I first came across Martin’s Parr’s photography at the Only In England exhibition at the Science Museum a few years ago, but it turns out I’m way behind the curve: Parr is one of Britain’s best-known photographers. To be precise he is
- a documentary photographer
- a photojournalist
- a photobook collector
with an impressive 40 solo photobooks and 80 exhibitions worldwide to his name.
Parr uses his camera to produce deadpan, documentary-style, images of the way we live now, unstaged scenes of real people, not models, going about their daily lives, here in an unsparingly recorded England of ugly people and dismal weather. Thus apart from any aesthetic considerations, his photos have value as sociological and anthropological investigations.
Above all his photos are of people, caught in motion, unbuttoned, behind the scenes, in photos which are often taken on the hoof, sometimes blurred or out of focus, sometimes not on the level, askew, not perfectly framed. Not beautiful architecture or artefacts or art – he’s about people in all their rumpled humanity.
This unsparing quality is helped by the fact the images are in colour. Black and white immediately distances a photo, begins to make it look ‘classic’. These unposed colour images have all the embarrassing immediacy of holiday snaps.
Photographer in residence to the City of London
Parr approached the City of London with the suggestion of becoming its photographer-in-residence, and took up the post in 2013. He was given unrestricted access to all aspects of the ancient, venerable and sometimes peculiar traditions, costume and people who populate the famous ‘Square Mile’.
This exhibition is the first display of the work he’s created during that period and consists of over 100 photographic prints showing the people and the numerous events – the ceremonies, traditions, processions, banquets and public occasions which make up the calendar of this historic location. 40 or so are about a foot tall and displayed together but the majority of them are huge, a yard wide or more. Their informality is emphasised by the lack of formal frames: the prints are pinned to the walls.
The City is home to numerous medieval guilds whose outfits, officers and observances have lived on into the present day. Thus we see photos of members of the Mercers Company, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the Worshipful Company of Glovers, of cavalry officers, the Bishop of London, the Gentlemen of Trinity Hospital Greenwich, the Town Clerk, Sheriff and – of course – the Lord Mayor, from 2013-14 Fiona Woolf.
The overwhelming impression was red. Red seems to be the ceremonial colour for an awful lot of institutions and organisations. The red robes of the Mercers Company, the red robes of the Aldermen, the red outfits of the Company of Watermen, of the Lord Mayor, and so on. I was particularly struck by a group of Musketeers, in red tunics with brown leather belts and straps, looking like an illustration from the Civil War.
There’s an obvious military link because right up until the Boer War the British Army wore bright red coats and were known as the redcoats. This is made unmissably clear because the exhibition shares the downstairs space at the Guildhall Art Gallery with John Singleton Copley’s vast history painting, The Defeat of The Floating Batteries at Gibraltar which, although a naval scene, is packed with red-coated soldiers.
Why red? Was it an expensive colour? Did it stand out from the muddy browns and blacks of the poor? As it happens the walls of the exhibition itself were a bright red fabric onto which the prints were pinned. Hooray for red!!
I counted only two photos without people in, both conveying a forlorn sense of abandonment. The only one which approached the condition of an ‘art’ shot, was a perfectly framed pic of a white bench in front of a whitish wall at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich, on which sat six formal black top hats laid neatly – but not too neatly – in a row. That I would buy. That one I could see in the Royal Academy Summer Show.
The rest, though, are more anthropological than artistic. The interest is surely in how strange people are. What are they wearing? What are they doing? Why are they so unprepossessing? Why are they all holding little posies of flowers? You can feel their self-importance coming off them in waves, you can imagine the braying upper class voices, but also the nerves and the teeters of confusion as the procession forms up.
It’s this unsparing quality – the sense that the people in his photos are really exposed and vulnerable, not at all at their best, not as they’d like to see themselves – which prompts some critics to see Parr’s works as satirical, as much more bleakly anti-human than they at first seem. That he is quietly ridiculing his subjects.
Certainly there are some very unattractive people on display, a cadaverous man, all teeth and medals, standing behind a barrier in the rain at the Lord Mayor’s show, and a group of old men from one of the worshipful companies who look like a troupe of medieval gargoyles.
… or humanist?
I suspect Parr’s attitude is broader than this: he takes what he sees and what he sees is people, in all their unlovely, unaesthetic reality. And their ambiguity. They are what they are. Some people might see these venerable organisations and their antique customs (beating the bounds, swan upping on the Thames) as ludicrous and irrelevant; conversely, some people might revel in our historical traditions (and enjoy the booklet accompanying the show which contains a comprehensive Glossary of the People, Places and Events of the City of London featured in the photos). Some people might find the photos unfairly emphasise the ungainly and ugly in their subjects; others might find them honest and candid.
But I think this is the artfulness in Parr’s art, an art which completely conceals itself while it reveals everything about the viewer. I happen to have recently read a number of history books comparing stuffy English law and homely tradition with the lawlessness and horrific violence of some of the mid-20th century alternatives, with the stylish black-and-white photos and beautifully shot films full of strong-jawed heroes and athletic heroines fighting for the Fatherland or creating a Workers’ Paradise. Next to those images, of perfect youthful bodies martialled into orderly phalanxes, the subjects of Parr’s photos seem clumsy and awkward, bumbling in their fur-lined tunics and silly hats.
Nick Kenyon, head of the Barbican, spoke at the launch of the exhibition and was eloquent in his praise of Parr who he called him one of the greatest living English artists. One phrase he used stood out for me, when he praised Parr for his very English qualities of ‘tolerance and humanity’. If there are no beautiful people or carefully staged shots or iconic moments in these photos, if they’re full of not-particularly-attractive people caught at awkward moments wearing funny hats – it is because they are us.
We are the English, a messy mongrel people, the people who queue for hours to wave our little Union Jacks in the pouring rain. Who keep up the embarrassing traditions and the lovely costumes because they mean something to us. Because your Dad did it or because you always wanted to dress up and drive a coach in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.
It’s not a dazzling exhibition. The publicity might make you think it’s about the pomp and circumstance of the City and its traditions and then you’d get here and be disappointed by scrappy-seeming images of milling crowds and hurrying waitresses and middle-aged men absurdly dressed like 16th century cavaliers. And then slowly, cumulatively, if you let them, I think these images subtly convey a ‘deeper’ patriotism, an unillusioned affection for the oddities and awkwardness and embarrassment of being English.
- Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr continues at Guildhall Art Gallery until
- Martin Parr’s website
- Martin Parr Wikipedia article
- Only In England exhibition
- Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery