Sunday, November 13, 2011

Martin Parr at the MSHED

Visiting somewhere for the first time has its ups and downs, finding your way around, navigating the one way systems, the traffic calming, and having to collect rather recollect landmarks, in case you see them again on the virgin trip that you may retrace your steps, they are all part of the visual landscape; all whilst listening to the dulcet tones of Sat' nag.

The visit to the MSHED venue in Bristol which is a lovely museum and art gallery in what was the traditional heart of the city was to view, with the "South West" OCA students group (for which I am a peripheral member), "Bristol and West", an exhibition of photographs by Martin Parr. The exhibits were curated jointly by Parr and the Museum to depict life in and around the Bristol area. The curator gave a talk and was keen to point out that, as the title portrays, the boundaries for selection was Bristol and it's close surroundings. 

"Did we - as viewers of Parr's work - see Parr as from another planet?" The now infamous accusation levelled at Parr by Cartier-Bresson that he was "from another planet" was posed as a question and delivered in a way that suggested that CB was an admirer of Parr's work - I'm not sure that he was admired by CB, from what I understand on the subject and the fact that it took the best part of a decade from when Parr applied to join Magnum to when he succeeded, and then only accepted by a single vote, suggests otherwise. I think that Parr was far removed from the "humanist" vision of CB. But it was a conundrum we were invited to consider as we viewed the images. Another parochial poser from our host was whether we saw any single photograph that picked out a distinct image of Bristol, an archetypal view of this old city that was summed up in a single image? We were also invited to select and vote for our favourite image in the hall. I certainly appreciated the talk - I had visited the exhibition before the talk and knew many of the photographs before coming to MSHED - as it was an opportunity to listen and be engaged by the man who worked with Parr to pull the series together.

There were several sections and the selection from "Cost of Living", "Chew Stoke, A Year in the Life of an English Village", "Clevedon Swimming Club" and others. 

The photography of Parr dwells on the intimate - he has an unnerving capability to move in close to his subjects, to highlight, often with the use of flash in full daylight, those moments which display what he leads the viewer to believe is a revealed truth (so many photographers trade in the word truth, it seems to me that they do protest too much). The curator was at pains to remind us that Parr wants us to believe these verisimilitudes delivered by his lens, these tiny moments extracted from, as he freely admits, thousands upon thousands of images - the original down-select was 600 from which the exhibition displayed 60, are indeed reflections of us as society members. I shall return.

It is impossible for me to divorce politics from his imagery - once described as Thatcher's favourite photographer and yet commissioned by the Guardian to depict the "Cost of Living"1989, the wreckage of post Thatcherite English society, a set that itself has been charged with "photo-rape" (1) by the apparent middle class "victims" of Parr's lens. Yet he undertook the commission to depict "A Year in the Life of an English Village" from the Telegraph - Thatcher's most ardent supporter and still looking for her mantle bearer to shine forth. Cynicism is another on the charge sheet for Parr, certainly opportunism and commercial at that, ipso facto the need for recognition via Magnum.

Parr's photography comes with baggage. It is difficult to decouple the image from what made it. Parr knows that by using a ring flash in the middle of summer (even an English Summer) it cannot go unnoticed, neither then can his subjects. It is stretching credulity to imagine his technique, however refined, will leave his subjects and their environs unfettered and untouched. He therefore interjects an artifice in both presence and by his process which will deliver greater levels of colour saturation, which HE decides to leave in; it is his conscious decision to leave his subjects and their surroundings bathing in a stretched gamma. These decisions and actions must predicate an stylism that means to take the viewer on a journey.

The apparent reflectionist quality of Parr's work positively craves the viewer to offer a critique on each image, whether it is the apparent "sniffiness" of the portrayed "Middle Aged, Middle Class" white couple disdainfully engaging with the dark skinned person in "Royal Commonwealth Society function for a summer evening"  - part of the "Cost of Living" series or, the "Bristol 2000" photograph of the bowls player stretching his back during a game in a bucolic vision of "typical English village life" - an idea that I would refute from a personal perspective, but that is a separate and distinctly different issue. Our invitations to construct narrative imbue every photograph selected, down-selected and final edited for the viewer - an editing journey with its own narrative to begin with.

I needed to listen to the unnerving tones of the nag to navigate my way home, This artificial construct of technology that recognises where I am and where I want to go delivers messages that direct me to an agreed point. As I travelled I started to think more about this exhibition, the photography and MSHED. I think Bristol is lucky to have this venue and I look forward to returning, to recollect my journey, it's landmarks and maybe stay a while longer to breathe in the traditions of this interesting city. The exhibition was curated to pose a Bristolian view of Parr's work, I have to say that in this respect, for me, it failed. Parr's imagery is pan western 3rd world; apart from one street sign there were no direct references for me that this was pinned to Bristol - even the directive titles didn't move the print to a recognisable gps reference that my nag could have brought up in "interesting local sights". Parr is an emigre to Bristol, born on the chalk hills of the Downs, his adopted home, one of many, perhaps shows his peripatetic photographic traits, equally at home in New Brighton as in St Pauls; as one of my colleagues at the exhibition said "I've been here (Bristol) for over 30 years now, but it's still too early to call it home.

As with my nag, the photography of Parr is predicated on artifice. It is an interjection of technology and technique that, whilst certainly not unique, delivers to the viewer a highly edited view of Parr's dystopian world view. We are at times invited to sneer at both people and environment and at times to regret the passing of an idyll that is delivered on a (deep red) rose tinted glass. Both will lead us to predetermined destinations and whilst that is the strength of my fellow traveller it is, for me, the only weakness for Parr.

1 Bristol Evening Post, (Bristol, England), Thursday, November 16, 1989, p-7


  1. Interesting reading. I do appreciate your slightly cynical approach and the considered way in which you pick out the essence of Parr (from your viewpoint of course). I've read about him and seen some of his images on the web but haven't felt drawn to him so far.


  2. Cynical? Moi? Someone once described Parr as photography marmite, you either love him or hate him; I'm not sure that either is true for me. I guess I am undecided because I don't know where he stands or what he stands for, maybe that's his strength as a social photographer - leave it to the viewer, let them decide. But I think he does direct us, I think he directs us dependant on his mood at the time; a floating voter perhaps?
    Thanks for your comment, much appreciated.