Documenting or staging?

Issue no6
Dec-Jan 2019/2020 2020
Nieuwe criteria

Besides a photographer Martin Parr is also an avid collector of, well, nearly everything with imagery on it. Parrworld at the Graphic Design Museum in Breda brings together some (no, not all) of his collections: from contemporary photography to lewd postcards and watches. Lots of watches.

Martin Parr’s professionalism is usually cleverly hidden behind the apparent outward 'amateurism' of his themes, subjects and persona. It has made him a legend, something which in itself would make Magnum founder Henri Cartier Bresson turn around in his grave. At least, according to the popular myth that, although Parr is a member of Magnum, Cartier Bresson always strongly resented Parr's approach. Parr doesn't mind, in fact at the Parrworld exhibition in Breda’s Graphic Design Museum he carefully cultivates the myth.

Marin Parr rightfully became one of Britain’s most famous photographers in the seventies and eighties documenting ‘ordinary life’ in it’s natural habitat: middle class homes, country fairs and seaside resorts. He was among them, part of them, bringing out the eye wrenching moments where things seemed more real because they weren’t choreographed but simply ‘seen’ or ‘found’. It isn’t that simple of course, because looking back on thirty five years of photographs by Parr we can say that his eye usually rests on people with very specific sensibilities surrounded by very specific objects in very specific places, caught in the specific frame of his camera.

Over the years the seriousness of this original quest to document ordinary life changed into a more conceptual and disapproving view of his subjects. Parr’s photo series Small World, on show in Breda’s public space during Breda Photo 2008 is a point to the case. If you look at some of his documentary films such as Think of England this becomes even clearer: the ‘honest’ enquiry into the average people’s lives is very alike to English comedy. Parr is cleverly self-deprecating and amateuristic in his approach, but the result, far from being real, looks like a sketch or skit. It bears resemblance to Aardman’s Creature Comforts, a stop motion animation series based upon recordings of interviews with ordinary people. However serious or ‘honest’ these interviews were, the result certainly isn’t.

Creature Comforts, What it's all about The more conceptual approach also shows in his collections of other imagery: his boring and lewd postcards, serving trays and wallpaper with curious prints, commemorative plates, Spice Girls food packaging and miniature televisions. Parrworld shows some of the more politically fashionable items he has collected on his travels (or acquired on Ebay, who knows) Saddam Hussein watches, Lenin and Mao Zedong clocks, kosmonaut pencilholders and to create a bit of polarity: Persian carpets depicting 9/11 vs. American commemorative souvenirs featuring lots of Saddam bashing. [figure 1146_847_lenin.jpg][figure 1146_845_carpets.jpg][figure 1146_848_overview-pink.jpg] Combined with his, by the way very impressive, photography collection (soon to be in the hands of the Victoria and Albert Museum), the objects seem to show us something of Martin Parr The Man and His Fascinations. That is, until you notice that everything in Parrworld fits together so seemlessly. It creates an irk, the idea of getting closer to understanding him, only to grasp in the end that Parrworld less a part of Parr's person, than it is of his persona.
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2020