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

The Great British Seaside @ the National Maritime Museum

‘Don’t take boring photos’ (Tony Ray-Jones)

To my shame I hadn’t been to the National Maritime Museum since it added a new exhibition wing back in 2011. The new wing is a startlingly modern, light, bright and airy building with a number of galleries showing the history of the Royal Navy through the centuries across two floors.

The temporary exhibition space is down some wide stairs (or you could take the swish glass lift) into a light airy reception area, then through swing doors and into half a dozen large, well-lit rooms.

The Great British seaside

It’s a simple idea. Bring together photos of the British seaside by four great English photographers of the past forty years or so. To quote the exhibition blurb:

From the abandoned piers to the dazzling arcades, celebrate the British seaside through the lenses of Britain’s most popular photographers, featuring Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts and new work by Martin Parr.

Examine the ambiguities and absurdities of seaside life through this major exhibition of over 100 photographs. All four photographers share a love of the seaside which reveals itself in playful and often profound representations of the British by the sea while still bringing their own distinctive take on the seaside experience.

Ray-Jones gives us a social anthropologist’s view, Hurn’s is a nostalgic love letter to the beach, Parr provides an often-satirical examination of class and cliché while Roberts explores our collective relationship with, and impact on, the coast.

The Great British Seaside includes images from the archival collections of each of the photographers, new films, and new work by Martin Parr.

Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) 20 photos

Three years ago the Science Museum held an exhibition, Only in England, which featured black and white photos by Tony Ray-Jones, and was curated by Martin Parr. Both there and here, Ray-Jones emerges as a brilliant, inspiringly acute observer of the quirks and oddities of the English. A big wall label quotes his aim:

‘I have tried to show the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people.’

In the mid-60s Ray-Jones set off on a two-year-long mission in a camper van to capture the oddness of English life: he was worried about the creeping Americanisation infecting English life (as, I think, every generation since about 1920 has been) so he wanted to capture in photographs the enduring and endearing qualities of the English before they disappeared.

The result is a treasure trove of black and white images of the English bravely enduring the grim weather, cobbly beaches, and freezing winds of their inhospitable seafronts.

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Ray-Jones’s images show working class people wearing thick clothes, in respectable haircuts or wearing cloth caps, the women in shawls and cardigans, gathered into protective groups, munching on sandwiches, sharing round the thermos flasks of tea, squashed into deckchairs, with a tin of Fray Bentos corned beef part of the general picnic.

There’s an image of one old man wearing a thick suit and shirt, a cloth cap on his head, with his trousers rolled up, standing in seawater up to his knobbly knees. Ah, the English!

The overwhelming impression is that the English don’t know what to do with their seaside. They treat it as in inconvenience which has somehow invaded their living rooms – so the old ladies on show here have clustered together behind their tied-together windbreaks, put on extra layers to keep warm, and continued knitting or reading the paper as if they were still indoors.

For the most part, the adults don’t know how to dress or behave. A million miles away from being ‘beach body ready’, the old boys figured here are still wearing their best suits, the old ladies their necklaces and even decorative hats.

Only the kids, the under-12s, have a clue. For some reason they are licensed to wear swimming trunks and actually go into the sea. Maybe it was seen as a childish thing to do while the old (who look really, really, really old) paddle in the shallows or warm up another brew on the carefully protected gas heater.

A handful of pictures of badly dressed, long-haired teenagers snogging on the beach under the disapproving stare of a deckchair attendant make you realise this is not the 1930s or 40s. These young lads could be Mods, but even their provincial gracelessness makes you realise what a long, long time it took for the shiny London fashions and liberal attitudes of the 1960s to penetrate beyond the bright lights of Swinging London.

Here’s a trendy young woman making herself at home on the horribly cobbly beach at Brighton and playing singles on her Dansette portable record player. I wonder what the singles are. More importantly, and so English, she is on a seafront beach fully clothed.

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967© Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967 © Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

David Hurn (b.1934) 20 photos

The Museum has taken a lot of time and trouble to stage the exhibition, including a number of humorously seaside-themed accessories, for example a little flowerbed width of white cobbled stones in front of some of the exhibition walls.

Among these features is a ‘Seaside Cinema’, a kind of fairground booth decorated with pavilion-style stripes and its name beaming out in shiny fluorescent lights. It has one or two life sized stuffed seagulls perched on the walls. Alas, it is not showing ‘What the Butler Saw’ or other saucy seaside entertainment, but the rather more worthy content of four 3-minute videos, one for each of the photographers in the show.

These films turn out to be extremely useful, revealing insights into the biographies and approaches of the three surviving photographers, in particular. YouTube has a brief selection of clips from them which give you a good flavour.

In his video interview, David Hurn emphasises his own working class roots in the coal mining community of South Wales. He was born in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression and he remembers as a small boy how the mines used to close for two weeks for safety and repairs and so entire workforces and their families went on holiday at the same time. He remembers whole villages catching trains down the valley to the coast en masse.

Thus some of his photographs feature people who he knew all lived in the same street, for example a classic photo of a group of twenty or so fully dressed adults who have created a circular windbreak and are all huddling against the chill wind on an otherwise deserted beach. They’ve paid for their holiday in windy Aberavon and they’re damn well going to enjoy it.

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004© David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Possibly his most striking photo is of an attractive young woman in a bikini lighting a cigarette, watched by a more traditional family who are slouched, fully dressed, against a wooden groyne. It is a striking image in itself but lends itself to numerous interpretations. The old boy and his wife are looking on disapprovingly, the adult son is looking on with – shall we guess – lust in his heart, his wife can’t be bothered. And bikini-ed babe herself? Represents a kind of Julie Christie breaking free of the shackles and limitations of grim, repressed English physicality.

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr (b.1952) 41 photos

Why has Parr got twice as many photos as the other three? This becomes clear when you walk into the room titled ‘The Essex Seaside’ where a wall label explains that the National Maritime Museum commissioned Parr in 2017 to take photos of London’s beach resorts i.e. the ones within easy train journey of London. Whitstable, Margate and Ramsgate on the North Kent coast suggest themselves, let alone the obvious Brighton, but Parr ended up concentrating on resorts along the Essex coast of the Thames Estuary.

Hence there is a room giving a selection of his seaside photos – like the other three – PLUS this extra room devoted to 20 photos from the Essex seaside project.

COLOUR

But the most important development is that, as you enter the Martin Parr section, the exhibition changes from the black-and-white and fairly standard print size of Ray-Jones and Hurn, into a new world of vivid colour and BIG prints.

Martin Parr is colour photography with a vengeance.

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

There’s no doubting that Parr’s images are big and bright and striking. But coming directly from looking closely at the grainy old images of Ray-Jones and Hurn gives the visitor a strong sense that with colour something is lost and something gained. I tried to figure out what and why:

BLACK AND WHITE

  • gives a a feeling of history, a mood of nostalgia, conjured by the old clothes, old hairstyles, old ‘looks’
  • black and white photos are somehow more homely, unthreatening, even inviting
  • in black and white photos all elements of the composition are equal; there is a kind of democracy of details – you are drawn to elements of the composition in structural or diagrammatic terms i.e. shapes and patterns, lines and shadows, are much more prominent or discernible

COLOUR

  • big colour photos undoubtedly have an advert-type ‘hit’, are more prone to deliver impactful images – but the downside is the loss of subtle integrated composition you get in black and white

The more I looked at Parr’s big professional photos the more I found the garish colours disparate, jarring and distracting. There’s a huge print of an Asian woman on a beach with her head leaned far back, finishing off a big green bottle of Sprite. Your eye is immediately startled, grabbed, overwhelmed by the greenness of the plastic bottle, and by the vivid colours of her husband’s top and her nearby son’s t-shirt.

After half an hour spent cultivating a sensitive approach to the subtle details in the works of Hurn and Ray-Jones, it is like someone has turned up the volume to earsplitting level.

Somehow, in colour photos like these, the main central image tends to shout, to dominate and drown out the wealth of smaller, minor details which are what make the black and white photos so quaint and – dare I say it – endearing, lovable almost.

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Where black and white warmly invites you in, colour pushes the viewer away.

