Martin Parr

In writing up my learning log for Assignment 5, I referenced the work of Martin Parr.  My tutor suggested I should expand on this reference, hence this entry which has been prepared following a day researching Parr at The British Library.  I’ve placed the following images on my Pinterest board on http://pinterest.com/lightseeker99/martin-parr/

Pinterest: Martin Parr

  • Badminton Horse Trials, 1988, © Martin Parr
  • Lakeside Tea Room, Southwold © Martin Parr
  • Honister Pass, 1994, © Martin Parr
  • Beijing World Park, 1997, © Martin Parr
  • Galway Races, 1997, © Martin Parr
Relating Parr to my Assignment 5:
Explaining the influence of Parr on my work is not a particularly easy thing to do but I will make an attempt.  In this assignment, I, like Parr, sought to capture the ‘tourist burdened with guide books, equipment and expectations’, [Williams, 2012], although much of the time I was that tourist.  I made images, A5-A for example, in moderately challenging circumstances where relatively few people take photographs – you can see this is in the reaction of the main passenger on the left hand side of the image.  Similarly, I have tried to capture a sense of the incongruous, for example the monk in A5-C and the driver’s reflected face in A5-G.  In some images, I have also tended towards a slightly more saturated colour than my usual taste, notably in A5-K.  There is something more of Parr in my images, although it is difficult to define.  I would not say that I am working in a conceptual way, nor is my work art in the sense that Parr’s is.  Perhaps I am like Parr in that I am one of those:
“who find plesaure through loking at the particular, but always with a mind on the larger social view”, [Phillips, 2007]

Research:
Parr, [1952-], studied at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970 and amongst his contemporaries were Brian Griffin and Daniel Meadows, (see my earlier post here).  Some consider that at this time, ‘Britain was asleep photographically’ ,[Phillips, 2007], but Parr, particularly through Creative Camera magazine, became aware of what was happing in the US and the work of Winogrand, (see this post),  and Friedlander in particular.  John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (1973), was an important influence on Parr as it included both snapshots and ordinary pictures as well as those by artist – photographers.
“Parr and his fellow students devoured this book [The Americans, Robert Frank, 1959], a copy of which he bough in Manchester although it was generally unknown to his lecturers there. [Phillips, 2007]
In the early 1980s, Parr switched to colour photography and in 1982 published ‘The Last Resort’, arguably a defining moment in British Photography that generated extreme criticism.  However, how views have changed over time:
“At the time, Martin Parr’s series of photographs from New Brighton, a dilapidated seaside spot on the Wirral, were seen as condescending.  But now they look humourously engaged and fond, bringing Bristich working-class nook and crannies into view, and reminding us how unusual that was, (and is), in art photography.” [Badger, 2010].
Parr, a founder of the New European Color Photography School, works in a conceptual way showing in art galleries as well as photography galleries. Parr credits Tony Ray-Jones,  an important bridge between UK and US photography, as his most important influence.  In his more recent work, notably Common Sense (1990, [xref], he openly acknowledges the influence of Nobuyshi Araki and The Banquet .
Parr is often described as  aggressive  photographer, both by the viewer and the subject. For example, the Bristol Evening Standard reported that one of the women in Parr’s The Cost of Living project, from which my first example image is drawn, claimed that she had been ‘photo-raped’. I found Badger’s view on the perceptions of Parr helpful:
“because his various projects have tended to deal specifically with an uncompromisingly direct, even confrontational depicition of social groups [he] is branded as aggressive. which is then conflated in many people’s minds with cynicism.” [Badger, 2010]
Val Williams provides a useful statement that I think summarises some key aspects of Parr’s work:
“He has also honed in on types within society….the middle-aged woman with lipstick very bright or a little smudges, leaning forward for a kiss, is a familiar character in Parr’s documentary cast list, as is the tourist burdened with guide books, equipment and expectations.  People, reading and eating in cars have particularly engaged Parr, as have shoppers, making small decisions, looking, wondering, searching.” , [Williams, 2002].
Further references:
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Eves Arnold: In Retrospect

I was up very early today and so spent some time catching up on photography related documentaries I’ve recorded from the tv.  BBC4 recently repeated the 2006 Omnibus documentary on Eves Arnold.  This covered the full range of her work from early days in Harlem to her more well known work in Russia, China, South Africa and with celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe.  Some of the points that I picked out as interesting were:

  • Arnold states that the difference between an average and fine photographer is ‘the wit to take advantage of the accident’.
  • Some of those she photographed, Angelica Houston for instance, commented that they never saw Arnold capturing the moments that appeared in the images. Arnold herself stated that she starts behind the scenes with the hope that by the time the action takes place, they will have forgotten she’s there.
  • Arnold came across to her subjects as modest and self-depracating – she ‘receded into the background’ but, this turned to her advantage with her subjects become more willing to suggest ideas and engage, (with the exception of Margaret Thatcher who took this to the extreme – Arnold stated Thatcher was her most difficult subject within her career).
  • Michael Arnold, (her grandson), commented that the most important thing he had learned from Arnold was “to know how to look at something rather than photograph something”.

