Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beachlife one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, they’ve turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French join with expresso machine, but a down at heel, flyblown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking brandenburg cakes. You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thiailand, the Sioviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely gender (meaning all women are oppressed), diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed), same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed), imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed), and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed).

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire ouevre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

165 Annual Open Exhibition @ The Royal West of England Academy

Open exhibitions like this are a pleasure to stroll round because there is no narrative, no history or biography or grand issues to engage with: just art and your reactions to it.

The Royal West of England Academy was founded in the 1840s. The current building was built in the 1850s with details added just before the Great War. The academy was granted its royal charter in 1913.

This is the 165th year of the RWA’s Annual Open Exhibition. Over 2,000 pieces were submitted from which the judges selected 624 pieces. It’s similar to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition except:

  • it’s held in Bristol
  • it’s held in the autumn, not the summer
  • it’s smaller

There are paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, mixed media and videos. As at the RA Summer Exhibition, almost all the pieces are on sale.

Main room at RWA 165

Main room at RWA 165

The majority of the works are paintings. I liked the mysterious forest fragility of this one.

Swimming with mules by Nicola Bealing. Oil and spray paint on linen (£19,000)

Swimming with mules by Nicola Bealing. Oil and spray paint on linen (£19,000)

On the Antiques Roadshow the other day an expert referred to a painting very like this next one in appearance as a good example of the ‘New English Art Club’ style, meaning blotchily realistic. There are always entries like this at the RA. It seems to be a permanent style or ‘look’ in English art. Unflatterinb realism.

The nurseryman by Martin Bentham. Oil on linen (£4,850)

The nurseryman by Martin Bentham. Oil on linen (£4,850)

At the other extreme (maybe) is ‘conceptual’ art, in this case a series of photos of several rolls of tape with words on – I think they all have ‘menopause’ written on them which allows the artist to create verbal and visual puns.

The Menses Tapes by Rachel Ara. Digital print (£340)

The Menses Tapes by Rachel Ara. Digital print (£340)

Jason Lane had several entertaining sculptures of birds made from random bits of waste metal.

Circus Bird by Jason Lane. Reclaimed steel (£1,450)

Circus Bird by Jason Lane. Reclaimed steel (£1,450)

In fact I found myself drawn much more to the sculptures than the paintings and drawings. They seem more engaging, more varied, and often more obviously humorous as in this collection of cartoon figures by John Butler.

Limewood sculptures by John Butler (£480)

Limewood sculptures by John Butler (£480)

Or this joke piece by Bev Knowlden

Pop Up Moses by Bev Knowlden. Iron resin (£350)

Pop Up Moses by Bev Knowlden. Iron resin (£350)

That said, amid the flood of visual images I found myself drawn to this – as far as I can tell – completely naturalistic photo of a boxing ring – not something you see in art much – framed in the flat, complete, square-on style I like most in my photos.

Spaniorum Farm Gymnasium by Stephen Lewis. Digital print (£565)

Spaniorum Farm Gymnasium by Stephen Lewis. Digital print (£565)

There are several featured artists in the show and one is the photographer Tom Hunter, represented by three haunting big prints made of abandoned quarries. Unfortunately too high up on the wall and too reflective of the gallery lights to be worth snapping.

One of the visitor guides explained that over the past few years it’s become a custom for the second (smallish) room in the show to be entirely of works in black and white – the monochrome room. What a good idea.

The monochrome room

The monochrome room

The pieces varied from straightforward (if imaginative) black and white photos…

On King's Play Hill, Wiltshire by Richard Draper. Giclée print on archival paper (£480)

On King’s Play Hill, Wiltshire by Richard Draper. Giclée print on archival paper (£480)

… to a stunning sculpture which reminded me of the taut early carvings of Jacob Epstein/Eric Gill…

Odysseus by Reece Ingram. Marble (£4,750)

Odysseus by Reece Ingram. Marble (£4,750)

… through to this simple but striking and humorous piece…

Coming Out by David Backhouse. Bronze (£6,000)

Coming Out by David Backhouse. Bronze (£6,000)

… and this extraordinary work which is made entirely of poppy seeds and which won the show’s Creativity Award.

