Class Act

Martin Parr's photographs lampoon customs and consumerism at all levels of society

It's a good thing photographer Martin Parr is British. Otherwise he would have had a field day parodying American customs the way he's skewered those of his native country. One of England's leading contemporary lensmen, Parr doesn't hold back when revealing the true colors of his fellow citizens. His new book, Martin Parr: A Retrospective, published by Phaidon Press, offers an overview of his impressive 35-year career.

A product of suburbia, Parr was born in Surrey in the South of England and studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic, where he designed an archetypal British living room as his final project. The installation was a forerunner to his future studies of personal taste: Decorated with framed photos and kitschy wallpaper, Home Sweet Home introduced themes to which Parr would return, like class, tradition, and consumerism. In two books created from a BBC television series he worked on with director Nicholas Barker, Sign of the Times and From A-B, Parr examined home furnishings and what they revealed about a person, and people's choices in cars, respectively. By concentrating on the domestic, Parr could comment on larger social issues (mass consumption, tourism, and the breakdown of family values) in stereotypical British fashion -- without saying a word. "Martin Parr's photographs can make us feel very uncomfortable," Val Williams writes in A Retrospective's introduction. "He has made a comedy about the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we go ... exposing our petty vanities to the world."

Though Parr has focused primarily on his own compatriots, his cheeky tableaux could just as easily translate to the American way of life; it's telling that he was inspired by the photos of William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld. In a well-known series called The Last Resort, Parr caught his subjects on holiday at a ramshackle seaside vacation spot mostly serving the working class. Unlike his peers who shoot in forgiving black-and-white, Parr takes his outlandish close-ups with a camera normally used for medical photography. His garish color film and use of flash in the daytime captured the vacationers engaging in unsightly behavior -- guzzling soda, gorging on fish and chips, and leaving sunburned babies to play in filthy gutters -- shattering the myth of the prim-and-proper Brit. Still, he hasn't focused his critical lens solely on the misadventures of working folks: In The Cost of Living series, he zeroed in on the tea-and-crumpets set with characteristic candor, and his One Day Trip images of frenzied shoppers elbowing each other over a sale of Stella Artois beer are both hilariously riveting and utterly depressing.

The truth comes out in Martin Parr's photographs (Four Women and  Naked Baby -- GB. England. New Brighton. 1985).
©Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
The truth comes out in Martin Parr's photographs (Four Women and Naked Baby -- GB. England. New Brighton. 1985).

Controversy can be a mark of success, and Parr's no stranger to it. When Magnum asked him to join the invitation-only agency of elite photographers (which includes Elliott Erwitt and Robert Capa), some of its members objected. One of Magnum's founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, described Parr as a product of "a different solar system."

 
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