Martin Parr is one of the foremost photographer of socio-political imagery of his generation.
“Look what I got this morning. Isn’t it great?” Martin greeted Crack with a toy plastic guitar of the Twin Towers. It had arrived in the post that morning from eBay.
Martin is seldom at home, preoccupied with the opening of his new photography exhibition, and at the time of our interview he has recently visited Australia, Spain, Milwaukee and Chicago. His photography assignments take him all over the world, allowing him ample opportunity to experience, consume and feed his calling to collect, but his pleasure at receiving this simple brown paper package was one with which we could identify. The guitar will be added to his ever-expanding collection of political ephemera.
“I’ll be photographing the guitar. It will go in the inventory, and then it will be exhibited and have a life of its own. The 9/11 collection consists of 50 to 60 items. ‘Bin Laden Dead’ is the final chapter in the sub- branch ‘Bin Laden’. I’ve been collecting for over 10 years. It started with Margaret Thatcher.” As it happened, our interview preceded a political event of real magnitude, that being the death of Gaddafi, by just 10 days. That particular figure was raised, however, Martin stating, “there’s not much Gaddafi stuff around, although I have just bought some Gaddafi watches. I love watches anyway and these are really rare. I’ve got about six now.” Presumably Martin is now beginning work on his ‘Gaddafi Death’ section.
He is a collector of ephemera, postcards and photography books, and recognises the connection between his object-collecting and his thirst for what he is best known for: recording images of life through photography. Parr uses his practical skills and creativity to document humanity, to make art and to make a point. He is probably obsessive, certainly hard-working and utterly inexhaustible. He refuses to allow a moment to go by that isn’t useful in his quest to work, insisting that time is always running out. Parr’s photography has in the past drawn negative responses for being condescending, but he says that photography is propaganda and fashion, advertising and certainly us as individuals, edit it to suit our message. Everyone can take a ‘good photo’, because the ones where she looks like a blob fish with extra chins never made it to the family album.
He is an expert in self-deprecation and irony, not easily complimented and so passionate about his subject he says he can “talk about it standing on (his) head”. His personality is as frank and unyielding as his images, well- practiced and with a hint of manipulation. He has an understanding of the world that could be mistaken for arrogance, criticism or a piss-take. This shines through in some of his answers, where it seems he doesn’t understand why other people don’t see things in the same way. His work uncovers the beholder’s foibles and inadequacies, and it is that which makes us feel uncomfortable.
So how did Crack approach a man who sees interviews as an occupational hazard? Easy.
We asked him if he had the track Martin Parr by the French singer Vincent Delerm as the ring-tone on his phone. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t. Martin doesn’t even have iTunes, but we all knew the tune and had a little sing- song – “Martin Parr, Martin Parr, Eighties Angleterre” – and agreed that despite his kitsch sensibilities, a Martin Parr ringtone would be going a tad too far.
How do you feel about your huge success in France?
I’m a grande fromage in France. My career is much bigger in France than it is the UK, because people in the UK don’t quite love photography as much as they do in France. And also, of course, the French like the fact that I am very mischievous with the British, this appeals to them hugely. The whole thing about the UK, which actually I quite like, is as soon as someone becomes well-known they start to attack. I’m used to criticism. Though I’m not losing much sleep about the uncomfortable ride I get from the British press.
But what about individuals? Are people sometimes unhappy with their representation in your photographs?
Generally speaking if they come forward they get a small print and they’re happy. It’s quite rare that they don’t like it.
That’s one way of owning a ‘Martin Parr’?
People write in and we either believe them or we check. There was one picture where two or three people claimed to be the person so we asked them where was it taken etc, and they failed the test.
What are your family snaps like?
When there was film I did more, and because we have a daughter. I was more motivated to record her progress. Now I hardly take any. I never use my camera phone and I never carry a camera when I’m not working, unless, I suppose, when something momentous happens.
Do you remember what you’ve taken?
