger on Volume 3 of the History of the Photobook, published by Phaidon in 2014.

Have you any tips for an aspiring photographer?

Good photography can emerge when you make a good connection to a subject. So part of the skill is to find the right subject and to then get involved in a very thorough and meaningful way with this, and the excitement of this discovery and process can be the starting point for a good project.

How do you feel about this idea, that with the likes of Instagram and Flikr there are so many photographers out there now?

I welcome all of the different platforms for photography and their proliferation. These users are often the main audience for consuming books and shows about photography.

What next?

I am completing a book about Oxford University and a book on my Scottish work, both to be published in Autumn 2017.

I am also building up my folio about the UK, watch this space for more project news on this subject.

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