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Martin Parr
Vivienne Westwood, designer, London, England, 2012. Picture credit: © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Martin Parr on capturing the strangeness of Britain and its people

In the build-up to Brexit, the photographer’s quintessential images of Britain offer a touch of much-needed humour

One of the most prescient photographs in Martin Parr’s new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery depicts a bulldog on a leash dressed in an England jersey. The image was taken on George’s Day in West Bromwich, 2017. Behind the canine, a couple kitted out in England gear are sat on a wall, smiling (sort of), flags in hand. The pet faces away from them, wearing a weary expression. Looking off into the distance, it’s as if it might be thinking, “What have you done?”

Parr’s relationship with Britain is, self-admittedly, a love-hate one. “I love the traditions,” he tells me, sat on a red plastic chair in a quintessentially British “seaside” cafe that has been installed as part of the exhibition. “But I dislike the bigotry. The motivation that made people want to leave the EU.” His current exhibition, titled Only Human: Photographs by Martin Parr, presents older works by Parr alongside newer images taken in the last three years. Since the 2016 referendum vote, he has travelled around Britain photographing diverse communities, specifically those with a high percentage of Leave voters. An undertaking that held a particular kind of “therapeutic tension” for Parr, an avid Remainer.

“I love the traditions, but I dislike the bigotry” – Martin Parr

Each room of the exhibition focuses on a different aspect of the photographer’s work and British culture: dancing, celebrities, the establishment, everyday people, British abroad, autoportraits, the Grand Slam, and his BBC idents. Parr has a talent for capturing joyous and quietly hilarious moments like no other and finding absurdity in everyday life. “People are very strange,” he observes. “My job as a photographer is to capture this strangeness.”

Yet, it’s not the blinding flash, saturated colour or comic relief that makes his photographs so unequivocally Parr, but something else more subtle. Whether it’s an image of a Cambridge student passed out after partying too hard, designer Paul Smith sat calmly in the organised chaos of his office, or a young Zadie Smith smiling sheepishly down the lens, Parr’s photographs have a way of looking beyond what is stood plainly in front of us, rousing questions in the viewer around identity and what it means to be human. In the words of Grayson Perry writing for the Guardian, his photographs show a country in all its multiplicity, capturing “class, identity, individualism, belonging, what it means to be British”.

Much like Parr’s feelings towards Britishness, viewers might be left feeling a little ambiguous towards the exhibition. There’s no arguing that the show, such as his photography, is extremely vibrant and entertaining. The walls are painted brightly in different hues, making the space a delight to walk around and a novelty in the institutional surroundings of the National Portrait Gallery.

There’s also a theatrical element, with various props attributed to certain rooms of the exhibition. A large disco ball can be found spinning above the collection of photographs of people dancing. Below it, is a grubby carpet that could have come from an old ballroom or university halls. You can take a seat in a beach chair, in front of one of his famed seaside photos, blown up to cover an entire wall. Then there is the aforementioned mock seaside cafe. Characteristically austere, it is complete with a clunky old Sony, gaudy furnishings and a perfectly bleak counter serving tea, coffee, fruitcake, Battenburger, and other British delicacies.

It’s all very on the nose – perhaps a bit too literal. But Parr doesn’t deny that he’s attracted to tack and cliche. Photography’s ability to transcend the boundaries of culture is something Parr is fascinated by. Rather strangely, the first thing exhibition visitors are met with is a wall of “Parraphernalia” including mugs, CDs and towels, a scarf, and a leather jacket scrawled with the words “Martin Parr”. He finds this hilarious: “that someone would want to buy a leather jacket with Martin Parr on it”. It’s also the only way out of the exhibition.

Ironically or not, the actual gift shop is located within the exhibition and sells a multitude of overpriced Parr-branded goods, including beach balls, magnets, aprons, and other useless miscellanea. So brightly lit and saturated with colour, it almost feels like standing in one of Parr’s photographs or a parodic representation of a gift shop. Was this his intention? “The whole branding thing is me taking the piss out of myself as much as anything else,” explains Parr. Either way, he’s laughing all the way to the bank. But is it a little bit too much fun, for such a political time in Britain?

Art in political times can often become quite didactic, preachy even. For Parr, despite his Remainer status, there is no agenda here. The exhibition presents “politics as an abstract affair to most citizens”. Parr, a self-defined documentary photographer, is simply presenting his findings, allowing us to decide for ourselves. Some exhibition goers were unsettled by the aloofness with which Parr has treated such a massive and traumatic event in British history. For others, the show offered a very necessary dose of comic relief. “There are some deeper resonances to be looked at if you want them”, Parr ascertains, “but ultimately, I’m an entertainer.” At a time in Britain when it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry, it seems, Parr will always choose the former.

Only Human: Photographs by Martin Parr, supported by Gucci, is on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019