In his video interview in the ‘Seaside Cinema’, Parr makes a number of revealing points.

Experimentation One is how, over the course of his career, he has experimented with different cameras and different lenses. Recently he has been using a long lens. This explains works like the massive print showing a woman in the centre of shot wearing dark sunglasses in which her entire face is strongly out of focus.

I didn’t like this photo at all, but can see how it forms part of a continuum of technical experimentation which might intrigue and instruct other photographers and students.

Cruelty A few years ago I visited an exhibition of Parr’s work devoted to London’s annual Lord Mayor’s Show or, more specifically, to the bedraggled visitors and crowds who come up from the suburbs and out of town to line the route of the parade despite the fact that, the year in question, it was tipping down with rain.

It was in reviews of that exhibition that I first read the criticism that the clarity and detachment, and the vibrant colours which Parr uses, can often result in images with a harsh and even a humiliating clarity.

There is a ghost of contempt for his human subjects hovering around some of Parr’s big, unsparing photos of poor, fat, tasteless chavs and their pitiful seaside amusements. Something merciless.

Photography as therapy This suspicion was confirmed by the video about Parr in the ‘Seaside Cinema’. An amiable, easy-going-sounding bloke, he explains that he has had a love-hate relationship with Britain all his life and that his photos are a sort of therapy which help him work through his feelings.

His comments really crystallise something about these big, garish, colour photos, which show the English in all their obesity and bad clothes, inhabiting a decayed world of derelict bus shelters and overflowing litter bins. Not very far beneath the surface briliance is contempt and, maybe, even despair at the wretched human condition.

None of the works by Ray-Jones nor Hurn make you feel that.

Simon Roberts (b.1974) 21 photos

The fourth ‘Seaside Cinema’ video, in effect an extended interview with Simon Roberts, is just as interesting and revealing, as he explains his approach, his aims and techniques.

Among other things, Roberts says that he likes to take photographs from above and to prove it we saw footage of him standing on the roof of his traveller van parked on some beachfront esplanade, and photgaraphing downwards onto the beach.

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Raising his point of view like this means that many of his photos have not only a horizon and foreground but what he appeared to call a ‘midriff’.

In this central stretch of the image Roberts is at pains to look for narratives, stories and incidents. Thus, in the photo above, the pier provides the horizon and there’s the dad digging in the foreground who provides maybe the foreground focus of the image – but there’s a whole load of other small narratives going on all over the ‘midriff’, to distract and amuse and entertain the viewer.

The Roberts room is the final room of images and what became obvious was:

1. The size of the prints – some of them are simply huge, even bigger than Parr’s, several yards across

2. The emptiness – the example shown above is a relatively standard example of a seaside snap, with a pier and people in the sand – but a lot of Roberts’ images really aren’t actually like that at all. The best ones are Big and almost Empty. I realised after looking at them for a while that two things were going on on these bigger, more atmospheric works:

1. He has an almost classical regard for the horizon. There is almost always a horizon in his seaside photos and the horizon is always horizontal. Sounds obvious, but the horizon hadn’t been much of a concern for the previous three photographers; often the sea level was quite obviously wonky because the photographer was concentrating on the human subjects in the foreground.

Not so in Roberts’ work:  in almost all his 21 photos there is a dead straight horizon and it is exactly parallel to the top and bottom of the frame, giving the whole thing a very composed and classical feel.

2. And the second thing is how many of his beaches are almost empty. Striking examples are:

Some of them are more cluttered with people, seafront roads and buildings than these two, but there were quite a few others which managed to transform the English beach into not only a surprisingly beautiful but even a haunting and spiritual location.

The progression of images

The human mind has evolved to find patterns even where there aren’t any.

I went back to the start and walked slowly back through the exhibition, noticing the progression from minutely detailed black and white sociological studies (Hurn and Ray-Jones) which reek nostalgia for a black and white 1960s, then turning into studies of long-haired layabouts from the 1970s – which suddenly and dramatically morphs into the big, brash, supercoloured images of Martin Parr, a vulgar brashness we might associate with Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s and Tony Blair’s 1990s – and then the show ends with a completely unexpected turn into Roberts’s genuinely haunting and spectrally beautiful images from the 2000s.

I don’t know if we can draw any conclusions at all from this progression, but that’s how it felt.

Effort and staging

I mentioned the tremendous effort the National Maritime Museum has gone to in order to make the staging and setting of this exhibition really special.

This photo shows you the ‘Seaside Cinema’ booth in the background (alas, you can’t see the stuffed seagulls) and a row of deckchairs laid out in front of some photos by Martin Parr.

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Outside the exhibition itself, in the main ‘lobby’ area, they’ve gone to the trouble of creating a ‘British Seaside set’, complete with an enormous backdrop, two deckchairs and various blow-up plastic seaside toys, all designed for you to sit in with your mates and take selfies of each other.

The nearby gallery attendant kindly offered to take a photo of me and I was tempted for a moment to roll up my trousers and put in a knotted hankie for the occasion, like one of the old boys in a David Hurn photo, but managed to resist the temptation.

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Conclusion

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, on one level a sociological tour of the English and their seaside holidays, a social history of changing attitudes and seaside dress; on another level a selective history of the development of photographic technique and attitude over the last 50 years, taking the seaside as its guiding thread.

And, on a simpler level, it just contains lots and lots of beguiling, striking, brilliant, repellent and haunting photographs.

And the funkiest take-home message for any budding photographers?

In his video interview David Hurn says that one of the most important things he ever learned from Tony Ray-Jones was – to wear comfortable shoes. The good photographer, the really inquisitive, curious, exploratory and investigative photographer, is going to be on his or her feet for up to twelves hours a day in order to catch that perfect moment, that perfect shot.

By all means invest in good kit, in good cameras and lenses and the rest of it but also – Respect Your Feet!

The promotional video


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Other photography reviews

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers @ Barbican Art

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, packed with poignant, arresting, funny and striking images, beautifully laid out, thoughtfully designed and carefully displayed.

The exhibition

It is an exhibition of photographs of Britain in the 20th century as observed by foreigners. 

Leading British photographer Martin Parr has chosen generous selections from 23 international photographers who visited Britain between the 1930s and the 2000s to convey how they captured the social, cultural, and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. As Parr explains, the subject matter maybe familiar (or over-familiar) to us inhabitants of these rainy islands – but seen through alien eyes and lenses it becomes something new and unexpected. Hence both familiar and strange at the same time.

Each photographer has an alcove or room to themselves with a selection of around 20 images each. Reading the lengthy wall labels about each photographer and then paying careful attention to each image is a profoundly pleasurable and satisfying experience but also very filling. It took me a good hour and a half just to do the top floor (13 photographers).

Photobooks

Alongside the photos on the wall, the exhibition is lined with display cases containing rare and out-of-print 20th century photobooks. In fact Parr, in his introductory speech at the opening of the exhibition, explained that the whole project arose from his habit of showing and sharing his own extensive collection of photobooks about Britain and wondering what a wonderful idea it would be to display their images more publicly.

Some of the photobooks are directly related to the exhibits on the walls; but others include work by photographers not actually included in the show (like several featuring the work of László Moholy-Nagy and, the one that caught my eye, The Battle for Waterloo Road with photos of bombed-out London by American photo legend Robert Capa). It is another element which adds to the feeling of profusion, of a super-abundance of imagery and art.

Accessible design

The exhibition is designed by London-based architects Witherford, Watson, Mann, and is noticeably stylish, subtly varying the colours of the walls, the way the photos are hung (different patterns and layouts for each photographer), for the way there are benches scattered about for the strolling punter to sit and reflect and, most strikingly, for the big ‘library’ space on the ground floor with tables and chairs and a generous selection of photobooks to sit and leaf through. It is a photography fan’s dream come true.


Part one – the first floor

Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-73) (15 photos) studied at the Bauhaus and was a communist émigré from Germany who married an English doctor and then used photography as a left-wing instrument to awaken social consciences. She took photos of the poor in London, south Wales and the industrial North East, among the slum housing of Tyneside.

