Photographer Martin Parr on Britain in the age of Brexit

Published 21st October 2019
Photographer Martin Parr on Britain in the age of Brexit
Written by Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNNBristol, England
Contributors Edward Kiernan, CNN
British documentary photographer Martin Parr has, by his estimate, some three quarters of a million 10-by-8-inch prints of his work meticulously filed away in his office.
The prints, along with thousands of photography books, negatives and pictures by other prominent photographers, make up the contents of the Martin Parr Foundation, a treasure trove of -- mostly British and Irish -- visual culture spanning decades.
Parr, a prolific photographer and collector, has been obsessively documenting his surroundings for nearly 50 years. During this time, his hyper-real photos of people set against backdrops of quirky seaside towns, village fairs and public swimming pools have captured the attention of an international fan base.
Focusing mainly on what he describes as the "leisure pursuits" of the general public, his striking chronicles of normal people doing normal things have long offered a unique window into life in Britain. From working class families holidaying by the New Brighton seaside in the mid-1980s to more recent scenes from Extinction Rebellion and Brexit protests, his compulsion to capture the times we live in shows no sign of weakening.
Barry Island, Wales. "Barry Island" (1996)
Barry Island, Wales. "Barry Island" (1996) Credit: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery
Llantrisant, Wales. "Llantrisant Working Mens Club" (2009)
Llantrisant, Wales. "Llantrisant Working Mens Club" (2009) Credit: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery
New Brighton, England. From "The Last Resort" (1983-85)
New Brighton, England. From "The Last Resort" (1983-85) Credit: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
"I love this country and yet I'm annoyed by it," he says during an interview in his library at the Martin Parr Foundation. Identifying as a "classic remainer," he says he uses photography to reflect the tension he feels when he looks at Britain and, recently, the Brexit process. For Parr, photography is "almost like a form of therapy."
Widely regarded as one of Britain's foremost photographers, the Magnum member's work is not limited to the United Kingdom. He, like most working photographers, also takes commissions. He's shot fashion campaigns for Gucci and was commissioned by CNN to photograph the Republican National Convention in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. At the time, he told CNN: "Until you get to these things, you never quite know what you're going to see.
"This is not boring, everyday life. This is people with extreme political convictions."
His photos often have a twisted sense of humor about them. A perverse, cheeky wink served up in the form of a still image.
The photo on the cover of his recent book "Only Human," shows a woman on the beach in Nice, in the south of France. With her flabby, leathery skin, old and orange, on full display she stands in front of the camera in a string bikini, clutching her toy dog. She looks both fabulous and ridiculous in equal measure.
"When I'm out shooting I'm looking almost for a little story, for a little vignette, where there's going to be some tension, some ambiguity, some contradictions... a peg to hang a story on really," he explains.
Back at home, as Britain trudges through one of the most polarizing political moments in its modern history, Parr's love-hate relationship with his motherland feels all the more poignant. But he is insistent that while he has made his own position clear, his photography isn't one-sided, and can be interpreted in a number of ways.
"Everyone comes with their own baggage to pictures," he says. "You know, I'm not going to change your point of view about anything politically, or on the Brexit front or to what extent you want to support climate change or extension rebellion.
"If you have your opinions and your prejudice and your baggage, you're bound to find arguments within my pictures to support them."
The Black Country, West Bromwich, England. "St George's Day. Stone Cross Parade." (2017_
The Black Country, West Bromwich, England. "St George's Day. Stone Cross Parade." (2017_ Credit: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Haverfordwest, Wales. "A Butchers shop," (2007)
Haverfordwest, Wales. "A Butchers shop," (2007) Credit: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery
A selection of Parr's work will soon be on show at the National Museum of Cardiff in Wales. One of the photos that visitors to the exhibition will see is of a butcher's shop. The trick here is a fleshy human arm dangling in the backdrop that could be mistaken for some of the produce on offer.
"I guess the thing that makes this work is the hand coming down from the butcher... echoing the sausages, " he says.
Parr admits that he can't remember exactly where the photo was taken. But with such a vast archive, who can blame him?
"Martin Parr in Wales" is on display at National Museum Cardiff from October 26 until May 4, 2020.