Martin Parr is one of Britain’s most successful photographers. Since he began working professionally in the mid-1970s, he has published almost 50 books of photography and has been featured in some 80 solo exhibitions. A retrospective exhibition that opened at London’s Barbican Art Gallery in 2002 is still touring major museums around the world.
Parr has also made films and television programs and has been a member of the Magnum Photographic Corp. since 1994.
Parr’s work brings photojournalism into the realm of art, and his special gift lies in his ability to focus an unflinching eye on everyday life in all its banal absurdity and pretension.
His photographs are as embarrassing as they are entertaining, particularly for anyone who can identify to any extent with his subjects: often British and working class. Brits on their seaside holidays, Brits driving their cars, Brits and their food, Brits and their ghastly fashion mistakes: These are Parr’s specialties.
Over the years, however, he has broadened his subject matter, and most recently Aperture has published Mexico, his photographic study of the invasion of U.S. commercial imagery into that country. Prints from this Mexican series are at the Janet Borden gallery in New York until Nov. 22.
Parr has also been an enthusiastic advocate for photography as a rich medium of contemporary expression—and he is a particular fan of the photobook, as evidenced not only by his own prolific publishing schedule, but also by The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 (Phaidon; 2004), on which Parr collaborated with critic Gerry Badger. Volume II appeared last month.
Both of these lavish publications, which collectively cover more than 1,000 examples of photobooks from the 19th century through today, are as passionate as they are scholarly. The two volumes have focused attention not only on the classics of the medium—publications from Walker Evans, August Sander, Nobuyoshi Araki—but also on esoteric examples (including a 1903 book dedicated to the image of bread slices) that Parr and Badger have rescued from obscurity.
Martin, you are not only a highly successful photographer, you are also one of the medium’s most enthusiastic celebrants. Have you always been convinced that photography would be your principal vehicle of expression?
Well, you can never quite know why or how anyone becomes a photographer, but I’d known from the age of 14 that I was going to be a photographer, and I’ve maintained that and kept it up. I feel as strongly about photography now as I did 35 years ago when I first discovered it.
I’ve always regarded you primarily as a photographer of the British, and it seems to me that one of your strengths is your ability to photograph “from the inside,” as it were. As you tackled this Mexico project, were there any special strategies you adopted to avoid photographing Mexico like an outsider?
No, because it’s meant to be an outsider’s view, which I’m quite happy with. It’s an exploration of the American influence in Mexico, and the battle between American and Mexican culture. I didn’t need any particular insight to spot that because you can spot it a mile off. Of course I like taking up clichés, and making pictures around images that are clichés in themselves. So I had no problem. It’s superficial, clichéd, outsider—all of those things. I quite like that. [Laughs]
In that case, did you find it a relief to be able to work as an outsider for a change?
No, because that’s how I always work. It’s no different to other places. It was the agenda that was slightly different. I wanted to do this set of pictures about a mix of cultures.
Let me ask you about the second volume of your photobook history. It’s been a huge project. These two books are something like 650 pages long between them, and I sense it’s been a real labor of love for you. How long have you and Gerry Badger been working on them?
We began this project eight years ago. And of course it is a labor of love because a project like this is very complicated. It’s subjective, and if I were to do it again, even now, there are things I’ve discovered since the books have been published that I would probably put in, and I’d move things around. The volumes are a statement at a particular point in time, and in that sense I think they work quite well.
So are you contemplating a supplement?
No, no, no! [Laughs] It would be insane to do that. It’s only been out two weeks! You’d need another 10 years before you did it again, if at all. Other people will come along and do different things now. These books are a contribution to an ongoing look at and survey of and realignment of the importance of the photo book.
During these eight years that you’ve been seeking out and collecting and trying to make sense of photobooks, has your attitude about their importance changed?
No, not at all. My commitment to the photographic book is greater than ever before. As books get more and more interesting, and there are more and more of them to select from, the genre continues. And despite the online presence of photography now, there’s no photographer that wouldn’t want to have a book published.
Would you say that when photography functions as a component of a book that that is the ultimate form of photographic statement?
Well, I personally would probably choose a book over an exhibition or a magazine. That’s my personal preference. I like the fact that a book lasts, I like that a book can travel, I like the fact that a book is a tactile object, I like handling a book. All of these things are in its favor.