Martin Parr has become a renowned name in contemporary photography, largely due to his inimitable aesthetic—candid close-cut views saturated in vivid color. The subtle depth, and arguably the magic of his photos, is the artist’s ability to explore the nuances of everyday life. Through these moments, he also creates a stark view of modern culture—who we are, what we value, and ultimately, where we are headed. Parr’s subjects encompass a range from passersby to legends—sunbathers and community revelers in Brighton to the likes of Vivienne Westwood and the Queen of England. Whether he is photographing Brexit protests or fast food, the photographer depicts all his topics with equal interest and objectivity.
Though he studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic, it was weekends spent with his grandfather, an amateur photographer, that drew Parr into the art form. So much so that by the age of 13, he was convinced that photography should become his life’s work. Now, five decades later, he has accomplished just that—with more than 100 published photobooks and nearly as many international exhibitions to his credit. A lifetime member of the famed Magnum Photos collective, Parr’s signature style revels in life’s contradictions. His images capture detail with intimate precision—and an often-playful edge. The photos show us on vacation, dining, and shopping, while the photographer cleverly hints at greater truths.
Here, CR speaks with Parr about the place of authenticity in his work, his latest photobook with Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, and why there are always two storylines within his images—the shiny surface and the layers beneath its bright veneer.
Your background was originally in documentary photography. How does this affect your approach to fashion images?
“The contemporary world of fashion has come towards realism and left many of its glamorous illusions behind. So over time, it has actually become closer to what I was doing initially. It is also similar because my work has always been documenting people and stories. Their clothes are just an extension of that.”
You have collaborated with designers including Gucci, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Paul Smith. What interests you most about fashion?
“It starts with the way people dress—and fashion is full of interesting people. Sometimes they are precious, sometimes they are beautiful. I try to arrange the elements of my photos to show fashion within normal street life. I like the challenge and solving the problem of how to make it all work—how to bring the two worlds together and make the picture come to life.”
How do the glossy, colorful surfaces of your photos allude to deeper ideas and undertones?
“It is a type of language I have built up as a photographer and I have many techniques up my sleeve to make the images look interesting. I do like to entertain people with my bright colors and designs, but there is a darker side there, if you choose to delve.”
You have said that your images “create fiction out of reality.” Do you see your work as more fact or satire?
“It is both. I am taking the world out there and shaping it for my own purposes. My photos are mischievous and they show my subjective view on things. I make sure that they are as personal as possible and I also apply techniques to exaggerate their reality. With photography, you are telling a story, so images are always a type of fiction.”
You have a new archival book coming out this spring with Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, ToiletMartin PaperParr. What is the spirit of this photo collection?
“They are pretty lively and interesting photographs—loud and brash, often taken from a very close up, macro perspective. The design aspect of the book shows a lot of influence from Maurizio [Cattelan]. He has a strong aesthetic and the collection echoes his approach to art, which is humorous but also revealing. Toiletpaper’s language of advertising and commerciality—a language we’re all unwittingly familiar with—carries across into my own images in interesting juxtapositions as a photographer.”
Your photographs hold up a mirror of our lives and culture. What do you want us to see in it?
“The images are essentially my view of the world. This is very subjective and I use language as a photographer to create it. I am happy to let people find their own agendas in my work and they can either take or leave my interpretations. But I am very fortunate—a lot of people seem to also take my viewpoint.”
ToiletMartin PaperParr by Martin Parr will be available April 7, 2020.
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