Research notes – Martin Parr

Martin Parr (b. 1952) is a British photographer.

Some of Parr’s work involves documenting crowded public spaces. In particular, I had a lok at two of his books on beach photography: “The Last Resort”, photographed in New Brighton and the Wirral peninsula in the mid-80s; and “Life’s a Beach”, a subsequent compilation that includes some pictures from “The Last Resort” project as well as other beach photographs from across the world.

For “The Last Resort” (1) I have made the following general observations on the book presentation and general characteristics of the images:

  • All pictures 3:2, with horizontal orientation and presented in bright colour
  • All seemingly shot using fill-in flash.
  • Normal point of view (likely used a normal lens)
  • Some pictures are in pairs, most are shown on their own.
  • There are some very basic illustrations on the opposite side of each image which are seemingly related to the picture (and which in my opinion are a bit kitsch and distracting)

There are many crowd pictures in “The Last Resort”. Some of them are there just to show how large the crowd is (people by the pool – link), others show people in groups which are layered by distance from the camera, creating fluidity in viewing and a sense of story (see for instance this and this). Parr goes very close to its subjects, which, with a normal lens, often implies that people are cut and we do not get to see their faces directly. In one of the pictures, in which a lady is trying to feed some chips to her two kids (link to picture), her head is cut off , but we somehow manage to see her (and what she is doing with her hands through her reflection in a window. Additional head shadows to the side and a person cut off on the extreme left complete the scene to give the feeling of a crowded space.

Parr’s framing balances the people in his pictures with structural and other objects founds on the ground and on tables, including (prominently) food and rubbish. In addition to anchoring the compositions, these elements also provide context to the subjects and their actions, and oppose directly any preconceptions about beauty that the spectator may bring, or would normally expect to be avoided in photography. As a matter of fact, rather than trying to avoid them, Parr seems to embraces them rigorously, to the point of not even cropping numerous examples of stray objects or persons at the edge of the frame that would normally be considered distracting but that in here are integral part of the reality portrayed.

In all the crowd pictures, there is something always happening. These are all action shots which are grabbed from real life rather than staged. In many cases, there is a subject or a group of subjects in the foreground that are doing something specific, minding their own business, which is quite remarkable because with the fill flash and being relatively close to the action, it is impossible that they would not have noted the photographer. The pictures do not seem contrived or staged, but at the same time it is hard to imagine them being entirely candid, give the set-up. Perhaps this is Parr’s way of instilling a little bit of doubt into the spectator, increasing in this way the curiosity for exploring the tableaux in greater detail.

“Life’s a beach” (2) expands on “The Last Resort”‘s original ideas by compiling beach pictures from across the globe. The book itself is of a more compact size than “The Last Resort”, but contains a greater number of images. Here are some general observations on the layout:

  • Most pictures are 3:2, landscape oriented.
  • Some pictures are square or have a portrait orientation
  • Most pictures are in pairs, but some are shown individually, accompanied by an illustration on the opposite page, again seemingly related to the picture.
  • Pictures are identified by a place and date.

Like in the case of “The Last Resort”, there seems to be always at least two planes of action in Parr’s crowd photographs, with either a subject doing something very close to the camera, or being out of focus in front of the camera (eg see here), with the crowds as a background. One sometimes wonder if this is a picture of a crowd or the crowd is there just to provide background or to fill the frame. In some case, when the actions of the foreground subjects are quite distinct from that of the background elements, these pictures feel more like portraits with a busy background (for example, see this).

But when a subject does not dominate the frame, there is always a pattern on these pictures. They seem like crowds, but there is a reason why Parr has taken a shot. It is not random. There is harmony, either provided by subjects doing similar things (eg lounging on the sand, swimming, eating) or by clusters of different active subjects layered inside the frame (see here, for example).

The pairing of pictures is usually easy to follow, and generally, there is harmony or complementarity between the frames, although this is sometimes not too obvious, and in some cases seemingly related pictures (for example of people doing the same thing, like reading the newspaper) are separated by a totally unrelated image in the middle, as if to break the flow to keep the reader on the edge.

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(1) Parr, M., 2009. The Last Resort. Dewi Lewis Publishing.

(2) Parr, M., 2013. Life’s a Beach. Aperture.

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