……….And so in the continuation of my portrait research and inspiration I took a trip to London to visit the National Portrait Gallery. This very inspiring building is jam packed full of images and sculptures to look at and at the time I went there was an exhibition on by Martin Parr.
Parr, born in 1952 is a British documentary photographer, photojournalist and a phonebook collector. He exhibits and sells prints through galleries while at the same time accepting commissions for editorial, fashion and, less frequently, advertising work. Parr, since 1994 has been a member of Magnum photos, an international photographic cooperative owned by its photographer members and has headquarters in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo.
His exhibition of his latest work made mainly in the UK but also around the World is a collection of portraits and Parr’s images of our times. It is about Britishness in the time of Brexit and it is about belonging and self, globalism and consumption. It gets you to question about national and self identity.
One of Parr’s main characteristics of his work are to produce images of human behaviour in a way that includes situational irony. This image below is a classic example.This image Parr shot called Crisp ‘N’ Fry in Spring Bank, Hull, England in 2017 is a good example of Parr’s situational awareness. The classic British fish and chip shop and the Burberry chequered headscarf is also a classic British fashion house yet the people running the shop are a couple of muslims. Doing a fine job I am sure but, it is just something you would not have seen a few decades ago. In this image Parr highlights the change in the British culture of late and probably it is a good thing that the British isles are becoming more diverse and multicultural. This is classic documentary photography.
This image above was part of a commissioned works that Parr produced for the BBC in 2016. The images he produced went with short 30 second films all about ‘oneness’ and the images were all volunteer organisations or sport/hobby clubs around Britain.
They show people coming together in ‘oneness’ by shared interests and passions with the added reality of the diversity of communities living in the UK today.Above are more examples of the same commision work by Parr. As you can see in the images they are all very symmetrical and out of all the people in the images I think there are only two who are not looking directly into the camera. Parr has obviously asked the subjects to look directly into the camera, I think this is so that when the viewer looks at the image as it is flashed up on the television screen they feel somewhat included somehow and it makes the image personal to everyone. It kind of feels like this is some sort of propaganda from the BBC to help everyone feel included and that everyone should include others in our multicultural society. Thus, trying to find a peaceful environment for people to flourish.
All the images have the peoples backgrounds or props in them like the swimming caps of the Clevedon Swimming Club, Somerset in England. The training ground and cones in the image of the junior football team in Barnet, London, England and the rescue dog in the image of the Central Beacons Mountain Rescue Team, Brecon Beacons, Wales. This is common in portrait photography and I guess always will be, while I am alive anyway.
The image above of Paul Smith the designer in London, England in 2016 shows Smith in his home surrounded by books and all sorts of objects he has collected through his life. Again, he is looking directly into the lens. In this instance it is a give-away that this is a staged portrait by Parr, most portraits are, but the looking into the lens is a dead giveaway. My thoughts on this image are that Parr recognises that Smith has had, and has, a mind cluttered with ideas past and present about how he will design clothes and this clutter in the image suggests this. Clever. I like how Parr has positioned the golden clothes hanger to the right of Smith and also the lightbulb of inspiration if you like is positioned close to that. co-incidence? I do not think so but, maybe it was Smith who positioned these things there, either way, great idea! This kind of image will make an interested viewer stop and look for a while because nothing is straightforward in the complexities of this image.
The image above of David Sproxton, Peter Lord and Nick Park the founders of Aardman Animations and shot in Bristol, England 2008 surprised me in one big way and that is the fact that only the front man was sharp in focus. In the past when I have shot group portraits such as this I have always been critical of myself when I have not got the whole group in focus. In this image Parr decided that it would be ok to focus in this way and who would argue with him? If it is good enough for him then why not focus in this way?
The image is also quite cluttered in the background although there are images of Wallace and Gromit, the characters that Aardman designed. So, I assume this is one reason for the shallower depth of field because with this the main subjects will stand out prominent.
The image above of Cara Delevinge the model shot by Parr in Weston-Super-Mare, England 2012 reminded me of William Eggleston’s style instantly. Eggleston was widely credited for increasing the recognition of colour photography as an art form.
The image is very colour co-ordinated with the red and brown shades spreading through the whole image. The way the models legs are positioned she looks almost awkwardly sitting so that she is showing off the shoes which no doubt cost a small fortune. The style of the seating and the tables look as though she is sitting in a early 70’s cafe too which is when Eggleston was shooting mundane things like American gas stations, diners, and parking lots. Perhaps the only thing that is different is the fact that Parr was shooting a supermodel.
The image above of the late Gordan Banks OBE who was a professional footballer for various teams in top-flight football and also the national team as a goalkeeper is a classic portrait of someone in their own home. The token prop of a football is there, re-affirming the fact that portrait photographers use props. There is plenty of lighting in the image, the lamp and a ceiling light I would guess judging by the highlight on his forehead. I find there is nothing special about this photograph other than the fact it is of Gordan Banks.
And then there are portrait images of people that are just ‘way out there’ or totally outside the box! Parr’s image here of Dame Vivienne Westwood shows that you do not have to have traditional props or backgrounds to make an image work although it is Westwood after all. Although those who know her would get the subtlety of the t-shirt she is wearing and the fact that she supports the political cause of climate change. As for the shoes, tights and underwear, westwood’s brand helped shape the 1970’s uk punk scene.
“These portraits of the great, the good and the notorious have rarely been exhibited before. Parr portrays celebrities much as he photographs everyone else- in the end, they are only human.” Gallery curator