Edith Tudor-Hart. Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

Edith Tudor-Hart – Gee Street, Finsbury, London, ca. 1936 © Edith Tudor-Hart / National Galleries of Scotland

She was also, the exhibition casually mentions, a world class spy for the USSR, who helped in the recruitment of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spies, which muddies your perception of her imagery and your sense of her motivations. But there’s no doubting the power of her photos and the variety of locations she was able to access.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) (24 photos) One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment set out a theory of how to capture a moment which tells a story, and the 24 photos here are certainly vivid and telling moments in the great civic pageants he chose to attend (the coronation, Royal Ascot etc).

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, 12 May 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Just from these first two photographers you get a strong sense of:

  1. England (not the rest of the UK)
  2. in fact, lots of London
  3. the weather’s awful, grey skies or rain
  4. toffs in hats…
  5. … contrasted with abject poverty

Robert Frank (b.1924) American photographer and film director (15 photos) the selection here is taken from his work London/Wales, a photobook resulting from his photographic forays into London (top hats, posh) and the coal mining districts of South Wales (bleak, poverty-stricken).

Six of his 15 photos were of miner Ben James or his family, depicted in their knackered poverty. There’s one of him washing his upper body in a tin baby bath in the front room which really brings home the privations of the period.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Of strong left-wing sympathies, American photographer Strand visited the Outer Hebrides in 1954 and took a series of photos there. Compared to the naked poverty recorded by Tudor-Hart, Strand’s portraits of the islanders seem highly posed, and they radiate the pride and dignity of their subjects. He is one of the few photographers in the exhibition to snap inanimate objects, framing square-on shots of natural or man-made material which powerfully captures their grittiness, their feltness. He feels more consciously artistic than the previous three.

Cas Oorthuys (1908-75) (24 photos) Dutch photographer Oorthuys was a left-wing artist in the 1930s. In the 1950s he collaborated on a series of pocket travel books featuring, among other locations, London and Oxford. There were the usual London buses, relaxers in Hyde Park, students at Oxford, they are all very well done, but I found his images a little posed.

Cas Oorthuys - London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Cas Oorthuys – London, 1953 © Cas Oorthuys / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) (22 photos) Larrain was from Chile and came to visit and photograph Britain in the winter of 1958-59. He brought a consciously modernist or arty approach, with shots deliberately taken at angles, from odd vantage points, with deliberately out of focus elements, all giving a sense of buzzy black-and-white dynamism.

Sergio Larrain - London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain – London, Baker Street underground station 1958-1959. © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Larrain’s photos (and the preceding works) all give the accumulated sense of a hard-pressed, dogged people living in a cold, depressing climate, and dominated by the top hats of the effortlessly posh.

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) (20 photos) a German émigré to the US, Hofer provided the pictures to several 1960s photobooks, text by V.S.Pritchett, made during visits to England in 1962 (black and white) and 1974 (colour). She used a 4 x 5 viewfinder camera which was, apparently, cumbersome and slow. Hence her photos, especially of people, look very static and posed which, cumulatively, gives them a distinctively formal and rather solemn feel. Posing at a wedding.

Bruce Davidson (b.1933) The American Davidson is represented by 13 b&w shots from his trip here in 1960, and five colour pics from 1965. His photos of Brighton and Hastings beach make the English seaside look the forlorn pitiful thing it so often is.

Gian Butturini (b.1935) The Italian Butturini visited England in 1969 and captured images of the late-period Swinging city, hippies, stoned parties and loud gigs, which resulted in his coolly laid-out photobook, London. After soaking up 150 powerful images of poverty and discomfort, it is a relief to see some people actually enjoying themselves.

Frank Habicht (b.1938) A German, Habicht was a freelance photographer in the 1960s when he came to London and produced the photos which went into the photobook, We Live In London. London was, by all accounts, a permissive paradise, which means lots of beautiful young women took their clothes off, and his 12 photos here are the first to show a bare boob. The sight of these happy, scantily clad young women makes you stop and reflect what an incredibly long way the country had come in just thirty years from the bleak 1930s poverty so powerfully depicted by Tudor-Hart. (Not that we should make the common mistake of forgetting that lots of the country continued to live in one-up, one-down, outside toilet squalor for decades to come.)

In 1967 and again in 1969 American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-84) travelled through the UK, using a wide angle lens and creating deliberately askew compositions.

  • man in bowler hat
  • posh man wearing monocle
  • man in kilt playing bagpipes in a public toilet
  • woman in top hat standing by a huge phonogram

Winogrand’s 24 images confirm the cumulative sense that England is neither nice nor lovable, and how little its essential infrastructure has changed: terraces of brick houses, cracked paving stones, ugly unhappy people, dogs barking at each other. The commentary says these photos are little known and this appears to be confirmed by the way I can’t find any trace of them on the internet.

Candida Höfer (b.1944) German photographer Höfer takes a very conceptual approach to photography, exemplified by her visit to Liverpool in 1968, the city of poets and the Beatles. But instead of bohemian hi-jinks, this installation shows precisely 22 square black and white photos arranged in a Teutonic grid shape, which strongly convey a sense of loneliness and alienation among the 1960s developments, in the windy bus stations, the grimly functional waiting rooms, the soon-to-be-demolished tenements and eerily empty docks.

Candida Höfer - Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Candida Höfer – Liverpool IX (1968) © Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Akihiko Okamura (1929-85) Japanese photojournalist Okamura moved to Dublin to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland right at the end of the 1960s. His work from this time is represented by 23 low-key, colour photos which I found absolutely brilliant – showing army barricades, road blocks, demonstrations and bombed out streets, and spots where civilians have been wounded or killed – but all underplayed and understated. Probably the most powerful is a simple image of six milk bottles on a doorstep – amid so much mayhem and death, it is impossible not to feel terrified by their fragility and vulnerability.

Akihiko Okamura - Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Akihiko Okamura – Northern Ireland, 1970s © Akihiko Okamura / Courtesy of the Estate of Akihiko Okamura, Hakodate, Japan

Gilles Peress (b.1946) Frenchman Gilles Peress is represented by an installation of 51 black and white photos presented as a continuous band along the wall, titled The Prods, the result of annual visits over nearly two decades to Northern Ireland. These were brilliant, ad hoc snaps, blurred, exposed, capturing people, life, a culture, in a stream-of-consciousness visual narrative, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching, two kids standing on the crappy brick gateway to a church, Protestant couples snogging after a march or lying in the sunshine.

Part two – Downstairs

Downstairs are ten photographers covering the period from 1977 to the present day, these works are generally a) in colour b) shown as massive prints.

Shinro Ohtake (b.1955) Ohtake is ‘one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists’. He came to England in 1977, year of the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols, understanding nothing of the language and began photographing everything he saw, and also collecting detritus and ephemera and pasting them into scrapbooks. He is represented here by 24 big b&w photos arranged in a 4 x 6 grid of so-so scenes, plus display cases with maybe 100 small prints – so-so because they descend to almost everyday level ie are not as strikingly special as much of the work on offer elsewhere.

Tina Barney (b.1945) American, Barney’s portraits of the British upper classes are huge, three or four foot tall, colour photos of people posed in semi-formal surroundings. Because of their scale and colour, the commentary refers the tradition of big formal oil portraits and maybe there is the ghost of John Singer Sargent buried deep in these images (very deep). Big shots of two Eton boys, a waiter and customer in a posh restaurant, the butler attending on the owner of a big country house in the drawing room by a formally laid table. The commentary says they ‘touch’ on class ie they record the rich. The example below is the only one which doesn’t capture an overtly well-heeled subject.

Tina Barney - The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Tina Barney – The Red Sheath, 2001 © Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

Raymond Depardon (b.1942) Frenchman Raymond Depardon was commissioned to make a photobook of Glasgow and so came to visit in 1980. But his images of a city ravaged by unemployment and industrial decline were, in the end, turned down for being too depressing. The series is represented by 21 colour shots of drunks passed out in the street, urchins in back alleys, derelicts outside gambling shops, more drunks huddled in the gutter, a boy crying against a boarded up shop front. What a terrible place to be a child, or a human being.

