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 In the 7 or so minute video playing in a side room Parr speaks of his love of things looking out of date.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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Plant Play

Play is the primal force which built our early selves, and can revivify and infuse our adult selves with a craving for action and innovation. Play is also an attempt at self-mastery, whether shaped from the outside by education or impelled by internal dreams of a better, more integrated self’

Play as imagination

I was surprised to read in Pat Kane’s The Play Ethic that the place of Victorian public swimming pools, sports halls and parks were brought in by authorities in order to maintain the physical health of the working classes, in turn ensuring the efficiency of the workforce. Although work and play are somewhat linked in my mind, I had never really put much thought into the idea that play creates better workers. In my logic, we work in order to afford to ‘play’. Kane’s chapters, split into simple headings covering all possible aspects of play made me consider Garden Book Club in many different ways, not only through content but as an art project on the whole. ‘Play as risk’ helped me consider the audience to which the work was directed and give more thought to the response the project would receive. ‘Rise of the Soulitarians’ examined the role of the internet with play, in turn helping me ask myself questions about the role of my online presence in terms of the work I am currently making. It sparked an interest in including more of an online platform for the newspaper after it had been distributed, in the form of a submission/response website for GBC.

Although I cannot directly make this cognitive comparison for definite, as a child I felt I had one of the strongest imaginations of my peers. I could play alone for hours, for days in fact without the aid of many props or inclusion of any other person. Growing up, I managed to keep hold of this imagination, applying it creatively, dreaming intensely and ensuring it was exercised in fear of it slipping away. I couldn’t imagine losing the ability to think beyond the real world, however hard it was forced upon me to become ‘grown up’. I remember the peer pressure of getting rid of toys, all of which had personalities, a voice and a heart to me. Choosing an academic path that would lead me to studying a creative subject ensured that my imagination was applied to art work, photography and later on, psychology. Never stifled, I was able to weave creative play into my everyday world. It is this imagination that helps me create collages; which in turn were born from a frustration of not being able to translate visions through a type of mundane photography. The world that has been created for GBC is entirely imagined, and intended to be lighthearted and playful. Having the chance and reason to extend my ideas into art helps me produce considered yet arbitrary choices that can be applied to existing theory and current debates within photography and art. A type of adult play I guess? The content of the work is playful- it asks the audience to see it for what it is and take them back to the imagination that work and the demands of life in general may have made them forget about temporarily. Play forms our young selves, and it is important to keep our older selves nourished with types of play accessed through projects such as GBC.

One of the notable play theorists, Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens, argued that play creates a temporary world and an order of its own. Play creates this temporary world, and within the temporary world within the real life, it has the potential to distract. Garden Book Club creates this temporary world. A world where proportion and rationality don’t come into question, a place where plants can take on the roles of humans. These aspects ultimately result in a new form of expression or interpretation of a subject. Huizinga claims that physical and solid arts are not play. They are meant instead to help facilitate play or serve a representational function. In the pataphysical world of GBC however, physical art does not exist, only created characters and scenarios. He explains, “If therefore the play-element is to all appearances lacking in the execution of a work of plastic art, in the contemplation and enjoyment of it there is no scope for it whatever. For where there is no visible action there can be no play”.

 

 

Kane, P. (2004). The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. Macmillan Press

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

 

 

Studio Crit

I have included some photos of the latest studio critique that took place. I curated my space to display some of my latest work and reference points.

Book or Wall? Exhibiting Photography and Collage

Dutch photography critic Ralph Prins (1969) describes the photo book as

‘An autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film.’

The photo book has been a fundamental means of expression and dissemination since some of the earliest practitioners pasted their images into books where sketches would have once sat. 19th century photography’s place was the library or the archive, as it was seen as a tool for making and recording rather than an art form in its own right. In this archive would sit many prints and contact sheets, as well as photo books. When photography was seemingly accepted into the mainstream art world, these photo books were then pulled apart and separated into gallery worthy prints. Photo books have the potential to be much more far-reaching than exhibitions, and can continue long after an exhibition has closed.

