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"I’m the antidote to propaganda": A conversation with Martin Parr

Par Marie Gautier : Historienne de la photographie, Docteur - Université Paris I , Aurore Fossard : Doctorante en Etudes Cinématographiques, Chargée de cours en Photographie - Université Lumière-Lyon 2
Publié par Clifford Armion le 21/09/2012

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"Well I like bright colours. I took the palette that was used for commercial photography, especially in advertising and fashion, and I applied that to the art world because I’m fundamentally trying to create entertainment in my photographs. The idea is to make them bright and colourful but if you want to read a more serious message in the photographs then you can do it as well. But my prime aim is to make accessible entertainment for ‘the masses’. So it’s a serious message disguised as entertainment."

Grande-Bretagne. Angleterre. Eastbourne. 1995-1999 © Martin Parr / Magnum PhotosMarie Gautier: When did you realise that people on the beach could make an interesting subject?

Martin Parr: I guess because my parents were bird watchers I didn’t really go to the beaches when I was a child. If I did, it was to see birds rather than have ice cream and candyfloss and play in the sea. So this made me very excited when I realised how garish, how busy and how kitschy the seaside was. When I was at college in Manchester we used to go to Blackpool which is the biggest resort in the UK and I would photograph there in black and white. And then when I first moved to colour – from black and white – the first project I did was called The Last Resort. It was about a very run down seaside resort near to Liverpool and that’s when I really got hooked into the beach. It was a great subject matter.

Aurore Fossard: I wanted to come back to the title of your exhibition, Life is a beach. Can you tell us more about it?

M.P.: There are two or three colloquial bits of English which helped to contribute to this. First we have the expression ‘life is a bitch’ which when you say it is really bad. And then ‘life is a beach’ is when everything is going on really well and you’re very relaxed. But perhaps the most revealing meaning is this idea of all the reflections you get of national characteristics being played out on a beach. An Australian beach looks very different to an Indian beach which looks very different to an Italian beach. It’s as if we were naked, not physically, but we reveal ourselves on the beach. We show what we’re really like.

M.G.: In the exhibition there are almost no photographs of European beaches. Is that on purpose?

M.P.: There are some but not as many as there could be. The world is a big place and the Mediterranean is somewhat restricted. And also in places like France, you cannot photograph on the beach very well.

M.G.: So you didn’t take any pictures in France at all?

M.P.: Very few on the beach because despite France’s love of photography it’s very problematic to photograph in France. You’re likely to be sued, you technically need permission if you want to do anything with the photograph, so I only photograph in France if I absolutely have to. I’m doing a project on Paris and I had no choice but to come to France to do that. In fact I’ve just photographed this summer’s Paris Plage, so I was able to get Paris on the beach. This will be for an exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and a book in 2014.

M.G.: So you have a bit of an obsession with beaches?

M.P.: Well I am an obsessed person. I want to make this clear very early on: I’m very obsessed.

A.F.: Colour has been an important matter in your work. How do you stage colours on the beach?

M.P.: Well I like bright colours. I took the palette that was used for commercial photography, especially in advertising and fashion, and I applied that to the art world because I’m fundamentally trying to create entertainment in my photographs. The idea is to make them bright and colourful but if you want to read a more serious message in the photographs then you can do it as well. But my prime aim is to make accessible entertainment for ‘the masses’. So it’s a serious message disguised as entertainment.

A.F.: It’s quite striking to see that the water is always calm in your photograph, even in those taken on the ocean side. Is this part of your criteria when choosing a location?

M.P.: Well first I cannot swim! That’s why I’m on the beach. But also I’m interested in beaches when they’re very busy and most people go to the beach when it’s very hot and very nice and when you don’t get a stormy day. I’m interested in the place being exaggerated so that’s why I want a busy day if I can get it. Remember I’m creating fiction out of reality so I have to exaggerate reality. That’s one reason why I use flash: to make it more distant from reality. I’m creating a very subjective and very personal interpretation of a particular scene. Even as a documentary photographer, I’m trying to twist it as much as possible within the realms of reality.

A.F.: Do you always try to give some part to fiction in your series? Is fiction an important aspect of your work?

M.P.: Well all photographers are trying to create their vision, trying to create their world viewpoint. In order to do that you have to take out things and leave things in, you have to make a selection. That’s all part of a process: you cannot photograph everything, so you make choices about how you show it and the technique you apply to that. You have to make it personal.

A.F.: So fiction is a way for you to introduce subjectivity in your work although you are considered as a documentary photographer?

M.P.: When you are a documentary photographer you still have to make it very subjective and very personal. But nonetheless the information you gather does have some documentary value. It’s your job to ask yourself what will be interesting to us in the years to come. I want to leave a legacy, a personal interpretation, of what is going on in the world.