Rineke Dijkstra (b.1959) From the Netherlands, Dijkstra came to prominence for her series of teenage girls on a beach (two of them are currently on show at the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A). In 1994 she came across the Buzz Club in Liverpool and was fascinated by the queues of under-dressed teenagers waiting outside in the shivery cold. She took a series of portraits of these young teenagers, represented by three massive colour examples here. I found these heart-breaking examples of the way barely pubescent girls are pushed into wholly inappropriate clothes and behaviour by an adult society obsessed with sex.

Jim Dow (b.1942) American photographer represented by six very big colour photos from his series Corner shops of Britain – no people at all, just the interiors of the disappearing breed of small local shops, a nostalgia for chippies, corner stores, haberdashers,  a general store, a woollen shop. Entirely empty of human presence, the humanity captured in the array of dowdy products.

Axel Hütte (b.1951) is a latterday representative of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity which flourished between the wars, recording with Teutonic precision modern social architecture. His 12 big b&w shots are empty of people, instead recording the lines, spaces and vistas created by Peabody estates, 1960s tower blocks, concrete walkways and stairwells of Brutalist concrete. I like clear lines, squares, rectangles, formality, so I warmed to these frigid images.

Bruce Gilden (b.1946) American Gilden was commissioned to take images of people in and around London, leading to the photobook A Complete Examination of Middlesex (2011), then another project to record the working class of the West Midlands, recorded in Black Country (2014). He is represented by six absolutely enormous colour photos in extremely big close-up of some staggeringly ugly English people, the faces of the men an exploding landscape of skin disease, scars and acne, and the several women all grotesquely made up, spouting hairs and wrinkles. It is quite an assault on the senses to face such ugliness in such unremitting detail.

Hans van der Meer (b.1955) Dutchman van der Meer goes to the other extreme, with his project to photograph Sunday league football matches. From an artfully placed step-ladder he uses a wide angle lens to capture the breadth of muddy football pitches on which the players scamper like matchstick figures, in fact the commentary points out his debt to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting in which teeming figures swarm over, say, an iced-over lake. The eight very big colour photos here were commissioned by the National Media Museum in Bradford in 2004.

Hans van der Meer - Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

Hans van der Meer – Mytholmroyd, England, 2004 © Hans van der Meer / Courtesy of the Artist

The final room in the exhibition is given over to a video which, on closer examination, is a silent slideshow of hundreds of colour photos taken in the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham by Dutch photographer Hans Ejkkelboom (b.1949). He has arranged the images into grids and sequences according to similarities of dress, colour, shape, design, logos, patterns of what people are wearing etc. The commentary says he is ‘questioning the construction of identity and self-representation’, which means he is pointing out that huge numbers of people fondly imagine themselves to be individuals while wearing the same mass-produced tat. The slideshow is haunting and hypnotic and a fitting finale to an amazing show.


Thoughts

What an immense cultural change took place in the 30 years between around 1935 and 1965! It didn’t affect the majority of the population but still, it began opening doors to new ideas and higher expectations of life which are still clanging open for every succeeding generation.

Recurrent images

Certain topics are so recurrent as to become clichés – London with its top- or bowler-hatted gents in the City, and its posh extensions to Ascot or Glyndebourne, private school children and nannies in the park, London buses, the London Tube – compare and contrast with working class poverty, the slums of the East End or Liverpool or Tyneside or Glasgow, the terrible lives of South Wales coal miners, there are lots of urchins in countless back streets. And then a horrible glut of images from our very own civil war in Ulster.

Absent topics

Which makes you reflect on the subjects which aren’t here. Britain had quite a big theatre, classical music and art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing of that here. In fact, Britain along with the United States more or less invented rock music and spawned some of the biggest names in pop and rock and disco and punk. Nothing here.

Although we all live in cities, the British are notoriously sentimental about our countryside which can be ravishing, from the cliffs of Cornwall through the rolling West Country to the mountains of Wales or the spectacular Lake District. Nothing of that here. We are also a nation of gardeners, in love with thousands of species of flower and plant. Not reflected here. We invented football and cricket and rugby. Not here (with the exception of Hans van der Meer’s Sunday league shots, the exception which proves the rule).

People

It’s overwhelmingly an exhibition of people, and people on the streets or in urban settings (with the notable exceptions of Hütte’s empty housing estates, Dow’s empty shops and Höfer’s derelict Liverpool).

I wondered if this is some kind of intrinsic bias in photography itself, which biases it towards the human face and form?

Are people just more interesting than buildings or hills – is the part of the brain which processes faces and expressions and postures capable of infinite stimulation?

Or, if you’re a freelance photographer and paid to produce a photobook on London or England, do you dare not include buses and taxis and men in bowler hats? Is the narrowness of the subject matter a function of the photobook commissioning process?

Or, given that the entire show is curated by Martin Parr who has a well-documented fascination with the strangeness and quirkiness of people, does the focus on people and the absence of many other ‘British’ subjects reflect his particular interests?

Or a bit of all three?

Trends

A few obvious trends emerge over the 70 years the show covers.

  1. The prints get bigger – a LOT bigger, reflecting maybe the technology which allows for bigger prints, maybe the trend for photographers to think of themselves as Artists, commanding the same size and status as painters.
  2. More colour – As you approach the present day more of the photos are in colour. Colour, as I noticed at the exhibition of Martin Parr’s big colour prints at the Guildhall Art Gallery – is more unsparing of its human subjects, showing up blemishes and imperfections. Black and white for romance and glamour (even scenes of poverty have a certain nostalgia in black and white); colour for irony and satire.
  3. Cynicism – As a result of the above two trends, the most obvious thing about the more recent photos is their distance and detachment, bordering on cruelty. Tudor-Hart or Strand’s photos are full of compassion. Modern colour photography, on this showing, is characterised by its heartlessness.

Photography and identity

One wall label suggests that it is a ‘timely’ moment for an exhibition like this to shed light on our national identity, at a time when the independent or devolved nations are threatening the complete unravelling of the United Kingdom. But is it?

That unravelling shows no sign of happening any time soon. And, anyway, the show doesn’t shed any systematic light on cultural identity – instead it captures scattered moments, personal views, or aspects of quite narrowly conceived photographic projects: only tiny aspects of Scotland (the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s, the mean streets of Glasgow circa 1980) or Wales (lots of miners), and only the Ulster of ‘the Troubles’. And time and again England is represented by London and London is represented by the same shots of buses and bowler hats, cheeky chappy market traders or hippies in Notting Hill.

So I don’t think the exhibition sheds that much light on issues of national identity. I just think it’s a massive collection of quite brilliant photos, which can be enjoyed in their own right as works of art and, taken together, comprise a fabulous journey of discovery through the visual worlds of some of the world’s greatest photographers. What’s not to love?


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition engages with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera. (Press release)

This is a good exhibition to visit if you like arty photographs or bare boobs. Several points emerged:

Saturation

1) 500 images across 14 rooms is too many to take in: either you begin skipping whole walls of images in search of something, anything, novel and distracting, or you’d have to give each image and each set of photos a really thorough scientific scrutiny, but be prepared to come back on several visits.

2) This links into the broader thought that almost all these images come from the golden era before the internet. Nowadays, we are bombarded, saturated, awash in countless billions of images, as well as being able to take limitless selfies with our phones and tablets, to crop and treat them an infinite number of ways, to post them in a million places or send them to anyone, anywhere. The images on show here come from Before The Fall, from when taking photographs was an achievement, a distinction, and they carry a certain aura of privilege and authenticity.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

People It’s fairly obvious but took a while to sink in that the exhibition’s focus on photography and performance dictates that the images are overwhelmingly of the human body, clothed or unclothed. No buildings, trees, landscapes, cars, architecture, nature, seas or forests. 500 photos, almost all of them black and white, of people people people. You can get a bit bored of photos of people.

Performance Also, strikingly, there were relatively few photos of what most people might first think of when they hear the word ‘performance’ – almost no photos of actual theatrical or film performances, no famous actors or performers.

Art stars, yes – Warhol, Koons, Beuys, Man Ray, Duchamp. But this is ‘performance’ defined in quite a narrow, art-school kind of way to mean 1960s ‘happenings’, Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp-style posing, and scores of ‘art performances’.

