‘I didn’t court controversy. It just happened.’ So says photographer Martin Parr of the accusation that his work often possesses a leering, mocking tone of his supposedly little England subjects.
His wife, author Susie Parr, disagrees with the sentiment further. ‘It is really just a lazy argument. It’s actually much more subtle than that.’
In a live discussion here, in which Martin and Susie took questions from an enthusiastic audience in the Cubby Broccoli cinema and from a live Twitter stream simultaneously, Parr attempted to address some misconceptions about his work. ‘Despite this reputation as a cynical photographer, I really like people.’
On display here until 29 June 2014, Only In England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is an exhibition highlighting the eccentricities of English social customs which Parr was keen to discuss. ‘I like clichés and prejudices and that is why I like kitsch.’
In the exhibition, Parr’s work, photographed in Hebden Bridge as traditional ways of life began to decline in the 1970s, sits alongside a selection of Tony Ray-Jones’ humorous yet melancholy photographs of 1960s England. They offer a glimpse of the precocious talent with which Ray-Jones made his name before his death at the age of just 30.
Despite being arguably one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century, Parr is quite confident that Ray-Jones’s career may have headed in a different direction had he lived: ‘I think he would have been a film-maker. He would have looked more to doing film.’
‘I’m too old to Instagram’
As well as looking back, Parr also offered his thoughts on the future of his craft when a question was raised regarding the influence of Instagram and social media on photography:
I am delighted at the way it has taken off. It is the most democratic process in the world. I think it is a very good thing these new channels exist. I welcome everything. Instagram gets more people engaged with photography.
Despite his enthusiasm for digital communications, however, those expecting to see Parr open up his own Instagram channel may be disappointed. ‘I’m too old to Instagram. I’m even too old to tweet. Someone runs my Facebook site for me but I keep the blog up to date.’
The Non-Conformists photographer also lacked enthusiasm for one of the newer, more pervasive trends in amateur photography: ‘When I do signings people ask for a selfie and generally I go along with it—but not today. Today is a selfie-free Saturday.’
Parr was also keen to let the audience know that he wasn’t likely to return to the black and white photography on display in Only in England either.
The way I document things is far more sophisticated now… When I started doing colour it was a critique on society. I took on some palette but slightly twisted it… I have no desire to do a black and white [project] again.
‘We are very bad at photographing our own lives’
When asked about modern photography, Parr seems very disillusioned by a lot of the artifice that has crept into advertising as well as in amateur photography too:
People are all so bored with that sheen and gloss of propaganda so I welcome a direction to go to more authenticity. Most people don’t do it very well. We are very bad at photographing our own lives. You have to have a very clear idea about what you want to say about your subject and if you don’t, you probably won’t make very good photographs.
Thankfully Parr, who cited his Black Country project as a recent passion, has no intention to put down his camera at any point soon. ‘There is only a certain amount of years I’ve got in me before I slow down and grind to a halt so I keep trying to do as much as I can.’
Buy the limited edition Only in England exhibition catalogue from the Science Museum online shop.