Research point: Martin Parr

The exercise Getting the Parr ‘feel’ is slightly tricky for me to do straight away as it calls for “people engaged in a fun or social activity outdoors” – and it’s January in the north of England so there’s not much of that going on outdoors! However, in February I will be at the carnival in Nice in the south of France, which should provide the right kind of environment for this. So I’ll come back to the exercise later. [EDIT: exercise is here]

In the meantime, I’ve been adding to my existing knowledge of Mr Parr in the context of this course and thought it useful to capture some of my observations and opinions.

Martin Parr is often held up as a ‘Marmite’ photographer that one either loves or loathes. I may be in the minority in that I am somewhere in between! I have mixed feelings about Parr and his work that I will summarise below.

A new form of documentary

On the one hand, Parr demonstrated a kind of ‘documentary’ photography that broke from the past and opened up a new sub-genre. It was neither the earnest ‘social change’-driven documentary photography of the late 19th / early 20th century, nor the more personal approach of the mid-late century New York school. It was a peculiarly British – more specifically English – way of capturing the world.

Parr’s aims are less specific than traditional documentary, and more detached than personal documentary – he excels at simply chronicling the world around us, holding up a mirror to society (or more accurately societies) and often drawing out small moments of universality that encapsulate daily life.

So generally, I am in favour of the kind of subjects he chooses and the moments his eye picks out. There are a few exceptions: I much prefer Parr’s observational, unposed work to the images where he admits that he intervened, or asked the subjects to pose in a certain way. And his typological studies of objects leave me cold – he’s simply a collector, and no-one finds a collection quite as interesting as its owner! At least with his ‘collections’ of people there’s a bit of variety and character…

A very ‘distinctive’ aesthetic

Where my admiration for Parr stutters is in the aesthetic. Of all his work, I’m much more attracted to his 1970s black and white work such as the Non-Conformists project from Hebden Bridge (which I saw in a joint Parr / Tony Ray-Jones show in 2013). It’s not just the colour palette, his eye for composition and framing was sharper, and the toning of the images was more appealing and drew the eye in more than the harsh, flash-lit look of his later and more typical work. And crucially, there is more empathy – he lived there for about five years, among his subjects.

His later and more typical style is more anthropological, deliberately detached. The decision to switch to colour, lit with garish daytime flash, led to a more forensic, less forgiving representation of people. Often his composition comes across as deliberately ‘bad’, as though bringing the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic to his images is a deliberate conceit.

From Life’s a Beach: Un Anglais à Nice, 2015 – Martin Parr

There’s a comparison with Diane Arbus in his motivation: she famously said “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” (Sontag 1977: 32), and Parr came up with a similar comment in the clip suggested by the course notes: “I had access to that point of vulnerability that I’m always looking for.” (Parr 2000).

I know that a photograph doesn’t need to look ‘beautiful’ to be meaningful, but I find that I don’t want to look at most Parr images for more than a few seconds. They don’t draw me in; some of them almost kind of repel me. Does this make them as powerful as a photo that you can stare at, just in a different way?

When it works

Where I think Parr’s aesthetic and world-view combine to make interesting art is the specific subject of people at leisure – the title of this section in the course notes. He excels at what you might call ‘off-street photography’.

My last experience of new Parr work was a pop-up show he did in Nice last year, where he took, printed and displayed beach photos daily over three days. This was accompanied by his themed exhibition Life’s a Beach, containing images from various resorts over the last few decades. This show consolidated my opinion that given the right subject matter, his quirky mix of ironic detachment and lurid colours is spot-on. The overlit, false aesthetic matches the slightly other-worldly experience of being on holiday.

Interestingly my favourite image from the Nice show was a little removed from typical Parr style: a calmly composed and symbolism-heavy shot of a sunbather covered in pebbles. Stones on a body are a death symbol in some religions, his pose resembles either a crucifixion or a shot body fallen to the ground, and the cigarette packet mentions dying (albeit in French). I found more to see here than in most Parr shots.

Nice, 2015 – Martin Parr

I do have a soft spot for The Last Resort, possibly because New Brighton is like the resorts where I used to spend my own northern working class summer holidays. I can forgive him for what I first thought of as sneery class tourism, as revisiting the book now what comes through more is the warmth underpinning the grimness. I noted down the first word that came to mind when looking at the gestures and expressions in the pictures: friendly, curious, excited, affectionate, familial, loving…

In many of his projects since, Parr seems to be trying to recreate the approach and feel of The Last Resort, not always successfully in my mind. It’s easy enough for him to recreate the aesthetic, that’s mainly about the kit – but the connection with the people themselves is perhaps harder to fake.


My opinion of Parr can be summarised as:

  • I like the way he chooses and approaches subjects, especially people at leisure – he’s a great chronicler of these aspects of life
  • I am not that keen on his aesthetic approach – not just the colour palette and harsh light but the ‘snapshot’ approach to composition (occasional wonky horizons etc)

Regarding the controversy surrounding his membership of Magnum – for the first point above, yes he deserves a place in the agency; for the second point, I can see the objections, but at the end of the day that’s personal opinion. The course notes state that the Magnum issue was one of integrity, but to me it’s much more about quality of work!

Having said all of that – I’m actually looking forward to visiting a new exhibition of his work shortly opening at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield! As a good open-minded student I’m going to give him an opportunity to change my opinion.


Parr, M. (2012) The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin. (accessed 20/01/16) (accessed 20/01/16)


6 thoughts on “Research point: Martin Parr

  1. Catherine 20 January 2016 / 12:42

    Refreshing to read. You’re giving him a chance and being optimistic about it.


    • Rob Townsend 20 January 2016 / 12:46

      Indeed… I’ll write up that exhibition visit for sure. Are you a fan of his?


  2. stevemiddlehurst 20 January 2016 / 13:32

    Very interesting essay, I suspect I like Parr rather more than you but agree that it is not a general evaluation but an act of balancing my reaction to the work I respond to with the work that leaves me unmoved. I spent some time a few weeks ago looking at David Hurn who, according to Photo Histories was “perhaps the most eloquent advocate for Parr’s entry into Magnum.” He believes that Parr has been good for Magnum partly because his work appeals to a younger audience and partly because he was the first photographer to recognise “vulgarity and commercialism” as subject matter.


    • Rob Townsend 20 January 2016 / 14:15

      Thanks. I admire Parr’s work more than I like it, if that makes sense. I don’t really have an issue with the subject matter, as I say it’s more that the visual style doesn’t work for me in some of his work. In some projects it’s perfect!


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