Take, for example, the African photographer who takes self-portraits of himself dressed as iconic black figures; the Japanese photographer who took a series of images of himself in the bath; another Japanese photographer who took a series of a young man almost naked who, in each successive photo, has an additional playing card stuck to his body until he is completely covered in cards; the women photographers who take shots of themselves naked with various props.

Performance in that sense. Performing for the camera.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Series And a bit more reflection made me realise the sheer number of images follows naturally from the way the photos come in series and sets. The photos recording performances and ‘happenings’ – a bunch of young people strip naked and are painted with psychedelic swirls and circles in some 1960s happening; Japanese art students carry placards across a road junction in Tokyo then trample them to the ground; some other Japanese students drop objects with small parachutes from a tall building – naturally require quite a few shots to convey the full action events, so it is not unusual to come across series of 20 or more photos, whole walls covered with images recording one ‘event’.

Naked women

1. There were quite a few images of naked women. Less than half the total, probably less than a quarter of the images, but still a steady stream of boobs and loins and shapely female bodies, which prompted a few thoughts.

2. Without exception these were young white women, ablebodied, in their 20s and 30s. There are shots of  two or three happenings taken by male photographers – notably the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender who became well-known for photographing avant-garde and counter-cultural performances. But most of these images of naked women are self-portraits of the photographer by herself.

3. The wall labels go to some lengths to explain that these naked ladies set out to ‘subvert’ conventions, raise issues of gender identity, and the other half dozen or so phrases used on these occasions. But what you actually saw was a lot of images of scantily-clad young women. In the first three rooms I counted 43 photos of naked women. Later highlights included:

Hannah Wilke made a number of 1970s ‘performative works’ of herself in which ‘she used her own body to challenge ideas of spectatorship and desire’. In the series, Super-T-Art (1974), we see 20 b&w images of her wearing a toga which, oops, slips off her shoulders and exposes first her breasts, then all of her. With the best will in the world I don’t see how this is challenging anything: it looks to me like it is wholeheartedly taking part in the opposite of challenge, in the marketing and distribution of images of naked women and, worse, of images of a perfect, very American, healthy young female form, precisely the kind of image which helps to create the general social environment in which most women feel some measure of guilt and anxiety at failing to live up to this kind of idealised image of femininity and sexuality.

Adrian Piper took 14 self portraits of herself – Food For The Spirit – some in a dress, some in panties, some butt naked – the twist is they are very underexposed so at first sight appeared to be completely black. Only on by peering quite close to the print could you start to make out the image of the artist – and suddenly realise you are looking at a skinny young naked woman.

In 1999 and 2000 artist Jemima Stehli asked male art critics to sit in her studio while she stripped naked in front of them. The critics had control of a camera which was placed behind her as she stripped, an angle which catches the critics full face, squirming with embarrassment or grinning with enjoyment and captures her slowly declothed body from the rear. Strip consists of 56 big colour images of Stehli taking off her jeans and bra and panties until she is standing splendidly naked, apart from black high heels which make her look exactly a Bond girl from a movie poster. Apparently this work ‘explores themes of voyeurism, spectacle and control.’ I admire the phrasing and the art school rhetoric of this explanation, but Stehli is also a stunningly shapely woman, and she chose to strip off, photograph herself and hang scores of images of herself naked on gallery walls. As my son pointed out, so she’s making a career out of selling naked photos of herself? Er, yes. In case you were disappointed at the way all these shots are of her rear, Stehli has thoughtfully published numerous photos of herself naked from the front as well.

Carolee Schneemann: Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963). The artist naked adorned with various props and paints found in the studio. The density and clutteredness and the abandonment of the poses (and the density of her pubic hair, something not seen so much these days) dates the images to an era when graphic full-frontal nudity still had the power to shock.

4. There were some naked young men in the 1960s ‘happenings’ photos, and some scattered elsewhere throughout (particularly young Japanese men). But it was a room dedicated to the way art superstars of the 70s and 80s used photos to dominate press and PR, in the form of posters and magazine covers featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Joseph Beuys, that brought home to me the contrast between the naked women and the clothed men.

Contrary to all the claims in the wall labels that women artists taking their clothes off somehow ‘subverts’ convention, it in fact screamingly asserts and confirms society’s worst sexist assumption, which is that women, asked to be creative, to do or say something, can only start with their bodies, use their bodies, think of their bodies first. Whereas men asked to do something creative have ideas, insights, make things external to them, come up with gags or performances or plays or art works – and remain fully clothed throughout.

Warhol, Koons, Beuys, photographers Martin Parr and Lee Friedlander – all fully dressed, having creative, insightful, novel ideas.

Amalia Ulman, Jemima Strehli, Hannah Wilke – when prompted to do art – take their clothes off, resulting in the same tired old images of lovely, young naked women. Just a few score more naked women to add to the tens of millions of naked women who overflow the internet, newspapers, magazines, adverts, TV, film, everywhere.

I’m not saying this is true of these women artists actual practices and achievements. I am saying this is the unfortunate impression which this selection and this hang and this exhibition gave this viewer on this particular visit.

Fully clothed women

It was a relief to see the work of women photographers who had not got their kit off, such as the wonderful sequence Seven Twists by Dora Maurer, one of the standout pieces of the Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitehall Art Gallery.

There was just one photo of/by Sarah Lucas, Fighting fire with fire, enough to convey her wonderful ‘fuck you’ attitude. Could have happily seen some more.

Cindy Sherman was represented by a number of photos she took of herself mocked up as stereotypical characters from fictitious movies; and a different series of her with no make-up shrouded in a dressing gown which was constantly threatening to fall off her naked body. Looking her up online I got a sense of Sherman as much more interesting than the selection here made out.

Some of the naked exhibits

Twenty two b&w photos of Yves Klein’s 1960 art event, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, in which several gorgeous women stripped naked in front of a po-faced audience wearing formal evening dress, and then painted their naked bodies and pressed themselves against canvases to create art.

Man Ray – Erotique Voilee. There were a few other tiny Man Rays later, one of his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressing up as a woman. You’d have thought Man Ray’s entire oeuvre consisted of stunning ‘performances’ and so justified hundreds of entries here, but no – two was your lot 😦

The Anatomic Explosion i.e. 20 or so b&w photos of naked young men and women on Brooklyn Bridge in the heady 1960s, along with another sequence of young people getting naked at a party in a studio, both shot by the cool, avant-garde team of Harry Shunk and János Kender.

Jimmy de Sana’s sequence of stylised art photos of male and female nudes in odd poses from the 1980s.

A whole room was devoted to Francesca Woodman who started taking photos as a child and took reams of photos of herself as a young woman, clothed, half clothed or bare naked, often posing in derelict, empty rooms. To her, personally, this may have been a brave voyage of self-exploration – and I am sensitive to the eerie, disconnected atmosphere in many of the photos, which are genuinely haunting.

But to the viewer who has already seen several hundred bare boobs by this stage, Woodman risks, in a photo like Untitled, just falling into line with all the other nubile young women in our culture who seem so keen to get their kit off. Half of them do it for the Sun and ‘glamour’ mags and are looked down on; the other half do it for ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and have respectful feminist monographs written about them. The vibe I got off these photos of unhealthy self-obsession was joltingly confirmed when I read that she committed suicide aged 22. The more I looked at her photos, the more powerful I found them…

Orphée by Tokyo Rumando, a sequence of black and white photos of the artist standing in front of a mirror which ‘explore Anxiety and fear, dark desire and pleasure, decadence and madness, and then death and the void’ — but for which it’s important that she is often topless.

Whatever else they are meant to be ‘questioning’, ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’, absolutely none of these photos question the fundamental axiom that the best kind of body is young, white and female, a whole, taut, streamlined, slender female body with brown-tipped nipples and prominent pubic hair. The old, the fat and ugly, the disabled, the disfigured, women with mastectomies or C section scars or the countless other marks of time and disease – are 100% absent from this large selection.

