Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PARRWORLD - social commentary or sneering criticism?

The Times reports (April 2008) :

In the world of photography, if you want to start an argument, just mention the 55-year-old English photo-documentarist Martin Parr. Parr’s passion for recording everyday frailties and humdrum tawdriness – a larkily colourful social panorama, taking in the unappealing scrum of mass consumerism, the curious rituals of the middle class and the messy indulgences of the super-rich – elicits a very traditional English reaction: it is not everybody’s cup of tea. Parr is a tremendous polariser. He’s either a pin-sharp satirical genius who tells uncomfortable truths with comedic flair – a view enthusiastically endorsed by subscribers to the trendy online photography site Flickr, which carries a message board dedicated to him entitled Martin Parr We Love You. Or he’s that heartlessly cynical smartarse whose pictures were once condemned by the late great Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, as coming “from another planet”.

The argument has gone global. Parr’s fame abroad has reached an all-time high. He now does 80% of his commissioned work in foreign parts such as Dubai, South Africa, Australia and South America. In May, the largest exhibition to date of his work, Parrworld, will open at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Germany, in particular, loves Martin Parr. But international acclaim has not quietened his critics at home. Despite the public popularity of his retrospective show at London’s Barbican in 2002, the reviews were brief and lukewarm. No big British gallery has so far agreed to take Parrworld, the Hayward on the South Bank being one of the first to decline. And the sniping carries on. Before meeting Parr, I spoke to a longtime associate and fellow photographer, who unhesitatingly called him “totally fearless… the greatest observer of people this country has ever produced”. I also heard from a newspaper picture editor who dismissed him as “a gratuitously cruel social critic who sneers at foibles and pretensions”. The most widely voiced objection to Parr’s work complains that it adopts a stance of condescension towards its subject matter. It was this view that obstructed his election to membership of the elite photographic co-operative Magnum. Described by its co-founder, Cartier-Bresson, as “a community of thought” reflecting “a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually”, Magnum argued for six years over the admission of Parr to its ranks. The late Philip Jones Griffiths, whose 1971 book, Vietnam Inc, was influential in the anti-war movement, led the charge against Parr, who has always avoided big news stories. In 1994 he finally scraped in, reputedly achieving the necessary two-thirds majority by the narrowest margin ever: one vote.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead (where PARRWORLD opened October 16) proclaims:

Parr is known for his satirical documentation of British contemporary life; capturing a range of social demographics he offers a colourful social panorama of Britain today unmasking the banal and the offbeat with his wry look at class and wealth. Many of his images appear exaggerated and yet they are inventive and often humorous using colour and motif to great effect. For more than 30 years, Parr has been documenting society and everyday culture initially in Britian and Ireland but later across the world, taking in global phenomena such as mass tourism, consumerism, social and cultural events.

For his new series Luxury, Parr shows the different ways in which people display their wealth. Choosing various locations across the world, and a range of situations including art fairs and race courses, including Newcastle’s premier horse racing event The Northumbrian Plate, he has selected scenarios in which people are comfortable showing off their wealth. Designer clothes, champagne and parties are all part of this repertoire. As well as the more established wealth hot spots in Europe and America, there are photographs from the emerging world, for example showing the Millionaires’ Fair in Moscow, the Dubai Art Fair and the Motor Show in Beijing. At such events the international jet-set can be observed as they proudly present the regalia of new money and opulence The notion of collecting is fundamental to Parrworld as we are presented with not only Parr’s own photography but also a remarkable selection of photographic works from internationally recognised artists, books taken from his several-thousand strong library and a collection of personal items collected from his international and UK travels.

An extraordinary collection of photographs has been brought together for the exhibition, exemplifying Parr’s respect and admiration for his peers. Presented here are works by UK photographers Jill Constantine, Paul Graham and Richard Billingham. There are several with North East associations; Chris Killip whose 1980s images of Tyneside endure, the photographer Graham Smith with his images of Teeside as well as current Newcastle based artist, Mark Neville. These are shown alongside works from highly respected international photographers such as the South African, David Goldblatt, William Eggleston, (US) Frank Breuer (Germany) Gary Winogrand, (US) Bernd and Hilla Becher (Germany).

Alongside the photography Parr shows, through his often quirky collections of postcards and personally collected objects, his real individual flair as an inveterate collector whose fascination for the peculiar and the curious are displayed. This assortment of commercial design and memorabilia documents key historical and political moments with original posters and leaflets from the 1984 UK miners strike, a collection of commemorative china from Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister, examples of prayer mats featuring the New York Twin Towers, a bizarre range of Saddam Hussein watches and his most recent collection of Barack Obama ephemera.

For this exhibition Parr will act as a photographer, collector and curator as Parrworld offers an entertaining yet serious analysis of photography as a contemporary medium.
This exhibition is organized by Haus der Kunst, Munich in association with the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

The photographs: Martin Parr, Moscow and Dubai

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