Martin Parr

Britain's most successful snapper reveals how he 'photographs around his prejudices'

'I have always been fascinated by the constitution of what is boring. So I went to Boring, Orgeon, to take pictures there.'

Billed as ‘the most successful photographer working in Britain today’, Martin Parr is giving his version of the route to critical and commercial acclaim to an audience of budding young snappers at the University of Ulster’s Art College.

'Clichés are something you are supposed to avoid but I often use them as my starting point.'

For the photographer who has spent the last 35 years documenting the minutiae and icons of life and style in modern Britain, however, nostalgia is not driven simply by irony and ambivalence.

'Comedy and irony are central influences in almost all of work,' he explains. 'I have always believed that understatement is a great British achievement.'

Throughout the hour-long talk Parr presents his impressive and extensive back catalogue in an unassuming and unobtrusive fashion, consciously downplaying the innovative and creative approach he has often adopted to recording the objects and subjects of everyday life that so fascinate him.

Photography by Martin Parr, as currently exhibited in Salo, Finland. Image (c) Magnum Photography. All rights reserved. Despite the offhand, genial manner with which he speaks, at the root of Parr's work is a cutting, critical investigation of topics and themes often dismissed as too obvious or unimportant by other artists. As such he has eschewed the radically different to find the unsettling in the all too common.

‘The interconnection between photography and society’ has been a major theme of Parr’s work since his diploma show at Manchester Polytechnic in 1973, which explored the notion of kitsch through photographs of how people decorated their houses in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Parr’s early work, which included a series of bad weather photographs taken with an underwater camera, was all in black and white. 

When he switched to colour in 1982 for a collection on New Brighton, a seaside town near Liverpool, his work took on a more overtly critical social agenda.

'Colour [photography] can be so much more depressing [than black and white],' he says. 'Colour doesn't necessarily mean that all is sweetness and light.'

In the Brighton collection, Parr used the shabby backdrop of sunbathing families on a run-down resort to show the desiccation of the social fabric of 1980s Britain. 

Later in the decade an interest in consumerism and shopping began to emerge, with Parr focusing on the middle classes, of which he is a self-confessed member.

'Many people like to photograph buildings and churches,' he says. 'I have always been interested in photographing the things that do change - rather than those that don't ... We have become too wealthy, so now I'm interested in photographing luxury.'

His bright, garish photographs of Tupperware parties, supermarket aisles and ‘young’ Conservative soirées in Bristol, de-centre accepted notions of subject in photography and provide sharp, comic insights into the mundanities of life in ‘middle England’.

Since joining Magnum in 1994, Parr has combined work on magazines and fashion with new self-initiated projects. 

Briefly sidestepping his documentary photography, he presents images from his recent fashion shoots for the designer Paul Smith and his travel photography for a number of leading international publications.

Over the last decade Parr’s personal work has, if anything, been of an even more consciously postmodern bent. Notions of simulacra, the tension between myth and reality and cultural homogenisation are foremost in the photographs he presents from his work in Las Vegas, Disneyland and car parking spaces in different cities.

Martin Parr with participants in the YouDo Actions Arts ProgrammeParr’s ‘love of the way photography gets into our world and into our society’ has led him to become an avid, almost obsessive, collector of objects in their most kitsch forms.

In this vein he displays samples of plates with inappropriate photographic inlays, Saddam Hussein commemorative watches (he claims to have the world’s largest collection) and postcards from decaying, once venerable British institutions such as the M1 and Butlins. He also possesses a massive collection of Margaret Thatcher ephemera, for no other reason than his dislike for her.

More than 200 young people have come to hear Parr speak as the last in a series of talks at the University of Ulster. Previously, Donovan Wylie and Mark Power discussed their photographic life and work.

The lectures form part of the YouDo Actions Arts Programme, a new arts initiative that aims to give young people more opportunity to get involved in digital media, dance, music and drama.

The young people can take inspiration in the fact that even a career as distinguished as Parr's had humble beginnings. It is his oppositional stance and willingness to challenge even his own assumptions that has brought him this far.

'I decided to photograph in and around my prejudices,' he notes. 

'I have a particular dislike of crafts... so I went to lots of craft fairs.'

Peter Geoghegan

Click here to check out Matrin Parr's personal fashion magazine on the Magnum Photography website. Parr's work is currently on display in a Salo, Finland.