Martin Parr...a conversation in lockdown

14th May 2020

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Martin Parr...a conversation in lockdown

Martin Parr’s unmistakable eye for the quirks of ordinary life has made him a distinctive voice in visual culture for more than 30 years. Known for his use of garish colours and esoteric composition, he has studied cultural peculiarities around the world. The themes of leisure, consumption and communication have occupied him for much of his career, all of which are explored with a penetrating irony. As photographer, filmmaker and the most prolific photo book collector, Parr has defined a generation.

Parr has published over 100 photo books of his own work and edited another 30. The Tate acquired Parr’s entire personal collection of more than 12,000 photo books for their public archive in 2017. His work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions around the world including permanent collections at the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art. Parr began the Martin Parr Foundation in 2017 as a way of celebrating British photography and preserving his renowned archive.

We spoke with the influential British photographer over Zoom while at his home in Bristol covering life in lockdown, how the foundation is staying connected, and bad DIY haircuts.

First of all, how are you?

I’m fine, just ticking over.  I mean a bit frustrated as my main subject is people. And right now, you can’t get to them, so it is like a summer that may well go down the drain, the whole year may go down the drain, I don’t know.  That’s yet to be determined.

And have you been taking photographs during lockdown?

A few, a few round the house, some of the social isolating in our area, it’s nothing profound I have to say… I’m old so I don’t really want to get into the frontline of this stuff as some of my colleagues have done.

Have you learnt anything about yourself during quarantine?

Well yes but nothing I didn’t know- that I get cabin fever when I can’t really photograph properly.  I have done other things, the Foundation has been very busy doing challenges, selling a few prints, organising the library.  So, there is plenty going on and we have only furloughed one member of staff.  So the rest of us are all working away.

How do you balance the domesticity of being home all the time with work, is that a challenge?

No, it is ok because one thing I have got is plenty of time of course. It’s not a problem to find the time for anything. I go for walks, bike rides.  Luckily, we have a house with a shared garden so we are not really as badly off as some people who don’t have a garden so I can’t complain really.

What is Bristol like?

Well Bristol is one of the better areas in terms of Covid 19, it has quite a low death and contagious rate, so we have been quite lucky here so compared to London or Manchester or all these other places which are hot spots for Covid we are relatively well off.   

Lockdown has inspired a slew of famous people doing Instagram lives, constantly posting pictures and selfies and I think of your photobook, Death by Selfie, how do you feel about this way of communicating during lockdown?

I guess I’m all for it- you will never be able to suppress the creative inspiration that people have so they find different ways of expressing it and doing things so yes it is fascinating to see what people are up to. I’ve done a lot of Instagram and BJP talks so I have done my fair share of Zoom.

So you are fan generally of Instagram?

Yes, we use it quite extensively- we are doing a story every week so at the moment we are doing different stories related to the pandemic. So, this week we are doing barber shops around the world. Everyone, including myself, needs a haircut.

You are not tempted to try yourself?

No, I think my partner will give me a trim this week sometime.  We are just waiting for the weather to improve so we can get outside and do it, so we don’t have hair round the house.

We have done anything from shops of canned food through to barber shops and people in supermarkets, so we try and keep the Instagram thread relevant.  We have Martin Parr Studio account which we have 5m followers on and then we have the Foundation where we have less and that is where you will find the challenges. In fact this weeks challenge is do something around the theme of hair bad haircuts, hair generally. So, invite your audience to come to the Martin Parr Instagram where a challenge will be launched every week.  We have a prize of a Martin Parr signed book.

Apart from the foundation having to postpone the programme this year, are there any other changes you imagine once you are able to resume operations?

We don’t know - with events we may clearly have to enforce social distancing in which case we might stream the talks as well limit the numbers.  We are waiting for the guidelines from the government and then we will work around that.  Obviously it is going to be a different world that we go into post pandemic.

And how big is your team there?

