Martin Parr has exhibited work all over the world but his latest show is a little closer to home. A resident of Bristol for over 25 years, this summer sees Parr’s first exhibition in his hometown. Sixty of his photographs will go on display in the new M Shed museum on Bristol’s dockside; the museum, charting the history of the city of Bristol and it’s inhabitants, opened it’s doors in June this year. Since Parr moved to the city in the 1980s he has captured the many aspects of Bristol life.
Parr, a member of Magnum Photos, is known internationally for his iconic, instantly recognisable images. His work often takes a critical look at modern life, and perhaps his most famous work examines life in suburban England. Parr collects photo books and is currently working on the third volume of his books on photo books for Phaidon. He is also working on three exhibitions for 2012, in Edinburgh, Perth and Atlanta.
He was quoted in The Guardian as reflecting, “ It is strange because I’ve had shows in perhaps 30 different countries but not in Bristol. It’s nice to finally have the opportunity”.
Alec Jackson caught up with the always busy Mr Parr and asked him some questions sent in by Vignette readers.
_Alec Jackson: Your latest exhibition is in your hometown, Bristol. How has your opinion of the city changed over the years?
_Martin Parr: I’ve always been disappointed by the council. Despite them doing M Shed they’ve never really fully promoted culture in a way that I think other cities like Glasgow have and they have benefited from it. I think they’ve been a bit slow on the uptake but they seem to be getting there much more now. I think M Shed is looking really good – it’s wonderful they have done that – so I think things are getting better. Cultural tourism is a huge market and they have basically not risen to that challenge as much as they should have done. It’s a very comfortable city to live in.
_AJ: Which camera are you using the most at the moment and which camera would you recommend to an aspiring documentary photographer?
_MP: Canon 5DII. It doesn’t really matter which camera you use – it’s the ideas that count and what you do with it.All cameras these days are pretty good.
_AJ: Film photography is seeing something of a resurgence, how do you feel about this?
_MP: Inevitably you get people going backwards, you get nostalgia for film. Now that film has basically been irradiated people will of course continue to use it and go back to it. It’s fine; I don’t have a problem with it. I am not bothered what people shoot on as long as what they shoot is interesting.
_AJ: What advice would you give to this year’s photography graduates as they embark on their photographic careers?
_MP: You’ve got to find a way of getting some kind of connection and passion for your subject matter. Most photographers are very lazy and this shows up in their pictures. The important thing is to find your own voice and you do that by making these connections.
_AJ: People have become more and more suspicious of cameras in recent years – have you noticed this whilst you have been shooting?
_MP: Yes of course it is getting more difficult to shoot in the street but we are still blessed in this country so go out there now while you can! You can still shoot anyone in a public place and do anything you like with it. Of course there are problems when it comes to say children on the beach, very difficult now to do that, 25 years ago it was much easier, but compared to the likes of France we still have a lot of freedom here. It may not last forever; this may be taken away from us, so get out now while you can.
_AJ: Have you seen any young photographers recently that you have been impressed by?
_MP: I did the biggest festival in UK last year, the Brighton Biennial, and with that I showed 13 new emerging photographers and so have a look online and you’ll find all the people I really believed in who are great. Very few of them were from the UK. In the UK we have an institutionalised photography market place. Photographic education is big; we have more photography students than anywhere in Europe; and yet most of them are pretty dull because it has become institutionalised. They’d be better if they closed down all photography courses and people had to go off and do it off their own backs. Photography courses make people lazy. I’m very much in favour of the Flickr community – they seem to be a lot more active and energetic than say the photography educational institutions that we have in this country. I am still teaching, I am a professor at Newport; there are good courses so it’s not all bad news. It’s a bit too much like a womb: you are made to feel important, the work you do is meant to be important and people get away with murder basically. I like the fact you’re laughing Alec – am I winding up your readers?
_AJ: I think it’s good- we like that kind of thing – a bit of truth. When I was at University it was very much “you’ll graduate and become this that and the other…
_MP: … It’s nonsense of course. There must be 7,000-10,000 photography students churned out every year in the UK, maybe 100 of them will get some work. Other people will like photography and do things with it but you’re not going to just show up and be a photographer – it’s the most competitive thing.
_AJ: You like Flickr?
_MP: I like the Flickr community – it’s self-policing; it’s like crowd surfing.
_AJ: You are very interested in collecting photo books; what do you think of Blurb?
_MP: I think Blurb and the other print on demand publishers are fantastic. It means we can get our books out and we don’t have to go to a publisher anymore. We can get them out for £50 but what this does mean of course is you get a lot of rubbish. You need a lot of rubbish to find the good it’s almost like a self-selecting process: you need a lot of mediocrity to understand why the good is better.
_AJ: Have you ever suffered from “photographer’s block” or fatigue with photography?
_MP: No, I’m constantly fighting off the huge number of things I want to photograph and I never have enough time to do it. So the opposite‘s the case – I am overwhelmed with what I want to shoot. I am very lucky to because I get photographic work as well so it’s “how can I squeeze it all in” that’s my problem.
_AJ: The Internet has made art more accessible but arguably makes uniqueness and originality increasingly elusive concepts, how do you overcome these challenges?
_MP: You have to be better at what you do. The competition is huge so it’s only work with that kind of quality and connection that will be noticed. Same rules apply there’s just more of it. If you are good you’ll succeed. This market place constantly needs to be renewed and refreshed so old farts like me don’t get away with everything. Of course I promote younger photographers – that’s what I did with the Brighton festival – most of the people there had never shown before in the UK. I’m all for the promoting of new talent.
_AJ: You once said, “With photography, I like to create fiction from reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist”. What do you mean by this?
_MP: I often use prejudice and clichés as a starting point and things happen form there. The thing about fiction, Well documentary is very subjective so I am not pretending that what I do is an accurate representation, it’s a personal representation. Therefore it is subjective and the subjectivity is one of its strengths. It’s your relationship to the world and not the world itself that counts.
_AJ: What is photography for? What do you use it for?
_MP: It’s my way of defining my relationship with, and exploring the relationship I have with the world, with all the ambiguities and contradictions that entails.
_AJ: You have to rush off so thank you very much; what are you up to today?
_MP: I am editing a film today about a sweet factory in Dudley.
Bristol and West: Photographs by Martin Parr at M Shed in Bristol opens on Wednesday 31 August 2011 and runs until Sunday 27 November 2011. M Shed is open Tuesday-Friday 10.00-17.00 and weekends 10.00-18.00. See www.mshed.org for further details.