I am interested in exploring the value that a photo book holds as an object, as an art piece, or how it can form a vehicle for exhibition or transporting work to a more general audience. An avid collector and admirer of the photo (and artist) books, I am very much inclined to agree with Prins’ grand statement placing the photo book’s value up there with much loved and well established art forms. When presented on their own, photographs may not work as the creator intended. Many photographers shoot work imagined as a series, rather than a singular image. Photographs may lose character as things alone, but can become the words, sentences or paragraphs forming this ‘dramatic event’ called a book, where their message can be translated in a strong and bold manner (Badger, 2004).

 From a pragmatic viewpoint, photo books need a number of elements in order to make them work as an object in their own right, or indeed give succinct reason to why they are presented in such a way. The work inside the book should be able to work as a ‘concise world’ (Gossage, 2002) as well as be complimented by intricate and detailed design decisions to encourage an ongoing interest. After beginning my research into this area, I began to think about what it was about photo books that I loved and why I was insistent on presenting both my photography and collage work (Ducks Nanny, Paradise, Garden Book Club) in such a way, right from the making stages.

Photography viewed in galleries excites me, but at the same time is a little daunting. It seems almost too serious to have your work framed and placed in an empty white space. When visiting shows, I more often than not get annoyed with my own reflection in the frame glass whilst attempting to press my nose up to seek out detail. Photo books do not fill me with this annoyance or feeling of daunt. More often than not the extra detail (or no detail, in some cases) presents me with new information about the ideas of the photographer and how they really want to show off their work. Colour choices, images, text all play an extra part in the photos that are offered up in a photo book. Photography is a mass medium, and one that is exploited each and every day. Photo books manage to carry this mass medium at the same time as embracing both technical and aesthetical aspects of the character. They are tactile objects designed for handling, for owning, for putting on your shelf and reading for reference whenever you see fit. This separates exhibition and publication for me- as nice as seeing shows is, I always want to take them home and remember them forever. Ask me about a show I didn’t manage to get the catalogue for… I won’t be able to tell you much about it. You are encouraged to handle photo books (how else would you read them?) something highly frowned upon in the gallery setting, where barriers or glass often set you apart from the work.

Through my exploration of the history of the photo book as an object, I found that artists in the 20th century embraced cheaply made, easily distributed photo books as a way to free themselves from the ‘deadening of museum culture’, a trend that has continued on and has become an option for replacement of the standard photography show. Photo books can be seen to bridge the gap between the aesthetic and the contextual, linking art directly with the mass medium.

Most contemporary photographers use both exhibition and photo book (of some description, whether it be catalogue, zine, magazine or artist book) to disseminate their work and ideas. At some point in the making of a project, they will ask the question of book or wall, when considering the execution of it overall. In a field where there are countless outputs for work, the final outcome will affect the making of the work to some degree, with photographers gearing their style and project towards huge mural style prints, or using lo-fi technologies with the intention of photocopying their prints into a limited run zine, Daido Moriyama style (Tate, 2012). By deciding these factors, practitioners are also affecting what type of work it will be, whether it will be geared towards a high end commercial gallery or unlimited fertility through production of a book.

The collage work I am producing at the moment begs the question of display. Printed too big, the work becomes advertising. Printed too small, the technical aspects of the pieces are sometimes lost. I have always enjoyed the transferability of a book: between people, between places and making people talk. Presenting my photographic practice as exhibition has always posed issues, as I feel the actual outcome never really meets the expectation of desired outcome in my mind, whether it is due to financial or space restrictions, or time restraints imposed by deadlines. As aforementioned, photos can often be lost as singular images (although sometimes their effect is more powerful alone) and by presenting my current practice as a photo book; it becomes a much more strong and constructed project as a whole. In previous blog posts I have discussed my work being more concerned with the process than the outcome, and by producing a photo book I have managed to encompass both elements by being entirely in control throughout, and being satisfied with the outcome at last.

Badger, G., Parr., M. (2004). The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.

Gossage, J. (2002). As cited in Parr, M., Badger, G., (2004) The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.

Prins, R. (1969) In conversation with Cas Oorthuys, quoted in Bloom, M., Suermondt, R., (2002) Photography Between the Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photo Book After 1945. Fragment Uitgeverij: Amsterdam

Tate Gallery (2012) Daido Moriyama Printing Show. [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/music-and-live-performance/daido-moriyama-printing-show accessed 6th May