The most contemporary work seemed to be Amalia Ulman‘s series including Excellencies and Perfections (below). Once more a woman photographer is ‘exploring’ something or other by taking countless photographs of herself and her body in all manner of costumes and poses, often very scantily clad. Probably this does reflect contemporary selfie culture which, more than ever before in human history, foregrounds and values and sells perfect young, smoothly unlined women’s bodies in unprecedented numbers – except the ones doing the posing, packaging, commodifying and distribution are no longer the male publishers of porn mags, but the young women themselves. Maybe that’s progress…

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Exhibits with their clothes on

Eikoh Hosoe‘s b&w pictures of rehearsals for plays or films stood out because of their exotic setting and the foreign dress and faces of the performers. Also featured is his Kamataichi, a collaboration with the choreographer and founder of the Butoh movement Tatsumi Hijikata, from 1969. There are extraordinary shots of a male performer running wild in the rice fields, leaping in front of traditional houses, grimacing and leering into the camera. Incomprehensible but tremendously dynamic. What is the meaning of the man in make-up with a parasol on a wooden bridge?

Nadar, the most famous 19th century French photographer, active in the 1850s and 1860s. Stage performers came and posed in his studio, in an era when performance meant putting interesting costumes on instead of taking all your clothes off. The 20 or so photos here include shots of Charles Deburau acting out poses as the character ‘Pierrot’ and Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth.

A sequence of photos showing how Yves Klein’s over-familiar leap into the void photo was prepared, staged and manufactured.

Many of the performance sequences were shot by the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender, two of the most important photographers to have worked with performance artists. Their photos of various ‘happenings’ in the New York of the 1960s show how sweetly and naively young people from that time thought that taking all their clothes off said something or changed anything.

Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei (beneficiary of a recent massive retrospective at the Royal Academy) is represented by the iconic trio of photos of him dropping and smashing a supposedly valuable Chinese vase. The prints are vast, over 6 foot tall, maybe 5 wide, as merits Ai’s outsize reputation. The only other images as large were those of Warhol and Koons and Beuys in the PR and marketing room, making you realise that Ai is the contemporary equivalent of those masters of press and marketing.

I liked Erwin Wurm‘s photos of instant sculptures, people imaginatively using household props to create unlikely poses e.g. lady on oranges. Tate invited Wurm to give two events explaining and showing visitors how to create one-minute sculptures.

Two of Wurm’s pics here were from a separate sequence using the supermodel Claudia Schiffer. They’re fun and creative and the best thing about them is the way she keeps her clothes on, so that she comes over as a person and not as a body. I like the orange motif. Who suspected that oranges could open up a whole new world of performance art?

Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits 2008, in which the artist photographs himself in the guise of iconic figures like Malcolm X and Miles Davis. The hang affects your perception of the images. These prints were a) very big, 203 foot tall b) hung as a regular grid (as opposed to a row of pics or an irregular patterning, as some others are). The effect was to give them a pleasing sense of order and symmetry before you even considered the subject matter.

British photographer Martin Parr (who also has an exhibition of photos, Unseen City, at the Guildhall Art Gallery) was represented by Autoportraits, a series of images where he’s superimposed his very English, slightly gormless-looking face onto a variety of the trite, kitsch backdrops found in photographers studios around the world. Charmingly eccentric. Note the way comedy or surrealness comes over better in colour.

In a break from the overwhelming majority of black and white photos, there was a series of sepia prints by Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism. The wall label was a bit difficult to follow, but I think these are simply photos of himself, wife and friends on holiday in the Crimea, during which they amused themselves by ‘posing’ as people on holiday, playing up to stereotypes of tourists and holidaymakers, performing for the camera. If anyone who plays up for the camera in their holiday snaps is an artist then the world is over-run with them.

I liked Keith Arnatt’s series of gardeners in their gardens  but I wondered what they had to do with the theme of ‘performance’. If you call gardening a ‘performance’ then almost any kind of activity can turn out to be a performance and the word ceases to have much meaning.

A wall of unsmiling self portraits by veteran American photographer Lee Friedlander. He captures himself in different poses, as anybody who takes a selfie does. Whether these qualify as ‘performances’ I couldn’t quite decide. Certainly he has an ‘eye’ for an arresting composition…

Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is represented by a series of images of his wife in various clothes on various days seen from the window of their apartment – From Window (1974). I’d like to add something clever and intellectual but it did seem to just be a series of photos of his wife going off to work wearing a different outfit each day.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

He is also has a separate series of b&w pics of himself in a bath – Bukubuku (Bubbling) from 1991.  Very tight close-ups of his face, above the water, under the water blowing bubbles, half-submerged, and so on. I particularly like the one of him wearing a dapper hat, shades and smoking a fag in the bath. With art school pompousness his Wikipedia article describes these as ‘Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical if somewhat morbid game of solitaire that charts new territory for the photographic self-portrait.’

Niki de Saint Phalle appeared in the Global Pop Art exhibition in these very rooms a few months ago, represented by her shooting art works where she filled sacks with poster paints, tied them to canvases and covered the lot in whitewash. She then invited friends and fellow artists round to the shooting gallery at the rear of her studios, where they were given guns and told to shoot the canvases. The Pop Art show included some of the resulting whitewashed canvases covered with spurts of colour paint. Here we have a sequence of b&w photos of her making the canvases, shooting the guns, organising her pals into firing squads and so on. Everyone is wearing clothes. Odd, really, that these works were all about chaotic spurts of colour and yet all the records of it are dully monochrome.

Favourites

  • Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces I and II. Simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
  • Harry Shunk and János Kender’s sequence of 27 photos of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe rehearsing and performing. Here the blurred or somehow treated outlines of the human form assume a science fiction otherness. Can’t find any of them on the internet.
  • David Wojnarowicz’s sequence Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Wojnarowicz printed out the French poet’s face from the iconic Étienne Carjat 1871 portrait of him, cut it out and attached elastic to make it a strap-on mask, and got various native New Yorkers to wear it in their everyday settings. Simple, funny, stylish.

Conclusions

The press release claims the exhibition ‘shows not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.’ OK.

It was possible to look at all the photos, read all the wall labels, read the programme and press release and assimilate all the information, insights, opinions and interpretations and still emerge with your understanding of the basic axioms of photography completely unchanged: Naked or scantily clad young women are artistic. Black and white is artistic. (Colour pics are less forgiving, more tacky, better suited to irony.) Men doing wacky things is artistic (jumping out windows, dropping vases, playing bubbles in the bath). The rule seems to be: Men do, women strip.

Oh, and the 1960s and 70s overflowed with avant-garde art most of which is now, frankly, embarrassing.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr @ Guildhall Art Gallery

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.

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

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

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, 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 – Parr is 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.

Cart Making, Guildhall, City of London, 2015. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Cart Making, Guildhall, City of London, 2015. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

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 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.

Forty or so of them are in prints about a foot tall and displayed all 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.

Silent Ceremony, swearing in of new Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Silent Ceremony, swearing in of new Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, Guildhall, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Red

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!!

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

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

People-free shots

I counted only two photos without people in them and both conveyed 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.

St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Satirical…

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.

Election of the new Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Election of the new Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

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 Nazi Fatherland or creating a Workers’ Paradise in the Soviet Union.

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 it was your ambition since your were a child to dress up and drive a coach in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

It’s not a dazzling exhibition. The publicity might make you think it’s about the pomp and circumstance of the City and its grand 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.


Related links

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector @ the Barbican

‘This is the first major exhibition in the UK to present the fascinating personal collections of post-war and contemporary artists.’

The exhibition

14 rooms or alcoves displaying selections from the private collections of 14 post-war artists from around the world, alongside one or two works by each artist in question, the idea being that knowing something about the artist’s tastes and favourite objects throws light on their work.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector - Installation images Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

I M U U R 2 by Danh Vo, based on Martin Wong’s collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Since the artists are so very varied – and their tastes in objects extremely varied – the overall effect is like wandering round a particularly eclectic and high-class junk shop. There is no Grand Narrative, no Big Idea, just a diffuse collection of bric-a-brac reflecting a diverse mix of artists and practices which we are at liberty to stroll around and enjoy as the fancy takes us. And lots of it is very enjoyable.

