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 In the 7 or so minute video playing in a side room Parr speaks of his love of things looking out of date.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

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?”

“Yes”

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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