Seeds to the wind by Jon England. poppy seeds and varnish (£2,200)

Seeds to the wind by Jon England. Poppy seeds and varnish (£2,200)

Through the doors and back in the world of colour was a crazy cubist-looking piece which, on closer examination, turned out to be made entirely from old wooden school rulers.

Lost and Found by Rose Vickers. Wooden rulers (£2,900)

Lost and Found by Rose Vickers. Wooden rulers (£2,900)

I made an effort to look beyond all the fun sculptures to the flat images, the paintings and photos and drawings and prints. Probably the most striking of these was the stunningly good-looking Dominique by Philip Munoz. This is actually what the world of images outside art galleries often looks like – adverts on buses, hoardings, in newspapers and magazines – glamour, fashion, movies, models, music videso.

This image raises the question of why so much contemporary art so determinedly turns its back on the real world ‘out there’, in favour of deliberately abstract or fragmented or degraded images. Maybe it feels it can’t compete. But it can, as Philip Munoz’s amazing painting shows.

Dominique by Philip Munoz. Oil on linen (£7,500)

Dominique by Philip Munoz. Oil on linen (£7,500)

When I go round the RA Summer exhibition with the kids we play various games to keep ourselves motivated, including Find the most expensive work (alongside find the smallest/largest work). As far as I could see this appears to be the priciest item on display, by none other than Christopher le Brun who is the current president of the Royal Academy and one of the ‘invited artists’ featured in the show.

Paean by Christopher Le Brun. Oil on canvas (£72,000)

Paean by Christopher Le Brun. Oil on canvas (£72,000)

The Le Brun piece perhaps explains why it’s easier to relate to sculptures: by definition, sculptures have to be free standing, they have to have a presence in the world. Maybe it’s harder to make a rubbish sculpture than a rubbish painting. Maybe three-dimensional objects are always more interesting than two-dimensional ones because they present more angles and information to our restless, calculating, predator brains.

For whatever reason, I kept being attracted away from the paintings on the wall towards the sculptures in the hall.

Etch by Linda Kieft. Stoneware (£1,800)

Etch by Linda Kieft. Stoneware (£1,800)

And a lot of them seemed to be both figurative and humorous. Because I saw an Ai Weiwei sculpture up the road at the Bristol Art Gallery the day before, I still had his work in mind. Ai has done scores and scores of sculptures which are not funny or amusing. Clever, visually striking, yes – but not sympatico. Here in Bristol, for some reason, almost all the sculptures had a winning warmth and humour.

Uprising by Tom Astley. Clay, paint, jesmonite and bronze resin (£1,850)

Uprising by Tom Astley. Clay, paint, jesmonite and bronze resin (£1,850)

I liked this entanglement of lizards, beautifully modelled, brightly coloured…

Alchemical fire by Manuel Calderon. Bronze casting (£35,600)

Alchemical fire by Manuel Calderon. Bronze casting (£35,600)

… and was very taken by these three guys on a bench. They’re the kind of undetailed slabby humanoid figures you often see not just in art galleries, but in life-sized humanoid sculptures around city streets. But here they were set off by the more detailed imagery in the paintings and drawings on the nearby walls, which gave them an extra sense of freedom and spaciousness. They made more sense in a gallery than on a street corner.

Trilogy by William Cramer. Bronze figure, aluminium figure, silver leaf resin figure on stone base (£2,000)

Trilogy by William Cramer. Bronze figure, aluminium figure, silver leaf resin figure on stone base (£2,000)

Then there’s plain quirky.

Launch of yellow skyrocket and sputniks by Morag MacInnes. Clay. (£600)

Launch of yellow skyrocket and sputniks by Morag MacInnes. Clay. (£600)

This exhibition is great fun, warm and humane, varied and stimulating, entertaining and thoughtful.

If you could have one and only one of these pieces free of charge – which one would you choose and why?


Related links

Reviews of other Bristol art shows

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