Martin Parr: A Leading Documentary Photographer of Post-War Britain

“I can’t shoot street photography where I live. My city is just so boring. I need to travel more to explore exotic places to be able to shoot more.” Those are sentiments I had some time ago about my photography. In this video and article, I would like to challenge these views by looking at one of the world’s most famous and successful documentary photographers. Let’s talk about Martin Parr.

Martin Parr is one of the world’s most famous and successful documentary photographers. He has been featured in over 80 exhibitions and has had over 80 photobooks published. His work covers topics such as mass tourism, consumerism, and lifestyle. Bright exposures, high color saturation, (often) humor, and exaggeration are things that describe Parr’s trademark style.

Parr was born in 1952 in England. He started to become interested in photography during his teen years. His grandfather was an amateur photographer and lent him a camera when they went out shooting together.

In the 1970s, Parr shot black-and-white with a 35mm Leica M3. In the 80s, he used a lot a medium format and flash. In the mid-2000s, he switched to digital, first using a small digital Sony camera and later a Canon 5D.

During his school years, he learned photography in the darkroom and shot photo stories for the school magazine. He was accepted to full-time photography courses at Manchester Polytechnic, which were three very important years for his career and skills.

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Following a celebratory week of the #selfie, we’re turning to #MartinParr’s long running series Autoportrait, in which the lens of the camera is turned on Parr himself. These images have been taken by a mix of studio photographers, street photographers and in photo booths as he has journeyed around the world to photograph his own work. Moving from early images produced in 1996 and 1998, today we present three auto portraits from 1999; stay tuned to this week’s Instagram for a chronological journey across the globe. Progression of #technology as we move from #analoguephotography through the digital movement, the inevitability of ageing and the temporality of life become apparent as the series marks the passage of time. #Autoportrait was first published in 2000 and republished in 2015, each time by Dewi Lewis. Photo 01 – #NewYork, #USA, 1999. From the series ‘Autoportrait’. Photo 02 – Rimini, #Italy, 1999. From the series ‘Autoportrait’. Photo 03 – #Rimini, Italy, 1999. From the series ‘Autoportrait’.

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Parr was introduced to contemporary photography by his art teacher in grammar school. A big inspiration was also Creative Camera magazine, which featured a lot of contemporary photographers like Lee Friedlander and Cartier-Bresson.

But it wasn’t all that easy. It’s important to understand that fine art photography wasn’t something very respected inside the art circles back then, unlike today, when we have so many opportunities to visit galleries and photography shows. Even though the Museum of Modern Art established the Department of Photography in the 1930s in New York, the UK museums and art establishment didn’t like the change and saw it as a populist move.

When thinking about documentary photographers, I usually have a pretty clear idea of what social issue, conflict, or war the photographer likely covered. However, Parr’s main subject has been leisure for almost 50 years of his career. What he likes about photographing people during leisure is that, during the free time people have, they do what they like and it kinds of defines the society and who are the people within that society.

I love color street photography, but when we look at the great photography masters, the vast majority of them used black and white while shooting fine art and documentary photography. Now, this was of course because 1) color film was not readily available and 2) it was expensive. However, even when it became more accessible, a lot of photographers still opted not to use it.

Parr already shot color film for his Home Sweet Home project in the early 70s, and he fully transitioned to color in 1982. He was using mostly Fuji 400 Superior and Agfa Ultra, which resulted in the bright colors his photographs are known for.

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Following two publications of ToiletMartin PaperParr – special editions of @ToiletPaperMagazineOfficial – Martin Parr and Maurizio Cattelan have now produced the ToiletMartin PaperParr #photobook 😍 Published by @damiani_books, 2020.⁣ ⁣ This latest Parr photobook follows the same formula as the previous ToiletMartin PaperParr magazine specials – a photographic conversation with #MartinParr on one side, and @MaurizioCattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari on the other. ⁣ ⁣ Stay tuned to this week’s Instagram for a preview of the visual dialogue and an insight into the #irony, subversion and provocation as we journey through the publication. ⁣ ⁣ Click the link in bio for more info and to get copies from Damiani ☝️✨⁣ ⁣ Photo 01 – #Miami, Florida, 1998 © Martin Parr⁣ Photo 02 © #ToiletPaperMagazine

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In his own words, Parr’s attitude is to show the good and the bad side of contemporary life.