The artists

Arman (1928-2005) French-born American artists whose selected work is the fabulous Home Sweet Home II (1960), a cabinet stuffed with WWI gas masks. His alcove was sparingly decorated with a selection from his collection of wonderful African (and a few ancient Greek) masks and helmets. Like a little bit of the British Museum landed in an artist’s studio. This was by far the most ‘tasteful’ room, by which I probably mean the one which looked most like a typical exhibition or gallery space with the objects hung sparingly in their own space.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Arman room Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

African masks in the Arman room
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Peter Blake (b.1932) his selected work is Kamikaze (1965). Blake will be forever associated with the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album which typifies a kind of 60s amused, nostalgic fondness for the relics of English life, and that’s very much the feel of his collection, exemplified by – among a lot else – nostalgic metal shop signs, a large collection of elephant figurines, a wall full of masks from all cultures and traditions.

Hanne Darboven (1941-2009) her selected work is Mitarbeiter und Freund (1990), 91 wood-framed prints of  deliberately average amateur photos, presumably of friends and family in restaurants and at dinner parties. Poor. She was an associate of the New York minimalists such as Carl Andre, Sol leWitt et al. The collection of jumble and lumber filling her alcove – a life size Charlie Chaplin cut-out, an enormous wooden horse, organ, lampstands, a typewriter, a toilet etc – was much more interesting than her work.

Edmund de Waal (b.1964) his selected works are from the collection of a private man (2011), several shelves of small round or tubular white ceramics. De Waal is a London-based potter and writer who won a wider audience with his book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) and who is represented here by stones and fossils and some of the 264 netsuke (small hand-carved objects used in traditional Japanese dress as toggles for kimono robes) which he inherited from his great-uncle Ignace Leon von Ephrussi. The hare with the amber eyes (or a hare with amber eyes) is prominently displayed but I was surprised by a tiny ceramic of ‘Ama suckling an octopus’, which reminded me of some of the images in the British Museum’s Shunga exhibition.

Damien Hirst (b.1965) his selected work is Last Kingdom (2012) from the Entomology series, echoing the display cabinets of Victorian animal collectors, pinning same-sized specimens of butterflies spiders etc into neat rows. Hirst is a keen collector of contemporary art but also of natural history objects, tools and specimens and we are treated to glass cases containing a stuffed lion, a stuffed vulture, stuffed armadillos and a neat array of human skulls.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Vitrine of objects owned by Damien Hirst Barbican Art Gallery - 12 Feb – 25 May 2015 © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images Courtesy Murderme Collection

Vitrine of objects owned by Damien Hirst
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery – 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images
Courtesy Murderme Collection

Howard Hodgkin (b.1932) selected work In the studio of Jamini Roy (1976-9). Hodgkin acquired an interest in India and Indian art when he was at school at Eton and his is a small room hung with ten or so, presumably valuable and choice, examples of classical Indian art which left me cold. Liked the Persian carpet, though.

Dr Lakra (b.1972) Mexican artist who started as a tattooist, represented by a set of cut outs of dolly birds from 1950s magazines whose bodies he has covered with intricate tattoos – Frante al EspejoMosquitoes (Google images of Dr Lakra’s work). His room mainly consists of one wall lined from floor to ceiling with obscure kitsch album covers, no fewer than 184 in total! with several loudspeakers playing hammy music suspended above them. As I walked up to the space, it was playing the theme from the 1960s TV show Batman. Any friend of Batman is a friend of mine.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Dr Lakran's record covers Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Dr Lakran’s collection of record covers
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) a leader of New York minimalism, LeWitt collected work by friends and contemporaries, classic European photos, stylish Japanese prints as well as the earliest scores of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He recorded his life in a vast book of photos, Autobiography (1980), a selection of which are displayed here as 60 frames each displaying 18 small photos neatly lined up.

Martin Parr (b.1952) British photographer who specialises in the tackiness of modern life. His works were five photos of iconic tourist destinations looking uncomfortably packed and thronged – titled Venice 2005 and Macchu Piccu 2008. Since the 1970s Parr has been collecting thousands of tourist postcards, with which his exhibition room is covered – b&w or early technicolour images of late 1950s/early 1960s cars, tower blocks, holiday resorts, Trust House Forte motorway service stations, the Totton bypass (!), airplane travel, 1960s cars – funny, evocative, nostalgic, a vanished world. Not to mention his collection of memorabilia commemorating Soviet space dogs, represented here by no fewer than 43 space dog mementoes.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Some of Martin Parr's space dog collection Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Some of Martin Parr’s Space Dog collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Jim Shaw (b.1952) American artist whose selected works are Decapitated Okapi 1 and Decapitated Okapi 2 (2014). Shaw has amassed a large collection of thrift-store paintings, cheap, anonymous poor quality works which, taken together, is still rubbish.

Hiroshi Sugimoto (b.1948) Japanese photographer, spent decades as a dealer in Japanese artefacts and folk art, keeping many of the best pieces for himself, and eventually exhibiting the works intermingled with his own photos, the ones featured here being odd b&w photos of Madam Tussauds exhibits, The Hanging and Benjamin Franklin.

Andy Warhol (1928-87) his selected works are some fish-themed wallpaper (1983) and silkscreened boxes (1964). Warhol bought and hoarded compulsively: when his collection was auctioned off after his death it turned out to contain over 10,000 objects and took ten days to flog: a vast treasure trove of every conceivable kind of junk, kitsch, novelties, consumer objects. In one cabinet stood a selection of the ‘famous’ collection of 175 kitsch ceramic cookie jars he was known for.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Some of Andy Warhol's cookie jar collection Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

A small sample of Andy Warhol’s cookie jar collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Pae White (b.1963) Los Angeles-based, Pae has large collections of ‘the kitsch, the decorative, the everyday’, including no fewer than ‘3,000 textiles by prolific American designer Vera Neumann (1907–93)’. A selection of these fabrics, are hanging from the ceiling in her alcove in an installation titled Cloud Clusters (2005) and it is mildly dreamy to walk among them letting the delicate multi-coloured forms brush against your face’

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Pae White's collection of Vera Newman scarves. Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Pae White’s collection of Vera Newman scarves.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Martin Wong (1946-99) collected some 4,000 objects representing ‘East Asian art and culture, Americana and kitsch’. When artist Danh Vo (b. 1975) came across the collection he tried to interest galleries in buying the collection, rearranged and interspersed with Wong’s own works (paintings of dice and brick walls) and titled I M U U R 2, and eventually sold it to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.


There is nothing so beautiful as a list

The show includes:

sculptures, statues and souvenirs, cut-outs, curiosities, collectables, candelabra and cuckoo clocks, postcards, prints, pots and photographs, pianos, helmets, masks, ceramics, boxes, packing cases, paintbrushes, crates, typewriters, birdcages, 1960s badges, old games, golfballs, marble skulls, stuffed birds, stuffed armadillos, anatomical models, a box of glass eyes, a toilet, cuckoo clocks, wall clocks, musical instruments, chamber pots, clay pipes, dinosaur bones, paperback books, a cheeseburger-shaped lampstand, Japanese armour, radios, antique pistols, street signs, Soviet space dog mementoes, wind-up toys, old movie magazines, a life-size cut-out of Charlie Chaplin, tattered newspapers, desk clocks, cigarette cases, a barometer, cigarette holders, scarves, bedsheets, duvet covers, towels, shells, fossils, stones, ivory carvings, metal shop signs, classic dolls, trinkets, Mr Punch, cabinets of curiosities, Victorian screens, ventriloquists’ dummies, vintage postcards, mouldy mousetraps, old bottle openers, matchboxes, buttons, bills, balls, stalagmites and stalactites, a postal order, a boot hook, Roman pots, leaves from Hadrian’s villa, a stone from the Brontes’ house in Haworth, wrestling memorabilia, a complete set of leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannicas, ceramic fruits, plastic Donald Ducks, coffee, tea and tobacco tins, a champagne bottle, statue of liberty souvenir statuettes, novelty lamp stands, bird feathers, teaware, Chinese scrolls, ‘sambo’ figurines, a big stuffed lion, an enormous wooden horse.