M.G.: So it’s a kind of testimony?

M.P.: When you look at what I photographed twenty-five years ago, you see changes in design, you see the different clothes people wear. This of course at the time would not have been considered as interesting, but they become even more interesting as the years pass by. That, to me, is a big part of what a photographer does.

M.G.: When we look at your work on beaches we can think of two other artists, Massimo Vitali and Rineke Dijkstra. Do you think beaches are symptoms of our times?

M.P.: There’s a tradition in America of photographing on the street and in Europe it seems to be the beach. It’s a subject matter that different photographs want to explore in many different ways. Of course the works of Massimo and Rineke are very different and complementary too. That’s very crucial: you recognise a Parr photo or a Vitali photo.

A.F.: One of the differences between your work and Vitali’s work is that we can actually see people on your photographs whereas in Vitali they’re just like little dots on the picture. You can see a lot of bodies in your photographs and it’s interesting to see how different those bodies are from the images that circulate in fashion, advertising and the media industry in general. Are you trying to emphasise that difference? Is this a statement you want to make?

M.P.: Most of the photographs we digest are a form of propaganda, so my job is to puncture that and to try and show it in a more personal way, almost based on reality although, as I said, I’m trying to exaggerate it. Let me give you two examples. One of how propaganda functions as a way of selling something. If you go to a supermarket to buy some food, you look at the packet and then you look at the food inside: they don’t ever look the same. It’s a basic lie. All packaging is a lie. Let me look at another example of propaganda where a concept is being sold. When we were trying to do family albums – now we’re doing it with phones – everyone is always smiling, everyone is always happy. When you bring up kids, the idea of a baby crying is something that happens all the time, it’s inevitable, but you would never have that on a photograph. You would always show the kids smiling. There’s a certain way to photograph, there are rules laid down to try and show that you have a perfect family. We are so governed by these rules that for example you’re allowed or even encouraged to take photographs at weddings – they are very positive – but you would be scorned upon if you took photos at a funeral. You never take a camera to a funeral, it’s disrespectful. It just shows you how programmed we are in our society about how we use photography. My job is to question all these assumptions and that’s why I’m a photographer. Even Facebook pictures are propaganda because everyone is always smiling. There are a million Facebook pictures loaded every day. People are smiling and they are with this friend or that friend… that’s boring! The only thing you’re allowed to do in Facebook is put more picture of you smiling with everyone you know.

M.G.: Are you influenced by Pop Art? Do you feel you have the same approach of the power of images?

M.P.: Well I’m a very promiscuous photographer which means that I’d be quite happy showing my photos in an art context where the references back to Pop Art may be present. But I’m not an art world snob. I’m happy to use my pictures in advertising, I’ll do my own work and I’ll do fashion, I’ll do everything, I don’t care because I love the fact that photography is so democratic. You can do everything and function everywhere and have different meanings: that’s the fun of it.

A.F.: Would you take pictures of celebrities? Would you steal pictures from celebrities?

M.P.: I do photograph celebrities. The better they are known the more difficult and awkward they are to photograph because they become engrossed in their own world and they’re very distant. Minor celebrities are good because they’re still very grateful to have attention. Big celebrities can be resentful because they are so fed up with people hammering them all the time.

M.G.: Photo books are very important for you. You are very much involved in photo book making. What is the interest of a photo book compared to an exhibition?

M.P.: One of my strongest beliefs is how important the photographic book is in our photographic history. I enjoy doing books with my own work but I also enjoy collecting and disseminating photographic books. Talking to other photographers I know that most of them have been inspired at some point by a book that has changed their lives. Yet photographic history is written by theoreticians and academics who don’t understand how important a photography book is to an individual photographer. The photo book is trying to make a different history from the viewpoint of the photographer. Along with all the other people that are working on photo books, I’m trying to take it away from the academics, because I think they’ve got most of it wrong, and trying to bring back the history into the hands of photographers. We want our own history back. It has been taken from us and photo books are part of the way we can reclaim it. For example I’m lending some books to the Tate in London for a big show they’re doing this autumn about William Klein and Daido Moriyama and the thing that connected them both was the photographic book. When Daido Moriyama as a young photographer saw William Klein’s New York, it changed his life. The thing that brings these two people together is the book. In that high cathedral of British art which only in the last ten years has embraced photography, they are making the book the central player. People are slowly understanding how important and crucial that is.

M.G.: In A History of Photobook, volume 2, it is written about Vitali’s work that I quote : « Beaches are precarious territories between the sea and the Nirvana’s quest and a refuge against daily worries and urban wrecking areas that people try to flee from ». Does it sound like an echo to you?

