Peter Aspden's Interview with Martin Parr

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Here's a extract of an interview with genius photographer and witty man, Martin Parr by Peter Aspden. Who doesn't admire Mr. Parr?

I am on the train to Bristol to meet Martin Parr, a photographer whose brilliantly coloured images of vulgarity and the hyper-consumerism of the modern age have made him one of the leading names in his field. So I am mindful that he may have a nasty surprise in store for me when it comes to his choice of lunch venue. Sure enough, it has crossed his mind. “I wanted to take you to McDonald’s,” he says breezily. “Just for the hell of it. I am sure no one has asked to be taken there.” But instead we are in a cosy, wintry pub in the highly desirable Clifton area of the city, for which I am grateful. “I thought it was a great idea. But you have come all the way from London,” he relents, with the utmost reluctance.

Nothing would be more typical of Parr than to plan an ironic repast amid the sachets of ketchup and wolfing hordes of Britain’s hungry high-street shoppers. Some of his most striking photographs are taken in chip shops and fast-food outlets, portraits of a nation indulging cheerfully in systemic malnutrition. The Albion pub, on the other hand, is buzzy with middle-class gentlefolk, modest appetites and smooth manners. Parr has lived in the city for 18 years, not far from this pub, and says that he enjoys the air of anonymity. “When I am in London, all I do is mix with other people in the arts,” he says, making it sound like a grim sentence. He chooses the mackerel pate and the confit of duck, and I copy him, which makes him laugh. Parr has an appropriately comic-book laugh - “Ha, ha, ha!” - that he deploys whenever he senses a moment of awkwardness or absurdity, which is often.

He has been a part of the Magnum collective of photographers for nearly 20 years, and I ask about the well-chronicled problems that surrounded his application to join. “It was the biggest controversy they had ever had about a new photographer,” he says with palpable pride. I ask what the problem was. “I was one of the first to break that humanist tradition that was so strong in the previous generation. They thought I was exploitative, cynical, even fascist. All kinds of words were used. But you should ask them.”

But he was a kind of humanist himself, surely? “That’s the irony. I do the things I do because I am interested in people. I do accept that photography is to a degree exploitative. But I quite like controversy. It doesn’t do you any harm. In any case, what is so controversial about walking into a supermarket and taking photographs, as opposed to photographing a war in Afghanistan or Gaza?”

Parr’s photographs address their own conflicts, observing, in the words of the catalogue that accompanied his major retrospective at the Barbican in 2002, the “myriad of social ills” that have inflicted themselves on Britain over the course of his 54-year lifespan: “the loosening of community ties, the mass embrace of consumerism, the manic pursuit of leisure and global tourism, the vanity fair of the English middle class and the phantasmagoria of the sub-class that emerged... during the 1980s”.

But Parr says he regards himself as a “European photographer, working in Europe”, much better known in France, Germany and Italy than in his native land. He is just about to go to Luxembourg for the first time, to fulfil an assignment. “I expect it to be comfortable, wealthy, maybe a bit boring.” Surely there is no such thing as boring to a photographer like him? “Of course not,” he retracts instantly. The veneer of irony that exists in his photographs is also constantly present in Parr’s conversation, making it hard to know what he really thinks about anything.

I say that, having studied so many of his photographs during my train journey, I looked at the streets of Bristol in a different way as I was walking to meet him, which was a tribute to his craft. “I don’t like being flattered,” he says abruptly. “It doesn’t suit my English sensibilities. Remember, we are the great country of understatement.”

Is he entirely happy at being labelled an obsessive, I understate?

“Very much so. My father was an obsessive bird-watcher. The genes of observation passed down. A good photographer has to be obsessive. There are a lot of photographers out there, and most of them are very good. But there are few who go beyond that, who have a vision or signature.”

I ask if Britain is a less interesting place today than when he started taking photographs, in the 1970s.

“There has been a homogenisation, of the high streets and so on. But I go to Sainsbury’s like everyone else. I am a great believer in hypocrisy,” he announces suddenly. “All the things I critique are the things I do myself. My main agenda is the increasing wealth of the west, which is a big problem we have.”


For the rest of the interview, visit:

Name index: 
Martin Parr
Peter Aspden