No. I’ve taken such a colossal amount of pictures. I’ve got over 22,000 pictures online with Magnum so I’ll often find pictures that I’d forgotten I’d taken, but when I see it I will remember it.
You don’t do that thing that people do with CDs, and take the same picture twice?
No, but I might buy a book again because I like it and have forgotten that I’d already bought it. There are 2,000 photography books published a year.
How do you choose which ones to buy?
I buy the ones I think are good. Sometimes there is an overlap of language, but it doesn’t necessarily follow the books I like are the books I would do.
And people copy you?
I suppose they do. I understand that I am one of the many people contributing to the ongoing discourse in contemporary practice. Nice sentence, thank you very much (laughs). It doesn’t bother me one way or another, I hardly think about it. I’m not thinking about my role in this world, I’m just getting on with the next project and trying to manage my very difficult and complicated timetable. I’m not particularly interested in my own fame or fortune as that looks after itself now. All I’m trying to do is work out what can I do next and how can I fit it into the time I’ve got left. I’m at my peak now and soon I’ll go into decline, so I’ve got to milk it for what it’s worth.
When do you do your thinking?
I don’t have thinking time. If it’s a good idea I do it. If it’s any good I won’t forget it. I don’t write lists. The idea can’t be any good if I forget it.
You do a lot of different things, how do you choose which projects to pursue?
I consider myself a photographer with a foot in both the commercial and the art world. I have an overwhelming timetable, and I can’t do many of things I’m asked to do, so everything is taken on its merit. 40/50% of the work I take is self-initiated. I don’t go to hotspots, so you won’t see me going to Iraq or Afghanistan. French colonies in Africa are difficult to photograph, and I have no great desire to photograph them anyway. Though I have just been to Marrakesh for a photo shoot for Urban Outfitters.
You’ve done other fashion shoots, most notably for Paul Smith. Do you enjoy them?
I’m not particularly interested in clothes, but I’m very happy to do it. It’s not my calling, it’s a commercial activity that I’m very happy to do if they pay me lots of money. Which they have to, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
And your work for Nintendo?
A recent project where they had this 3D camera, so three Magnum photographers went out and took some pictures. Just another commercial activity, you’re tarting yourself. Of course my own work is commercial. You make prints, you sell merchandise. You know you have to get your hands dirty with money. The Tate, the high cathedral of art, sells mugs and tea towels.
Do you collect Martin Parr ephemera?
Well there’s probably a record of each, but I don’t use it.
So your exhibition Bristol and West is at M Shed, Bristol’s new museum, until November 27th. This is your first exhibition in Bristol since Home Sweet Home at the Arnolfini in 1974. It’s been very well received, hasn’t it?
Yes, they tell me 3/4/5000 a week. I went once and it was packed. Ten photographs will be retained by the museum and I’ll get my last twenty years’ council tax back! The rest will be torn up.
Yes, that’s what happens
That’s a sin.
No it’s not. They’re not part of the edition. I sell prints so they’re numbered. Even the prints they take will be printed afresh. Because they’ve been on the wall people spit on them (laughs). They’ll be wrinkled, so we’ll deliver fresh, new, signed prints.
Is there a special way of destroying them?
Because they’re down the road I’ll probably tear them up myself. When we send images abroad we actually ask for evidence of their destruction.
Do they set fire to them?
They could do, but that would be more difficult to photograph. I don’t particularly want to keep them as I haven’t got the room, and we can produce more prints really easily. An edition is ten small and five big.
You’re not a fan of doing interviews, are you?
Interviews are an occupational hazard, I try to do them with grace. I turn down many. I try and do the ones I think I should do.
We’ll take that as a compliment. Finally Martin, do you ever watch telly?
Dragons’ Den on iPlayer
- – - – - – - – - -
Words: Gill Loats
Martin Parr’s Bristol and West exhibition will be at the M Shed, Bristol until November 27th