Only in England/The day I met Martin Parr

Continuing with the theme of my last post, this entry focuses primarily on a photographer who has provided me with inspiration and research fodder for my entire artistic journey- a grand old total of 10 years now (turned 26 on Sunday, yack). Martin Parr was one of the first photographers whose images I cut and pasted into my AS Level photography workbook, and one that was to quickly become a permanent feature in every workbook from then on. I have been lucky to see a lot of his work in various different galleries around the globe and own many of his brilliant publications, making me pretty familiar with his documentary work. One thing I didn’t ever think I would do was meet the man himself. I noticed on the National Media Museum’s website that he and his wife Susie were due to do a talk about the ‘Only in England’ exhibition opening there in early April. Jumping to the chance of hearing a hero speak about his working process, I booked the tickets and swiftly forgot about the whole thing.

Fast forward a few months, and the day arrived. Having anxiety disorder means that pretty much any emotion fuelled experience whether it is happy, sad or exciting can be a whirlwind of different feelings all at once. Almost like a Sunday dinner all smooshed together into one big gravy mess. (I hate gravy). This day was definitely a gravy smooshed day. Travelling to Bradford from York seemed to take a lifetime, collecting the tickets even longer as it seemed like the girl at the desk was handwriting each one with a feather quill, and making my way into the Cubby Broccoli Cinema (brilliant name, oui?) was almost like I was crawling. Backwards. With a blindfold on. You get the picture.

It was well worth the excitement though when both Martin and Susie entered the cinema and took their seats at the front. Two rows back, I had a brilliant view and found myself not blinking for quite a while whilst I took the whole thing in. Martin Parr had a comforting face, and Susie looked exactly how I hope to look at her age- graceful grey, kooky, with a good splash of lipstick all rolled into one. They talked at length with Greg Hobson (curator of Only in England) about Parr’s work with the Non-Conformists of Hebden Bridge and the newly selected and curated archive from Tony Ray-Jones. Parr spoke of Ray-Jones’ American photography style, that he “captured the bits in between the subjects and made them interesting”- a style that inspired Parr during his time at Manchester Polytechnic. The pair never met, much to Parr’s regret, however they did photograph the same events, such as Epsom’s Derby Day. Hearing both Martin and Susie speak so highly of the North which I call home just made me love them both even more, I found myself smiling and nodding whilst they were talking. They love “the sense of community in the North”, something I heard the audience quietly agree with muffled responses. Parr spoke of his work starting out as a celebration of society, merging into a critique of society when moving to colour photography. His current projects are now revisiting this celebration, after his career move to “sophisticated community photographer.”


I hung onto his every word- furiously scribbling quotes and filling a notebook in the process. The audience had chance to ask questions- a portion of artist talks that always makes me cringe. Not in fear of embarrassing myself, but in the fear that other people will embarrass themselves. I had my questions but I did not want to share them, I didn’t want them to be struck down in negativity, so I held back. In line with my pre-cringing, the audience didn’t hold back with their un-thought out questioning. Many questions were based around Instagram or social media. Fine, but listen to the bloody answers. Parr is a gifted and clear speaker, and managed to wrap a large topic up in a couple of answers. Yet people kept asking the same things. You have the chance of a lifetime here, I thought to myself. Yet they carried on. I gritted my teeth in cringing pain whilst he shuffled from one mirrored answer to the next. The question and answer session was luckily quite short.


Next on the anxiety treadmill, was the chance to meet Martin and Susie Parr. My hands and legs were shaking in anticipation. Good questions (nothing about social media) were whirring around in my head whilst I planned my demeanor. I hope you can picture me as a cool, calm collected cucumber waiting in line, book in hand. Now erase that image, and imagine a sweaty, hyper aware girl dressed in green polka dots swaying awkwardly from side to side. That’s me. A guy in the line behind me starting talking to me about photo books, it was a welcome distraction. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying to me, but all I could concentrate on was the queue rapidly diminishing. It was my turn. Oh god. What were my questions? I had both the Parrs staring back at me waiting for me to snap into action. Here is what I managed “It is a huge privilege….I’m shaking…”


“Do you want your book signing?”


Awkward pause… “To who?”


It went on a little like this for a few minutes. I managed to say privilege around 5 times, get my book signed and get a comforting “aww bless you” from Susie. Cool cucumber I was not. I hadn’t realised how much I admired Martin Parr until that moment, and my anxiety took over and told me otherwise. After composing myself and removing a few layers of clothing, I enjoyed the exhibition at the NMM viewing each image with a renewed admiration for both Parr and Tony Ray-Jones. I will write another blog post focusing on the work in the exhibition, plus the Philip-Lorca DiCorcia exhibition at the Hepworth I saw the same afternoon. It was a day I will remember for the rest of my life, the day I turned to jelly, met a hero, and never got to find out what Martin Parr’s favourite photo book was. At least I know what he thinks about Instagram…


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