I’ve long expressed my enthusiasm for the photographer Martin Parr. So it’s worth checking out a burgeoning debate recorded by Owen Hatherley between himself and Nina Power, inspired by a visit to Parrworld.

But it does sound as though Owen rather quickly concedes:

Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again.

They focus on what happens to documents of working class militancy, such as posters from the miner’s strike.

A first point to note is that Parr is equally (if not more) skeptical about the claims of those in power (think of the Saddam Hussein watch series) or of popular culture (the Spice girls chocolate bars).

Second, I’d say that Parr was more skeptical about political claims, political symbols, and political projects (including, yes, that of the the National Union of Mineworkers) than about politics per se. Or perhaps he clears the ground for a different kind of politics.

In any case, I don’t think he can be so easily dismissed as run-of-the-mill postmodernism gone amuck.

families (Parr II)

The Presentation House Gallery has a great bookshop for photography titles. I picked up another Martin Parr book: From Our House to Your House.

This is a collection of home-made pictorial Christmas cards, from the 1930s to the 1990s. There is the usual cavalcade of outdated fashion, poor taste, and even worse humour. Families arrayed in their Sunday best, stiff and upright, or laboriously showing off their skills as performers or musicians. The 1979 card from “The Ritchie family”: full colour, appalling clothes, dubious mantelpiece ornaments, porn-star moustaches. The 1980 card from Merrily and Dick Gifford, their children “Debbie, Deanna, Dick, Dan, Daurie, Ann, David, and Dicksie” all lined up by the side of the pool.

Most extraordinary, however, are the image manipulations. Often these entail distortions of scale: a family playing among outsize Christmas baubles, for instance. And there’s a peculiar fascination with the notion of giant children who have their parents, literally, in the palm of their hands.

From Our House
These cards (and their attendant Christmas letters) are the means by which American families presented themselves to the world, to their extended network of friends and acquaintances. But the cracks and faultlines within those families are also all too visible, all too painfully on show.

[Update: I note that Sydneysiders can see Martin Parr talk on October 8th.]


I’ve been a fan of photographer Martin Parr‘s work ever since I first saw his book Signs of the Times. I think it was because his photographs, and the laconic quotations that accompanied them, seemed to illustrate Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction better than anything else I’d seen.

Martin Parr photo of lightswitch“We wanted a cottagey stately home kind of feel.”

I don’t like all his work–I’m less keen, for instance, on his super-saturated images in Common Sense or Think of England–but he has an extraordinary eye, a wry perspective that’s never as simple as it seems, and an inventiveness and creativity that gives his work great diversity, while all the time he maintains his customary obsessions.

Who would have thought, for instance, that he’d come up with a project such as Saddam Hussein Watches? And yet, once you have seen it, it’s so obvious, so… Martin Parr. It is, moreover, a typically oblique take on politics. Parr is among the most political of photographers, but at the same time one of the most disturbingly apolitical.

Perhaps what’s disturbing about Parr’s work is how often it literalizes the notion that, ultimately, photography is no more than collectionism.

Parr himself is a notorious collector. I remember seeing a documentary about him in which he showed an interviewer around his house, absolutely stuffed with an almost unimaginably vast assortment of old comics, cheesy plastic ornaments, postcards, and so on. Several of these collections have been repackaged as books, most notably the “Boring Postcards” series. Parr also collects concepts and ideas, with the same almost anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, non-judgmental passion that characterizes all true collectors: one of his projects, for example, has been to photograph the last parking spaces in car parks around the world.

Martin Parr photo of man on phoneSo (and despite what I said above) Parr endlessly implies that his photography follows no other logic than his own compulsion to take a picture of yet another person on a mobile phone, say. That the photographer is only some kind of semi-autistic über-geek trainspotter, whose snapshots can have no claims to artistry, subjectivity, or intention, beyond the purely mechanical, machinic.

At times, in short, it is as though the photographer were no more than the camera’s prosthesis.