“When I am out shooting, it is a bit like a soap opera,” he said. “I identify the places where I want to photograph, and then I wait for the right characters to fall into place.”

A lot of conflicts and issues come from the absence of something, whether it’s money, rights, injustice, etc. What I like about Parr’s photography is that he covers the other extreme: having too much money or too much free time. His photographs are in great contrast to what you see when you visit your favorite news website.

I think it is great to document such common things like beach life or dog shows because when the future generations will look into archives, they will not see only war photography, social issues, or selfies from Instagram. But they will also see an everyday life; sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, but always a non-staged view of Parr’s perception of reality.

Unlike the old masters and their photographs, which many people call “timeless,” Parr’s photographs are definitely not timeless. They are very much dated: but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, for example, the reason Parr was able to capture changes in Britain pretty accurately. Parr was influenced by many famous photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand.

However, his biggest inspiration may be the work of Tony Ray-Jones, who was also a documentary photographer from England mostly focusing on festivals and leisure activities with surreal humor. This is also the theme of Parr’s colorful photographs.

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Final days of Only Human: Martin Parr, currently on display at the @NationalPortraitGallery, #London. CLOSING 27 MAY ⏰ #OnlyHuman presents iconic images alongside lesser known and never before seen Parr #photography, across several bodies of work, including for the first time ‘Britain at a Time of #Brexit’. The exhibition focuses on national #identity, featuring – among other works – Parr’s exploration of the #British establishment through institutions such as #OxfordUniversity, and the recent @BBCone idents. The 2017 and 2018 #BBC idents are a collaboration between #MartinParr and the BBC, celebrating the diversity of communities living in the UK. One room within the show is dedicated to ordinary portraits – stay tuned to this week’s instagram for highlights 🙌 Click the link in bio for signed copies of the hardback exhibition catalogue from the @MartinParrFDN, featuring 250 illustrations across 240 pages, published by @phaidonsnaps. Photo – Nice, #France, 2015. #MagnumPhotos

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When we talk about color, Parr actually does not post-process his own images. Not that the images are not processed at all, but he does not do it himself. He explains that in an interview for Canon Europe.

“I’ve never processed a file in my life,” he says. “I just know that when I look at the pictures they look right. Louis, who does that work for me, knows my palette inside out. He knows what I like, how I want them printed, so it’s very rare that I say, ‘I don’t think that print’s quite right’. If I do, we tweak it.”

When asked about pumping up the colors in Photoshop, Parr replied: “No, not at all, I just let the color look as natural as possible, but of course flash does help saturation.”

The use of flash in the daylight is one of Parr’s signature techniques. When we, for example, look at his photographs from Tesco, Marks and Spencer, or Iceland supermarkets, the flash helps to express the alienation which is so often a trademark of these large anonymous stores.

Looking at Parr’s work, it is certain that we are looking at something completely different than the majority of images people usually show when they want to present their portfolios. But how do you get into this type of photography?

One of the first photographic jobs Parr had was photographing at Butlin’s holiday camp, which was a holiday resort providing affordable holidays for ordinary British families. Parr and his friend were paid to make portraits and casual photographs for Butlin’s customers. After shooting those photos, they were free to do their own work.

For me, it is a nice fresh approach in times when photography is bigger than ever and we are overwhelmed with all kinds of “wanna be perfect” photography. This constant chase for perfect selfies, breathtaking landscapes, or polished street shots posted on Instagram is everywhere. Even I have been a victim of this trend when I filter my photographs on the basis of “is this photo super beautiful or is it something no one has ever photographed?”

