Interview with Martin Parr
Interview with Martin Parr

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Interview with Martin Parr

We caught up with the president of Magnum Photos (and 'chronicler of our age') Martin Parr, ahead of our opening at 44 Great Russell Street. Below, Parr discusses where it all began, where we are - and where we're going.

I think with all Magnum photographers, even if you’re on the art side of things, or the more journalistic side of things, it’s like telling a story—it’s like telling a very personal take on the world through your own eyes.

Martin Parr
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Martin Parr, Zurich, 1997. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Emily Watkins

First things first, congratulations on receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award from Sony. I wondered—just to begin at the beginning—if you ever saw yourself in a position like that when you began your career?

Martin Parr

I didn’t even dream of it. There were no awards for photography in those days, it’s all started since then. And I didn’t even think of a career in photography, I just started doing it.

EW

How did you start?

MP

I started as a teenager, and then I went to college where I studied photography, did three years of work, and then, just started doing it. And haven’t stopped! I mean, I was doing things like teaching photography to earn a living. I can’t complain really.

EW

You are the president of Magnum Photos, and your work slots interestingly into the Magnum archive, because of that balance between photojournalism and art photography…

MP

We have strength in both sides at Magnum, which is one of the things that makes it an interesting place to be.

EW

And it’s been such a singular project – to go through the archive with Ekow Eshun [curator of The Magnum Home]. He’s sort of trawled the archive and it’s been a really interesting experience for all of us, partly because it’s so vast and partly because of this dualism. And the nature of a photo series is that there’s a degree of narrative, or storytelling, when you see a series in its entirety. I’m wondering how narrative functions in your work?

MP

I think with all Magnum photographers, even if you’re on the art side of things, or the more journalistic side of things, it’s like telling a story—it’s like telling a very personal take on the world through your own eyes. So yes, story and narrative is absolutely essential to that.

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Martin Parr, Bristol, 1995. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

EW

There’s something almost essayistic in some of the series. We’re showing a couple of parts of your Black Country Stories – the girls out on a Saturday night – and also some images from the series you made at Harrow Boys School.

MP

That’s right.

EW

The exhibition, Just Kids, is broadly concerned with youth culture… Did you have that theme in mind when you were approaching those projects? Or something else altogether?

MP

One was a cultural commission, one was a magazine commission—all these things, I’m basically doing my work and someone else is paying—a very smart arrangement!

EW

Yes! Well, the two projects work beautifully together. There’s a humour there, I think, in their juxtaposition.

MP

Well, there’s humour in the world! It’s no surprise to find humour in photographs, taken the crazy place we all live in.

EW

Absolutely, humour feels very important when I look through your work. And, as far as you’re concerned, that’s because the world is a funny place?

MP

Yeah, I mean – how can you avoid it? What is strange to me is that there’s more humour in things than we can possibly see, because we are a funny bunch.

EW

Yes, I agree! But yours is quite a specific slant on the world, I think – the one rendered through your camera. It’s a lovely one, and it’s a funny one. When you approach a new series, or conceive of one, I’m wondering where the ideas come from. What strikes you as an interesting project before you get there?

MP

With the Black Country, we went to four different towns every year for a period of about four years, and we just kept making pictures. So obviously, nightlife is an important part of that, so we just did it in every region, every town within the Black Country. There’s no great formula to this – it’s very obvious really!

Well, there’s humour in the world! It’s no surprise to find humour in photographs, taken the crazy place we all live in.

Martin Parr
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Martin Parr, West Midlands, 2011. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

EW

Sure. Do you think there’s a kind of serendipity in the individual shots?

MP

Well, I wouldn’t call it serendipity. It’s just what’s there. I just photograph what goes on.

EW

Do you think of it as documentary photography?

MP

It’s subjective documentary, my interpretation of what’s going on.

EW

Yep. And what do you think happens to photography now that it’s a tool at everyone’s disposal?

MP

I mean it’s kind of ridiculous, because you have all these platforms where people post photographs, like Instagram, but usually they’re quite interested in photography so they try and seek out known examples—I mean, there’s lots of famous photographers who post on Instagram, and they get big followings because their pictures are good. One of the hallmarks, of all this stuff on the Internet, is crap.

EW

And you think photography evolves as it comes into the hands of the masses – or that as a craft, there’s no comparing the professional and the amateur?

MP

Photography is photography, call it an art form if you like.

EW

That’s interesting - that you wouldn’t necessarily call it an art form.

MP

I mean, you can work in the art world, but I think of myself as a photographer, not an artist. I don’t mind what you call me though!

I think of myself as a photographer, not an artist. I don’t mind what you call me though!

Martin Parr
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Martin Parr, Harrow School, 2011. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

EW

Going back to the Black Country photos, I’m interested in these encounters with people, because they feel very personal. The images feel like the vantage point of the photographer is that of ‘one of the tribe’, as it were. How do those come about?

MP

I like people, I like talking to them, I like seeing what they get up to. And you’ve got things like a stag night, or a hen party… I mean, the big problem there is that you’ve got everyone looking at the camera and posing. But that’s the fundamental problem; people can be very self-conscious and they constantly want to pose, and we live in a posing society now. It’s a pain in the arse! But that’s an occupational hazard, and we just have to get on with it.

EW

And how important is it that you remain anonymous in situations like that?

MP

I mean, I’m perfectly happy to talk to people and tell them what I’m doing. Sometimes you need to be anonymous, but not every time.

EW

It’d be great to talk just a little bit about the Magnum 70 celebrations, and the anniversary. The Magnum Home, the project we’re working on, is only one of a global program of exhibitions and events to mark the 70th anniversary of Magnum. Why is it such a significant landmark for the agency?

MP

I think the fact that we’ve been around for 70 years itself is huge. Agencies are very fickle and they come and go very fast—survival is an achievement.

EW

Has it changed at all since its founding?

MP

It’s constantly evolved as the whole marketplace for photography has changed. We now have this site where we sell directly to our clients, so it’s becoming more like a business-to-consumer company, rather than business to business. So that’s the big thing that’s happened in the last few years, and that’s been fueled by the internet, fueled by Instagram and all the other elements of the internet.

EW

Do you think that’s a trend that will continue?

MP

Of course, it’s going to get bigger, if anything. That’s part of the future, one of our cornerstones. But we’re always interested in looking at other ideas, and disseminating the works in interesting ways.

EW

Can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?

MP

I’m doing a big commission in Aberdeen, I just finished a book on Oxford University—so I’m pretty busy this year! And I’ve also done the BBC idents, so on BBC1 you see my work. They’re moving pictures, but there are stills as well. It’ll be on YouTube. It’s between each BBC1 program.

EW

Just lastly, I was just wondering what advice you would give to someone looking to get into photography now? Considering, I suppose, the way the game has changed since you started…

MP

You have to find your own subject matter, something that you feel strongly about. Just do it.

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