In some ways this impressive hodgepodge of lumber, this jumble of rummage, complements Tate Britain’s exhibition of Folk Art, which also showcased a miscellany of non-art objects, prompting all sorts of thoughts about ‘beauty’ and ‘authenticity’, individual creation against mass production, classics versus knick-knacks, quality versus dreck, as well as sheer pleasure and amazement at a bottomless cornucopia of kitsch.


Conclusions

Two thoughts arise from this highly heterogeneous show:

1. William Morris said:

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

This show proves conclusively that, like all Morris’s other hopes (for an equal society, for human work to be enjoyable and creative), this one has been comprehensively trampled underfoot. No civilisation in history has generated so much mass-produced tat, has come so close to drowning in a sea of its own cheap assembly-line detritus.

Peter Blake's dolls collection Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015  © Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

Peter Blake’s dolls collection
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector
Barbican Art Gallery 12 Feb – 25 May 2015
© Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images

2. It is news to me that artists’ collections are beginning to be thought of as art works and purchased by galleries. Partly the result of curators’ and scholars’ ever-expanding definitions of what is and isn’t art, but also a function of the biggest single art movement of our time – global capital’s insatiable quest for new investment opportunities. Not only are scholars and intellectuals pushing at the borders of what is ‘art’, what is collectible and buyable; so are people with money, lots of money.

The collections sampled here may be marvellously diverse and varied but the mere fact that they’ve been assembled into an exhibition like this strongly suggests that they are all destined to end up in art institutions or bought by businessmen; certainly, as the books in the shop indicate, they have already become a new area of academic investigation – and of potential investment.

It would be sad if this disconcerting disarray of objects, a liberating heterogeneity which reflects the diverse characters and compulsions of their collectors, originally sited in disparate and improbable locations around the globe, and which offer all sorts of odd pleasures, diverse ways of escape and unpredictable insights, were destined to be stored in air-conditioned sterility and homogenised into subjects for scholarly study and calculating asset management.


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Reviews

Only in England @ the Science Museum

This is a fabulous exhibition of black and white photographs of ordinary English life in the 1960s and 70s. It’s divided into three sections:

  1. Photos of English life by pioneering b&w photographer Tony Ray-Jones, taken 1965-69.
  2. Early photos by English photographer Martin Parr, from his first work, The Non-Conformists, a five-year project to photograph the people and life of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire from 1974-79.
  3. Photos by Ray-Jones selected by Parr from the 2,500 negatives held in the Ray-Jones archive in Bradford, and exhibited here for the first time.
Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

1. Tony Ray-Jones (1942-72)

Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 from leukaemia, aged just 30. After studying photography in England in the late 1950s he went for further study in New York between 1961 and 1964. The exhibition explains that in America ‘the street’ was much more a focus of outdoor life and community and was much more photographed and described than in rainy England.

When he returned to the UK in 1965, Ray-Jones was determined to apply the American aesthetic to record the quirks and character of English street life and his pioneering approach to the drama and narrative of ‘ordinary’ life became hugely influential on all succeeding photographers.

The exhibition commentary picks out the importance of the seaside resort as a kind of quintessence of Englishness and the exhibition is full of images of stoic holidaymakers braving bad weather while drinking tea. In image after image Ray-Jones captures that special atmosphere of drizzle and disappointment only to be experienced in a rainy English seaside resort. As Martin Parr points out in the short film which accompanies the exhibition, England’s seaside resorts are often less changed than inland towns. In some ways being at the seaside is like travelling back in time.

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones spent the later 1960s travelling extensively all over England, observing human beings in all their eccentricity and quirkiness. He was photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life, aware of the onrushing encroachment of Americanisation, of consumerism, of white goods and conveniences which was replacing the England of back-to-backs, outside loos and heavy prams.

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones made extensive preparations for his visits to each location, treating his work almost as an anthropologist’s project, setting out to learn about the place and people he was about to study. The exhibition shows his notebooks along with lists of books and articles to read. He was also fond of writing lists of dos and don’ts to himself:

  • stay with the subject matter
  • be patient
  • vary composition – Be aware of composition
  • Get in closer. ‘If a photograph isn’t interesting enough you’re not close enough’ – Robert Capa
Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

I think two closely-related things are going on in these photos, to do with narrative and composition.

  1. Narrative The commentary talks about the influence of film, comedy, maybe even cartoons on Ray-Jones’s eye for narrative, by which it means his eye for dynamic interaction between his human subjects. Something is always happening, often something ordinary and small, but something dynamic nonetheless: the woman in the second row of deckchairs giving us a baleful look; the beauty contestant wiping her mouth while the young man at the counter admires her bum and the old man sips his tea oblivious to both; lots of things in the Ramsgate photo; and the interplay between the four men and dog in the Morecambe photo can also be studied and pondered and enjoyed for some time. These photos are wonderful because they show us how rich and strange and complicated the most mundane of human moments are.
  2. Composition The frame is full with incident always occurring at the edge. Your eye is drawn to the people at the edges, and then back to the central figure(s), who are often interacting with figures at the periphery, after looking at which you look again at the central figures – in a repeating loop, as you discover more and more disconcerting or odd or amusing details – making the experience of looking at these photos very dynamic and rich. Another photographer might have been content to frame the three beauty contestants, as quite a lot is going on with just them. But Ray-Jones widens the frame to include the old man drinking tea and the whole group at the desk or cupboard, turning a snap into something more like a short story with half a dozen characters all interacting in ways only their glances and looks and bodily attitudes can reveal.

2. Martin Parr b.1952

Martin Parr is, according to the exhibition, one of the most successful and interesting photographers working today. Born ten years after Ray-Jones, he was inspired by his photography course at Manchester poly in 1973 to be more personal, to incorporate elements of narrative into his pictures. He had discovered Ray-Jones’s photos in the year of his death and was very influenced by their power and depth. The exhibition features a set of prints from Parr’s first work, a five-year-long study of life among the hill farmers and non-conformist chapels of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire which resulted in a book The Non-Conformists.

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Like Ray-Jones, Parr also felt he was documenting a vanishing way of life, visibly so as the congregations in the chapels aged and died and weren’t replaced by the young, distracted by the ever-widening consumer culture. I loved photos of the Hebden Bridge Mouse show and pigeon competition or an evocative image of the 1977 jubilee celebration tables abandoned in pouring rain. Parr’s prints are bigger and easier to read and enjoy than the early Ray-Jones ones, which required a bit of bending into and using glasses. Not only are they bigger but their use of space is cleaner and more monumental. He tends to have one person or only a few people as the focus, unlike the impression of teeming multitudes given by many of the Ray-Jones’ photos.

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

3. Martin Parr selects Tony Ray-Jones

In the third part of the exhibition, Parr was invited to make a new selection of over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. This archive holds some 2,500 contact prints, vastly more than the 80 or so photos included in Ray-Jones’s only published work A Day Off: An English Journal, unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1974.

The short film in the exhibition has Parr sharing the excitement of opening and seeing some of the collection for the first time, being amazed by not only the number of images, but the memorabilia and especially the notebooks which Ray-Jones kept. The images from this section were printed bigger than the earlier vintage stuff, remastered or something to make the prints the same size as the Parr ones. This made them easier to see, allowing the viewer to enjoy the drama and narrative of the compositions.

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

The commentary points out that Ray-Jones was also attracted to the ‘Season’ of regular annual fixtures – Epsom, Ascot, Crufts, Chelsea Flower Show –  which continually throw up the dysjunction between the ‘glamour’ or ideal version of events, and the mundane and sometimes bizarre realities as men carry heavy pots of flowers to and fro or groups of dogs cluster incongruously around their owners before going onstage.

But it’s the beach photos which, in the end, speak of something permanent in English life, a heedless provinciality, a blithe gracelessness, a lumpiness and ugliness and crudeness and vulgarity, which is in Chaucer’s dirty stories and Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, an enduring part of the mongrel English character – which speaks to us of a pre-media, pre-celebrity, pre-image-obsessed era, of a kind of innocence which seems fragile and precious, and which Tony Ray-Jones’s great works of art will record forever.

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

You get a useful overview from the YouTube video of the show.

The exhibition is now, unfortunately, closed in London, but is moving to the National Media Museum in Bradford where it opens on 28 March and runs until 29 June.

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