But when we try to produce those magazine-like photographs, we end up exactly with that: cliche magazine-style photographs. The more you try to make them look new and amazing, the more ordinary they appear (at least in my opinion).

Now, this is not to say Parr’s photographs are not top-quality photographs, and I wouldn’t dare to criticize Parr’s work with my limited experience. What I mean is that when I view his images, I am able to appreciate how you can create art basically anywhere you live. You don’t need to be an Instagram influencer traveling to exotic places to shoot amazing images.

And when you think about it, it does not even make sense. It is your goal to make common things look interesting. In today’s global age where your images are shared around the world, every location is exotic and interesting for someone living somewhere else. So, don’t be upset you are not living in Paris and believe that it’s why you can’t shoot street photography or any type of photography because the place you live in is just “boring.”

I believe — and Parr’s photographs are a great example of this — that any place can be amazing, and if you truly like photography it doesn’t really matter where are you live. He has shown other photographers and photography fans how to look at the world differently.

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Small World is #MartinParr’s long running series exploring #tourism on a global scale 🌎 First published in 1996 – with a revised and updated edition published in 2007 – 2018 now sees a third edition adding brand new #photography to the iconic Parr series. Last week’s Instagram revisited classic images from #SmallWorld; stay tuned this week for a selection of new Parr photographs used to update this #iconic body of work, which has been in development for over 30 years. Signed copies of this latest Parr publication are now available from the @MartinParrFDN 😍 click the link in the bio to get your copy. Photo – @MuseeLouvre, #Paris, #France, 2012. #MagnumPhotos #Louvre #MonaLisa

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Parr also made several films, and you can see clips from some of them on his website. The documentary films consist of dialogues with the subjects he photographed and they are a nice trip back to the late 90s and early 2000s. I would say the style of the website nicely compliments his work. You will see what I mean once you view them.

Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work. —Martin Parr

Parr started Martin Parr Foundation, which opened in 2017 in Bristol where he lives. The aim of the foundation is to preserve the archive of Martin Parr, hold a growing collection of works by selected British and Irish photographers, and house an expanding library of British and Irish photo books. The foundation has a gallery and library with more than 5,000 books by both British and Irish photographers, as well as complete back catalogs of important publications such as Creative Camera and Camera Work for educational and research purposes.

Parr is also an object collector — he collects not only postcards but also some more… unusual objects. He refers to them as “sheer madness.” To better understand what he means by that, just take a look at, for example, a Saddam Hussein Watch collection. If you are more interested in that, I would recommend Parr’s book Objects from 2008.

Martin Parr is also a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative with some of the most well-known photographers, founded by a group of legendary photographers that included Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Just to give you an idea of how hard it is to become a member, it actually takes four years to become a full-fledged member from the time you become a Nominee. Members gather once per year to vote on potential new members and they usually accept just one or two photographers.

Now, the interesting thing is, it wasn’t actually easy for Parr to join, as some of the members of the more conservative wing within Magnum were against it. However, he was eventually able to get the two-thirds required to be a member by one vote and joined in 1994. In 2014, Parr was actually voted in as president of the Magnum Photos International, a post he held for three and a half years until 2017.

Martin Parr is currently working on a new show and book about his images from Ireland for the fall of 2020. If you want to find out more about what Martin Parr is currently up to, you can check out all his events on his website. You can also buy signed Martin Parr’s books on his website. Parr also runs a YouTube channel where he interviews his colleague photographers, and I have to say it is one of my favorite channels, so definitely check it out.

As Val Williams says in Martin Parr’s retrospective, Parr’s photography is essentially a reflection of intense curiosity. It is uncomfortable because, in many ways, it brings out the worst in us, makes us scornful or silly, snobbish, or cynical. In the same way, his photographs are kind of practical joke, seemingly harmless but destined to cause us to make fools of ourselves.


About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.