All-in-all an interesting documentary and an hour well spent.

Garry Winogrand

Winogrand (1928-1984)

My tutor suggested I would find it helpful to take a look at some of Garry Winogrand’s work and so I spent a Saturday at The British Library looking at:

  • Winogrand: Figments from the Real World by John Szarkowski; and
  • The Man in the Crowd – the uneasy streets of Garry Winogrand.  

Before looking at the photographs, I thought it would be helpful to understand something of the man himself, his background and his contemporaries.  Winogrand had been studying painting at Columbia University when a visit to the university’s darkroom led him to abandon his course and take up photography instead.  In his first few years, photography earned him little money.  He worked as a stringer from 1951 and acquired an agent in 1954.  During the 1950s he worked as a photojournalist during the boom years for the picture magazines but, as this work faded away in the early 60’s he switched to commercial work. His close friend and peer was Lee Friedlander.  Later in his life, once his personal work had become more widely accepted, Winogrand taught at art schools and universities.

Winogrand told his contemporary Tod Papageorge that he felt he only began to become a serious photographer in 1960.  According to Szarkowski, Winogrand was part of ‘the available light revolution’.  Amongst other things, this would have meant using graphic qualities to impart meaning and also moving in closer to include less in the frame. Although not originally knowledgeable about other photographers, Winogrand had been shown American Photographs by Walker Evans, this caused him to realise that photography could be used intelligently and the book remained a significant influence on his work.  From 1960, Winogrand began to photograph the ‘magic power’ of women on the street leading to his, (weakest), book, ‘Women are Beautiful‘.

Pictures of family outings led Winogrand to realise that there was more to Central Park Zoo and this led to his book ‘The Animals’ in 1969.  Szarkowski, (1988) comments:

“In Winogrand’s zoo…the animals are not more important than the humans, and are in fact united with them in a peculiar kind of symbiosis. Winogrand’s zoo is a kind of theater, in which humans and the lower vertebrates act out in parable the comic drama of modern urban life”

In his street pictures of the early 60’s, Winogrand developed two pictorial strategies:
  • exploring the unexplored possibilities of the wide-angle lens (hand held) e.g. photographing an entire pedestrian from a distance normally used to photograph faces, (and with interesting geometric consequences – although he was not interested in attention grabbing optical effects)
  • tilting the frame, making a vertical near the edge square and so discovering a freedom of composition and perhaps, through sloping lines, implying connections between people.

Note: I relate to both these points.  During my assignments, I repeatedly commented on the fact that a very wide angle lens could be used very close to people who would assume, wrongly, that they were not the subject of the photograph.  However, in conjunction with this finding, I have struggled to find the best approach to the distortion of horizontal and vertical lines near the edges of the frames.  

Winogrand is often quoted as saying that “he photographed to see what the things that interested him looked like as photographs”.  Szarkowski, (1988) went further and considered Winogrand’s approach to subject size:

“Winogrand had consciously been interested in the question of viewing distance since at least the mid-sixties, by which time he understood that that closer is merely easier, not necessarily better.  How small in relation to the total field can the most important part of the subject be and still be clearly described? Or, more precisely, how is the meaning of the most important part of the subject affected by everything else within the frame.”

Winogrand was a prodigious worker throughout his life.  He left more than 300,00 0 unprocessed exposures at the time of his death.  His working methods remained straightforward, Tri-X film, D-76 developer and Polycontrast paper.  Two further quotes  help to sum him up:

“.. Gary Winogrand, whose ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life” from Szarkowski, (1988)

and

“He was concerned with what was on the surface, it’s uppermost layer, the open secret, so patently superficial that everyone missed it.” Lifson, (1999).

The images

Below is a slide show of some of the images I particularly related to.

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Some of the reasons his work appeals to me include the unlikely and implausible subjects he finds, for example the monkey in the convertible in ‘Park Avenue, New York 1959’ and the incongruity of the man carrying a rolled up object in ‘New York n.d.’ .  Winogrand’s images also demonstrate what Barthes termed the ‘punctum’, for example the teeth of the brown bear against the bottom of the sign in ‘Central Park Zoo, NYC 1962’, the plaster on the nose of the man in ‘Los Angeles 1964’ and particularly, the serviceman who has lost his legs sitting on the ground in ‘American Legion Convention, Dallas 1964’.  These are powerful images indeed.

I have enjoyed learning more about Garry Winogrand and hope to take some of that learning forward into both how I approach the next assignment and also how  I approach some individual shots.