Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery
In the same week I watched Don McCullin, photographer extraordinaire, take pictures of fox hunts and Eastbourne in the rain, in the BBC’s Looking for Britain, I find myself at Martin Parr’s Only Human show at the National Portrait Gallery.
In it, Parr also explores identity and what it is to be British.
McCullin has been lugging his old cameras for far longer than Parr. Nearly two decades separate the two men in age. When Parr was about to leave Manchester Polytechnic in 1973, where he studied photography, McCullin (best known for his war photography) had already documented homelessness and gangland London, as well as life in the failing northern mining towns. The images were lovingly hand-produced by McCullin in monochrome in his studio.
To this day McCullin chooses to print in black and white, which give his images a timeless quality. His retrospective at Tate Britain at the moment is a joy to behold.
By contrast, Parr, arguably Britain’s most famous documentary photographer of the British (certainly he seems the most prolific having produced many books over the years on the subject), has fully embraced colour. Think of Polaroid colours, and then a hundred times more vivid!
The central theme of Parr’s show is Brexit Britain in all its garishness. Colour works especially well in this context, setting each image in a particular time and place.
Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country. 2017. Martin Parr
Nationalistic images such as Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich pack a punch. A man and a woman, draped in the St George flag, lean against a low, turreted wall. In the foreground, a benign-looking white dog stares at the camera. He has been dressed up in a red jacket emblazoned with a small shield. On a lead, which resembles a chain, he looks vulnerable. The more you focus on the dog, the more you feel sorry for the innocent animal and understand Parr’s intentions.
Even more telling of Parr’s uneasiness regarding Brexit is Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017 (see Title photograph) On a sunny day, people gather on the shoreline of a beach. They have their backs to us and stare out to sea. Just one little boy has turned back to the camera. He is minuscule next to a red flag flying at full mast over his head. The strange thing in this image is that the sea doesn’t look rough. Have the holidaymakers been hoodwinked into believing in the dangers of the unknown? (ie foreignness across the seas)
Another photograph captured my attention. Not really to do with Brexit but with Parr’s on-going exploration of identity and class. We are presented with two images of a Harrow school boy, one in uniform and top hat, the other, he is covered head to toe in mud after a football match which he has won. I thought he was in fact a statue at first!
An image of a school youth of a different order draws my attention. A peroxide-headed young man with a Goth or New Romantic haircut leans over his work at the renowned Christ Hospital School, known for its outstanding music programme. He could be a scholarship youth – we don’t know. All we can see is the hair, which hangs down like a straggly curtain. Here we get the sense of a world-class school opening its doors to creativity and diversity.
The show spreads out into other rooms: celebrity portraits which if you go to the National Portrait Gallery, you have all seen before. Vivienne Westwood stands out and Gordon Banks sitting down in his chintz sitting room.
In another room Parr shows the British, drinking or at play. It is a little predicable, except for the woman at the Aintree races, dressed entirely in shocking pink. She’s carrying her own supply of champagne in a plastic cool bag. Glasses, programme, bumble gum pink pompom scarf, and clashing red handbag. The cropping (we only see her from the neck down) gives this picture several interpretations. Either the headless woman is to be lauded for having her own idiosyncratic style or she is being exposed as having no taste. She has come to the races to get plastered and intends to completely ignore the race. Who knows?
There was an extraordinary room dedicated to Martin Parr’s self-portraits that he has made throughout his career. For 30 years he has visited studio photographers, street photographers and photo booth across the globe. I find his obsession with his own image both curious but understandable. Like so many photographers who have spent so much of their lives hidden behind the camera, Parr has wanted to keep a personal record .
Particularly bizarre were the Photo Escultura– shrine-like carved photo-sculptures based on Parr. These were quite amusing and were commissioned by the last traditional craftsman specialised in them, in Mexico City.
It was an odd finale to an exhibition on Britishness, as was the pop up seaside café complete with Battenburg cake and the National portrait shop full of Parr pseudo retro memorabilia. Would you buy flip-flops superimposed with Parr’s feet?
Most strange. But we have to allow for his eccentricities. It is exactly these peculiarities, which make Martin Parr human!
Martin Parr: Being Human is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019