Well known for his satirical interpretation of the British classes through his artwork, Martin Parr is currently showing his retrospective at Gateshead’s BALTIC gallery. Francesca Gavin talks to the photographer about his covert approach to attaining his shots and being unashamedly middle class.

What does Britishness look like? It’s something that has been at the heart of much of Martin Parr’s work for over thirty years. His pioneering photography is instantly recognisable, an adjective for a certain very English aesthetic. From his early black and white interiors filled with chintz and TVs to chip shops in New Brighton. From close cropped acid red sunburnt faces to fairy cakes decorated with union jacks. He’s shot the rest of the world – from Tokyo to Morocco – but his approach and eyes could only have come from the UK.
The photographer is sitting with a cup of tea at his home in Bristol. The beautiful Georgian house is located in a practically pedestrianised area of the city. It is beautifully middle class. Nice wood tables and lots of garden space. Class is something that’s always been something that emerges in his work – the nuances that define strata society. That peculiarly British obsession.

“I am classically middle-class. I could not be more so and always will be. Why pretend otherwise? Of course in Britain we are more class-conscious. I have done more working-class communities. I did a book on middle-classes once in the late ‘80s. I like all the clichés associated with all classes. I look for clichés. Often the work I do is cliché-bound. It’s a familiarity which I can exploit.”

There is equally pathos and humour in his approach. Irony and vulnerability. Parr himself likes to watch comedians – enthusing about performers including Stuart Lee, Rod Gilbert and Kevin Bridges. “I’m fascinated by this whole business of what makes people laugh in terms of observations.” Parr’s work sometimes has the truth and immediacy of comedy – with the sound turned off. Part of it is his use of colour – which at times has veered to hyper, overwhelming saturation. “I think black and white, by nature, tends to be more nostalgic anyway. When I moved to colour I wanted to do more modern, contemporary subject matters so it automatically lent itself to colour and that sort of palette, which is often associated with commercial photography. Serious photography had a palette of black and white.”

The photographer’s latest series is an interesting document of social excess and decline entitled Luxury. From Dubai to China to Miami Basel – the images feel like the fall of Rome in giant sunglasses with a glass of champagne gripped desperately in one hand and a miniature dog in the other. “It’s basically people and money. When I was shooting it, of course, we didn’t know we were gonna leap into this crisis. So now, looking back, it’s slightly different. It’s more like an epitaph. Everyone was going completely mad in terms of trying to out-spend and out-debt and out-luxurise each other.” Parr entered the international world of the wealthy – horse races, art events, fashion shows, places where the rich were ‘enjoying’ themselves. “There’s a gene in me that has a responsibility if you like, to record and interpret the society that we live in. Not only in the UK, but generally. It’s a very subjective viewpoint but there is this documentary responsibility, which I can never get away from.”

Parr takes images of people unaware, where they expect to see photographers and ignore them. Despite being so tall, he is surprisingly unobtrusive when on the prowl for images. Wandering an art opening at the Rubell Collection in Miami during Art Basel he seemed delightfully invisible – bar a giant phallic flash diffuser which jutted out from the camera around his neck. “I can’t tell you what I do. Because only if you see me do it, can you explain it. I [take photographs] so naturally and so intuitively.”

Often the images can feel a little haphazard, cropped in strange ways, intentionally off kilter. Visually the Luxury series is less focused on details then Parr’s work a decade ago in for example ‘Common Sense’, with its acid pink close ups of fairy cakes and chips. The hyper-colour of his earlier work is also changing from the strong, overwhelming pop palette. “That was something that came with film and amateur film and flash, so I don’t have that now. They’re still colourful because the things I photograph are generally colourful but it’s not quite as super-saturated. I’m trying to get away from that to a certain extent…”

He used to use 67 or 35mm film but has moved onto digital. He doesn’t edit himself as he goes along, generally storing it until he decides what to print. His approach is fast. “I’m very fast in everything. People are always amazed how quickly I do it. Sometimes you have to make it look as if you’re lasting longer. They get worried. My question is Why does everyone else take so long?”

Parr always wanted to be a photographer – with a direct clarity which seems to define him as a person. Originally from Surrey, he began taking photographs aged 13 encouraged by his amateur photographer grandfather. He went to college in Manchester in 1970 aged 18 and was working pretty full-on from that point and became part of the renaissance of independent British photography that emerged in the 1970s. He joined Magnum Photos in 1994 and has published over 60 books. Parr is very successful commercially alongside his artwork – though largely working abroad in fashion and advertising. He’s shot fashion spreads for magazines like Madame Figaro and French ELLE and even published his own fashion newspaper in recent years. But his interest is of course not straightforward. “When I do a fashion shoot I have no notion or don’t even take on board what label it is. I wouldn’t know a Prada from a Gucci if you stuck it in front of me.”

There was always a touch of autobiography in his work. “I’m a tourist myself. I’m middle-class myself. I’m a consumer myself. So, many of the things I’ve looked at are things that I am myself.” He notes, “One of the things you do with photography is, it has a therapeutic element so it can help to identify my particular strange relationship to Britain, a sort of love-hate relationship, you can help to define that through working it through, if you like. So that’s something that does go on. You don’t reach conclusions. You just clarify your thoughts.”

Parr is currently showing a giant retrospective at BALTIC Centre of Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Entitled Parrworld, the exhibition shows a large selection of the photographer’s iconic imagery and his latest Luxury series. However 60% focuses on the artist’s collections – rare Japanese photography books, photographic prints by his contemporaries include a large number of British documentary artists, a small dip into his monstrous collection of postcards and the weird stuff he gleans from the world like a miner panning for gold. These works are being displayed in vitrines like perfect museum objects. Obama campaign flip flops. Sadam Hussein watches. Margaret Thatcher Miner’s Strike memorabilia. Bin Laden bumph. 9/11 ephemera. The objects have political connections and a sense of coming from one specific climax in history. They walk a line between serious, referencing war and unrest, but are often incredibly banal and funny. You can’t help but feel Parr has his tongue in his cheek when he chooses what he collects.

“Some are political, some are not. But there’s often an element of the political people. There’s a massive amount of Obama ephemera created so I just dipped into and picked some of the things that I thought were interesting. The more obscure things rather than plates and mugs. Like Obama condoms.” What is interesting is how some of the propaganda items are in favour of say Saadam Hussein and very similar objects against. The boundaries get very blurry. The objects continue Parr’s satirical eye on the work. “There’s an inherent ambiguity in them.”

Veering between social commentary and fiction, directness and ambiguity – the collections have a strong relationship to his imagery. “I think of my photography as being a form of collecting. You’re going out, finding pictures and making sense of them all, making sense of the world, putting it into a project, trying to order it, to give it some sense of narrative and functionality,”

Words: Francesca Gavin

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #20, Nov/Dec 2009