On Thursday I met up with fellow student Carol Street at the Guildhall Art Academy, London to view Martin Parr’s Unseen City exhibition. Parr’s prolific output and overall project aimed at capturing Englishness means there are several Parr exhibitions dotted about the UK at the moment, including one at the Barbican; which is where I went first, before being kindly reminded by Carol via text message that I should have been at the Guildhall. Getting confused about venues says more about me I’m sure than it does about Parr – but the point is, there is something worth considering about Parr and this huge amount of work all over the country at the moment. His project into Englishness is long running and vast. But by the end of my visit I was a bit confused about how I felt about this work, despite having realised exactly where I was meant to be physically.
Carol and I also stayed for the curator’s talk after viewing the exhibition, but we were only 2 of 4 people there, which might suggest the talks have not been publicised very well or that Martin Parr, despite being one of the most influential and important photographers in the UK, is nevertheless a niche public entity. Nevertheless he is currently all over the place in exhibitions and being written about in lots of newspapers and magazines. Parr can now say with utmost confidence that he is able to situate himself at the very core of the establishment and right across it too.
Unseen City may look on the surface like it is about the City and the ancient traditions that continue to take place there. It may look like an inquiry into an aspect of Englishness, class, tradition, banking, the role of the City in the UK, and historical links to the current day. All salient issues, especially in light the current, but soon to be finalised -for the foreseeable future anyway -, debate surrounding Brexit (If we leave Europe, it is feared, many foreign investment companies within the Square Mile might also leave, and idiosyncratic middle-aged English men will be left alone to get on with their dressing-up games). And of course the exhibition is all of those things. But Parr’s presence and his camera along with the many subjects’ camera phones all seep into the underlying motivations/subtext of the exhibition.
Is this an exhibition about Englishness, or about the role of photography? Or is it actually about Parr? Is it about the end of Royalty and the triumph of modern celebrity over ancient institutions?
In fact the most compelling thing I took away from the Guildhall was that Parr is not only able to situate himself in places that would once have seemed difficult, unless you were born into the establishment, but that he was also able to take some very unusual photographs of the Queen. He challenges traditional ideas of portraiture and uses the royal figurehead to do so. Another famous example of a commoner turning things around was Thomas Cromwell, for whom, let’s face it, things ended badly.
Parr recognises that the ancient ceremonies may look increasingly irrelevant, yet they still inform so much about the way in which our social structures function – hence the body of work. Many of the rituals are esoteric and private, even so, often performed publicly. So the public can come and see what they are not a part of, or only a part of in quite a limited and distant way. And take pictures on their phones. Relying on his name, Parr was able to approach the Guildhall, an ancient bastion of City life, and request access to the events, making it possible to photograph from unique positions – which most subjects cannot do. By doing this, he is at the same time an integral part of the establishment as well as an examiner of it from within. (Parr was not born into the social elite, and went to the same university, previously a polytechnic, that I did.)
Looking around the photographs I was struck by several things. My dad, if he’d been alive, would wonder round thinking – nice pictures of fascinating history. How lovely, he’d say, to see all this pomp and splendour. I, however, walk around and see youngsters taking part in traditions that are far removed from the lives of most English children, middle-aged men playing dress up in the back streets of London, peculiar medieval pomp and ceremony that still forms part of British social life, despite only a tiny minority of British subjects having anything to do with it whatsoever. The author’s attitude at first sight looks fairly benign and open, leaving viewers to make up their own mind about what they are seeing. But the more you consider it, the less that appears.
Why, my father may have asked, can we not see the Queen’s face here? (Although to be fair to him, he was certainly more sophisticated than that.) I am aware my own reading is informed by my own political attitude and interests. As photographer I appreciate that there is an anti-aesthetic trend in art, understood and embraced by a few – comprehended usually only by artists or critics of art, in a similar esoteric and groupish way to how the establishment functions. Unlike my imaginary dead dad, I am used to the sort of photographs/photographers that might focus on the back of people’s heads, (I could link to several artists’ work, including my own, where faces are no longer important in portraiture). I like and respect the way in which he challenges the role of monarchy, if that is what he is doing. But, and I’m not entirely sure why, it irked me that Parr made odd choices about white balance in some images, or didn’t increase his ISO (I’m assuming he has the most up to date equipment – perhaps wrongly) occasionally.
Dougie Wallace’s pictures of rich shoppers on Bond Street are far more ‘in your face’ than these photographs but there is a similar gesture behind them – aiming to photograph an aspect of English life that is at odds with how most of us live, and capturing something of the narrative he’s searching for within the aesthetic choices he makes. Wallace’s style defies traditional and non-art-educated ideas of what a good photograph should look like (they’re brilliant though!) – but he doesn’t seem to deliberately try and trick non-photographers into looking at work that looks like it was taken by an unseasoned wedding photographer. His work looks technically super-impressive, and the rupturing of social norms it must require to take those photographs is something to admire. Unlike Wallace, Parr is safely ensconced inside the group he is documenting. His method of prying apart social fabric is less abrasive but perhaps might be considered more insidious.
Not all of Parr’s photographs here are presented in that eratic style. Some are as one would expect, highly technically adept, but there are many that give the impression of being taken by someone who doesn’t know or care, although closer inspection and thought insist on the opposite. I get what that trend is about, I get the point – some of these pictures appear as mundane, vernacular and banal as you could hope to see, which to begin with belie the striking and powerful captures of an establishment that really should have had its day by now, and Parr has skillfully struck a blow at that establishment from within, perhaps without them fully realising what he’s done, if at all. He may give the impression of an affable bumbling likeable chap, not too threatening to Daily Mail readers – but actually he is presenting quite a scathing attack on the establishment that have allowed him in. I have plenty of time for that. But I am troubled by it too. I suppose my reaction is complex.
The picture of the Queen in the above photograph could in fact be a portrait of Parr, and perhaps one of the most telling of all the photographs in the collection. The Queen’s ‘people’ have in the past been extremely prescriptive about how the Queen’s face appears in public documents. Here, Parr takes a picture of the back of her head; possibly seen as head-chopping heresay in times gone by. He is one of very few photographers able to stand behind the Queen, take a photograph which focuses on her zip, emphasising her humanity but not her individuality, and which includes her subjects taking photographs of her. We were informed by the curator that Parr is concentrating in his work on people taking photographs of people taking photographs with their phones nowadays. I imagine the curator is aware that Parr is no different in this to any photographer documenting everyday life. Every street photographer going is taking photos of other people taking photos with their phone. Just as the back of people’s heads is not that unusual in much art photography. The difference is these are photographed by Martin Parr embedded with the establishment because he is Martin Parr.
I really like Parr’s work as a rule. I think it is fantastic that he insists on inviting people to take photographs of his photographs in galleries, a direct contrast to the Tate exhibition I went to at the weekend. I also like Parr’s process and attitude. I love that he uses his digital camera as much as he can to capture what he’s looking for. This is in stark contrast to an attitude held to be true, that respected art photographers should ideally edit before they shoot and really that they must use film. I think every artist finds his/her way of working and I enjoy the fact that he does away with preconceived ideas about the right way of doing things. I guess my confusion with this work is about why Parr felt it was necessary to cuddle up to the establishment he questions. I see he got results from doing it. Maybe that was the only way he for him. I suppose one could wonder how aware he is of the sheer and utter ludicrousness he has shown us, but I have to assume extremely so.
Photographs of Martin Parr’s work hanging on the walls of The Guildhall Gallery. (c)SJField 2016