Thoughts on Martin Parr: Return to Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery 2019



I am always keen to see Martin Parr’s work in the flesh, as I possess the knowledge that it will always be a pleasant experience. It will scratch my documentary photography itch for a little while longer and remind me of why I ever fell in love with photography in the first place. Annoyingly, he is one of my favourite photographers. Having studied the subject for over 12 years I would prefer to say it to be someone cutting edge and underground, but alas it is not. Safe and reliable, relatable and pleasing. It always comes back to Parr. He was the first photographer I was introduced to contextually and stays with me to this day.

Return to Manchester was poignant for a few reasons. The first being that it was being viewed on a rare child-free day. Days of idling round exhibitions without being strung up to nap and snack times are now few and far between. Our daughter does love an exhibition, but at 2 years old she hasn’t got the gist of slowing wandering just yet, preferring to hurtle around galleries at full speed with a pencil in her hand (and rightly so, I don’t blame her). The second being we were on our way to collect our camper van- an exciting day in our calendar anyway. The third being that I haven’t really been back to Manchester since moving away in 2010. Although I love the city, it still has a habit of giving me a negative vibe which I am keen to shake off entirely in the near future.

We were pretty much the first ones into the exhibition, having waited outside just before opening time. A fourth floor exhibition, we took a shortcut straight to the work rather than meandering around the permanent exhibitions. Parr’s newly commissioned work is digitally printed and hung high- no frames. This choice brought familiarity and a sense of grounding to the exhibition. It was about Manchester, it was in Manchester and it was there in front of you with no barriers. It felt like it was for Manchester and presented in such a stripped back way provided a feeling of ownership. Parr’s work follows a successful formula of bright colour, tongue in cheek humour, contradictory pairings between text and image and an essence of relatability. In the 7 or so minute video playing in a side room Parr speaks of his love of things looking out of date. His work manages to capture this just on the turn- things starting to look dated or looking slightly past their best. His work makes you see situations you walk past everyday differently. The ordinary becoming extraordinary and noticeable. I think of Parr’s work as a historical document rather than straight forward photography. He captures people and places ‘on the turn’. Things you would normally forget as time slowly passes and things change without recognition. I notice some photographs that I don’t find as successful in the new work. This makes me wonder why, on paper it fits the formula. After walking round I realise it is because I don’t find the content nostalgic, it isn’t forgotten enough for me to appreciate it. An example of this is the work in Salford’s Media City, where CBeebies is filmed. Parr has been let into the presenter’s studio. This studio features in my house every morning, and probably did so on the morning of the exhibition. It was too close,  too current for me to become fond of the image and appreciate it for the artistic value the others held. Placed within a whole wall of imagery, it was balanced by subject matter that had tipped already into nostalgia or unfamiliarity.

Food is always a key feature of Parr’s work and this exhibition is no exception. The walls feature homemade baking, comical signs and gaudy colours. All the things that work in a Parr image. Drawing your attention and raising up boring, corner shop displays into the lens of an art gallery provides new context for examination and helps appreciate the world around you in a time of intense image consumption. Some of the images are hung annoyingly high for someone who likes to examine print quality, but in an empty space this wasn’t an issue as we were free to move wherever the image required us to be. A wall filled with postcard sized prints felt too much. It felt busy and like it was attempting to hide something, or to compensate for such a large white space not containing more than 4 photographs. The rest of the exhibition didn’t fail to disappoint either, with a carefully curated selection of Parr’s past work from Manchester and the North West of England. Only a section of this followed the same exhibiting rules as the new work but, given the photographic formula, it still worked despite there being over 20 years difference in the images taken. The same systems were upheld, gaudy colours of Kwik Save shopping bags and price tags on supermarket walls that instantly told of the distinction from then to now. Parr’s work is successful and well-loved for a reason. It tells a story and reminds people of a past time. It is the world we know and sometimes love. Safe and reliable, relatable and pleasing – a scratch itched once again.   

Martin Parr: Return to Manchester is on at Manchester Art Gallery until 22nd April 2019.


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