Martin Parr’s iconic photography explores scenes of contemporary life in a way that is at once surreal and instantly recognisable. There aren’t many living photographers who have made their way firmly into public consciousness, but Martin Parr’s work seems to have an enduring appeal.
Parr sees the world in the way that alien, having never seen human beings before, might do so. His work, a collision between anthropology, documentary photography and slightly surreal aesthetics, reflects our own strangeness back on ourselves: the ways we choose to dress ourselves, the cultural rituals that we knowingly or unknowingly undertake, the ways we shop, drink, interact.
Martin Parr: Return to Manchester, exhibited at the Manchester Art Gallery until April 2019, features a selection of Parr’s work from his move to the city in the 1970s to the present day. His early work spans topics from the profound to the seemingly frivolous-his photographs from inside a mental hospital sit alongside a game: the objective of which is to match real-life couples together. Parr’s work has been described as “satirical”, but to me he seems to point out the similarities between us: we can see ourselves in the subjects of Parr’s photographs, sunbathing in unflattering positions on the beach or waiting at a bus stop. He manages to take these ordinary scenes and turns them into slightly uncanny photographs, freezing expressions and scenery into permanent reminders that people are really, really weird.
For instance, there’s a photograph taken in Wells, Somerset in 2000 of a man’s lower body. He holds a cup of tea and balances a cake on his leg. Such a sight would seem unremarkable, but Parr has highlighted this idiosyncrasy – drawing attention to the extraordinary minutiae of human behaviour (that’s Parr’s scene). It is an extraordinarily tender way of seeing the world.
Coming from Surrey to Manchester in the early seventies, Parr studied at (and was nearly expelled from) Manchester Polytechnic. In some of these images from his university days, the bleakness of the city is apparent – its prevalent racism, poor infrastructure and rigid class system reveal themselves through his striking black and white images; in one, there is clear tension between a group of black men passing some white people at a bus stop. More than social commentary, though, these images reveal the remarkable contradictions posed by existing as a human being: in Bopper Girls, a series of photographs of fans of The Osmonds, a teenage girl stands grinning in a rubbish-strewn area of unpaved land, a bleak row of terraced houses visible in the distance.
In Parr’s photographs, we are all the girl in the painstakingly hand-embellished trousers, smiling from the rubble.