We have about 8 people working for the Foundation and for my own business, so they are sort of split between the two set ups but we all share the same building.  And of course, most of them are working from home… the printer has to come in and do printing, he can’t take the printer home, but most people are working from home.

And what was the main impetus for staring the Foundation?

I guess I am a great believer in British documentary photography so I wanted a place where this would be celebrated, appreciated. A big collection of books are there so it is a bit like a research place where you can share the achievements of the under rated British documentary photographer.

How is your time divided between taking photographs yourself and the Foundation?

They all come together. I have a big say.  I have a team of people so we discuss what we are going to show, how are going to show it.  I’m busy being a photographer too so luckily I don’t have to do anything like processing or printing, that is done for me by people that I can trust implicitly. We have trustees for the foundation so we talk to them about what we should be doing. We have a very active membership scheme, so you get a percentage off in our bookshop.  We have a very active online bookshop which is really busy at the moment, so we keep ourselves going.

I feel like this whole situation, this pandemic, has revealed so much around the inequality in Britain. Your work is very much focused around class and culture.  What have been your feelings around this aspect?

Yes, that is indeed the case.  Inequality has been examined and exaggerated by 10 years of austerity … it has really come to the forefront.

I’m a classic left-wing photographer.  I think most people who photograph people, if they are photojournalists or documentary photographers, come from the left. It is almost inevitable really as you have to like people to have that empathy that you need to get that across, so I’m pretty cross. I’m a classic Remainer of course, as you are probably and that angered me.  But in a sense the friction I feel about Britain is one of the things I try and express through photography, so it gives me an excuse to use photography as a form of therapy.  So, in that sense it actually works to my advantage.

Will you put something together around the photographs you have taken in this lockdown?

No, probably not but I have thought of doing something like look at the past year because it is never going to be the same again.  Almost like the isolation of that past life we all knew.  I mean this summer we will be posting pictures of crowded beach scenes  and crowds at festival just to show how different our way of life was to what we are going to have in the future. Maybe in two or three-years time it will be back to normal. But it’s not going to be fast.

No, as you say, it’s going to be a long process and there won’t be a return to normal.

What do you think the long-term impact will be on the art and photography work?

Well it will be more difficult to become a photographer, that is, for it to be sustainable. There will less work around, harder to sell prints as some people will be running out of money. It’s going to be a tough landscape out there. So, if you are good, you will always survive and do well and if you are not it is going to be more of a struggle than before.  All the budget for newspapers, magazines will be cut, they were pretty low anyway so that as a form of income will dry up. What I don’t know yet is when the world comes down to engaging with photography whether they will want a form of escapism or whether they will be interested in photographs in the documentary style of the real world. That is the big unknown… how people will respond to that.

As for aspiring and budding photographers, in terms of them finding subject matter at home and feeling inspired, do you have any advice?

Yes- if you are good and you have something original in the way you connect to the world out there, then you are going to fine but most people end up doing generic work where they copy other people’s and they don’t really find their own voice in photography so that challenge of finding that, locating it and making it work will be a lot tougher than before.

How do you feel about iPhone photography?

No problem. I don’t mind how the pictures are taken as long as they are telling us a story about the connection between the photographer and the world we live in.

Can you think of any silver linings?

Out of disaster good shall come, every cloud has a silver lining.  What that silver lining is yet, we don’t know.  Perhaps if we stop travelling in the way that we did before, that could be a good thing.  You could argue that the green movement has scored a big hit with this whole pandemic but that is yet to be resolved so we don’t really know how it will pan out.

I have heard you are not fan of holidays anyway or you don’t believe in them?

No, not really.  I do work trips.  But I will probably do less of them. No one is inclined to jump on a plane at all.

And your partner, is she in the same kind of world?

No, she’s a writer and a swimming addict.  So, we often go to the beach.  I photograph on the beach and she will go swimming.

I hope you can do that again soon.


Taken from Martin Parr by PHIADON