M.P.: The biggest subject of my photographic career has been leisure time. It’s how we define who we are: we all have to go to work, and I’ve also photographed that, but leisure time is the most important subject matter for me. I’ve done a lot of work around tourism. I did a book called Small World which addresses this. Tourism is the biggest industry in the world and the ambiguity of tourism is perfect to illustrate with photography. When we think of a place like Machu Pitcchu or the pyramids, we have this image in our head of what it would be like and when we get there the actual reality is quite different. You never really expect anyone else to be there. In the photos of Machu Pitcchu you never see people. So when you get there and there are thousands of people trying to enjoy it at the same time it’s a problem. So I can show the reality of the place and the chaos against the mythology in the background. The empty picture of Machu Pitcchu is yet another form of propaganda. They’re trying to get you there. In all newspapers, when you have those travel documents, the purpose is to sell travel advertising, and travel advertising has to rely on the fundamental lie that you’re going on holiday to enjoy yourself when in fact it’s the most stressful thing we do in our lives.

A.F.: Going back to the theme of the beach, what kind of relationship do you have with your subjects? The beach is a public place but people are doing intimate things. How do you approach people?

M.P.: It’s quite an intimate place but at the same time it’s very anonymous and very casual. I like talking to people, I’m a very sociable person, but generally when you’re on the beach you’ll probably end up not talking to people, although if you are in India you have twenty-nine things trying to be sold to you before lunch. People are talking to you because they want you to buy their T-shirts or they want you to come to have your ears cleaned. The other thing with the beach and with tourism is that people expect to see cameras. In a sense it’s quite easier to get away, although these days of course if you’re photographing and there are kids on the beach, people get worried about that.
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

A.F.: In 1992, you talked about The Last Resort (1982) and said: « In New Brighton, I was looking for the vulnerabilities you can get within a public situation. Unless it hurts, unless there’s some vulnerability, I don’t think you’re going to get good photographs. » Thirty years after The Last Resort, do you still have this kind of relationship to your subject? Is it the way you photograph people on the beach?

M.P.: Of course. You want the moment when things start to reveal themselves. You want that very busy day when it’s a bit chaotic. You want that day at Machu Pitcchu when three thousand people are trying to watch it at the same time. This summer I was photographing the Louvre and the Louvre is just a zoo during the summer! In the Mona Lisa room it’s complete anarchy. There’s a thirty people depth trying to watch the painting. Everyone is holding up their iPhone to try to photograph it. I was absolutely screaming with delight. That’s what I call vulnerability. If I had been there on a Tuesday morning in February there would have been a very dignified ten people queuing to get a look at it. But I’m happy when it’s chaotic and anarchic. So it’s the opposite of propaganda. If the Louvre wanted publicity photos they would not come to me. They would have everyone looking nice and orderly and very calm. So I’m the antidote to propaganda.

M.G.: In Great Britain – like in France – Photography has been through a difficult institutional process of recognition. Now that you are part of what we call « contemporary photography » which is neither « Photography of art » nor absolute Fine art, do you think documentary was the answer to help photography being part of culture?

M.P.: Thirty years ago, Creative Camera, a British magazine, interviewed Alan Bowness who was then the director of the Tate, and they said to him 'why don’t you show photographs'? And he said 'we do, if they’re by artists'. Twenty years ago, the slow but sure movement of acceptability of photography within the art world started to happen, probably initiated by the Becher school with Gursky and Ruff and those people who made photos that were big, exclusive and expensive. The art world liked that. So photography became integrated into the art world about twenty years ago. And then in 2002, the Tate finally announced that they loved photography too. The Tate Modern which was started twelve years ago has always had foreign directors who didn’t come with that baggage that British curators had. So they immediately embraced photography.

A.F.: Can we say that most of your work is a tribute to the lower classes and the people that are trying to deal with everyday life?

M.P.: It’s not entirely true because I’ve photographed all classes. I’m middle class and I did a book about the middle classes. I’ve recently done a project on wealthy people called Luxury, so I’m very democratic. But of course I’ve photographed more working class subjects than anything else and for sure The Last Resort was very political. It was during the height of Thatcherism and here we have the shabby backdrops, the place is falling apart, yet in front of it the domestic activity is being played out. So there’s a contrast between domesticity and the collapse of society as personified by rubbish and debris and decay.


Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de l'exposition Life's a Beach, organisée à la Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, et du festival "Rencontres 2012 de la photographie Lyon sur la Méditerranée", au cours duquel Martin Parr s'est rendu à l'ENS à l'invitation de David Gauthier, chargé de Mission Images et responsable des Affaires culturelles de l'école.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Marie Gautier, Aurore Fossard, ""I’m the antidote to propaganda": A conversation with Martin Parr", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2012. Consulté le 20/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/photographie/i-m-the-antidote-to-propaganda-a-conversation-with-martin-parr