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Thursday, July 5, 2007
Exposing our tacky selves
Special to The Japan Times
Walking through an exhibition of Martin Parr's photography is an emotional experience. The Englishman's works make you laugh, snicker, cringe; they prompt self- and societal reflection; but most of all they make you marvel at the dry wit and superior eye that Parr has for things simultaneously insipid yet dense with allusion.
Parr's subjects, shot in flash-blasted, gaudy colors, overflow with the everyday: people eating breakfast, going to the beach and shopping. But through his viewfinder they become both penetrating insights and ironic statements.
The "Fashion Magazine" exhibition opening Saturday at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu, shows work from Parr's pseudo-magazine project.
While poking fun (with real British cheek) at things such as bad fashion and mass tourism, Parr also offers an underlying commentary about consumer culture and the conspicuous, banal ways in which the middle classes spend their freedom and affluence. The critique spans a cultural variety of modern societies, pointing out how seemingly homogenous humanity's tastelessness and vanity is.
"My main agenda is to photograph the Western world, and its wealth," Parr told The Japan Times in a recent interview at his London studio, "and so I just need to go to any wealthy country, and I'll find things that are interesting.
"It doesn't take long to get a handle on a place, because so many things are the same. Because I'm interested in the economy and wealth, and things like that, I'm very happy to shoot in McDonald's — it doesn't matter where it is. I'm interested in the fact that a lot of countries feel the same, they are becoming Americanized. Japan is a very Americanized country too, but that interests me."
Parr started to use overly saturated colors in his photo shoots at New Brighton beach near Liverpool, the results of which he published in "The Last Resort" (1986). The collection features pitifully tacky tourists at the British seaside resort.
"When I first started it was black and white, so more of a celebration, and when I changed to color, during the 1980s, it became something more of a critique," he says.
Parr is now the author of more than 35 books, some lampooning his beloved home country, while others look at the same vapid behavioral traits worldwide. But rather than fetishizing cultural differences, he documents an inescapable utter sameness through perfectly capturing telltale moments.
One of his best-known books, 1999's "Common Sense," bombards readers with superbly documented details — voyeuristic, vulgar close-ups of cancerously sunburned bodies, fatty foods, poodles, Mickey Mouse products and badly applied makeup. No one is safe from Parr's eye, as even his self-portraits are cheesy takes in a variety of local studios and booths — most famously one of his head protruding out of the mouth of the shark from "Jaws."
Parr not only looks at the traits that exemplify the modern age, but also at the culture they create. "Bored Couples" (1993) focuses on loving couples having the time of their lives in various banal locales. "Boring Photographs" (2000) features Boring, a town in Oregon, in photo after photo of dull landscapes. This, though, is funny, not scathing, perhaps because the viewer is also guilty of similar behavior; even the middle-class born and bred Parr himself says he is not immune to the malaise of what he shoots.
Question of hypocrisy
Aside from his books, Parr is also active in both fashion and advertising, with clients including HSBC, Hermes, Pepe Jeans and Sony Ericsson — which raises the question of whether taking such high-end commissions can be seen as hypocritical.
"No, I mean I enjoy hypocrisy you know, so I have no problem with that," Parr responds. "I find it quite amusing that I've made a living from critiquing wealth, yet part of that living is doing commercial work."
The content for the "magazine" in the "Fashion Magazine" exhibition was generated by Parr, who does culture, food, advertising and fashion spreads with commentary from, and shots of, a plethora of high-fashion luminaries such as Christian Lacroix and Sonia Rykiel. Parr himself is on the cover. Though it was originally presented in 2005 in Paris, Parr has added a new shoot for fashion designer Paul Smith to update the project for Japan.
The magazine was produced by Magnum, who release an issue every year by a different Magnum photographer to present their vision on fashion. When Parr became a full member of the agency in 1994, the decision was met with mixed reactions due to his unorthodox — you could even say biased — approach to photojournalism.
At a recent Magnum show at the museum in Ebisu, alongside photos of temples, hi-tech gadgets and fish markets, were hideous close-ups by Parr of an overflowing ashtray and two greasy hotdogs. It has become the stuff of legend that Magnum cofounder Henri Cartier-Bresson once told Parr that he was "from a completely different planet" — saying of his works that "rancor and scorn dominate; a nihilistic attitude symptomatic of society today."
"You just have to accept that people respond in a gut way, so if people don't like you, that's fair enough. And in the end more people liked me than didn't like me," Parr says. "I found the controversy interesting. I often have controversy surrounding my work, and in the end it is interesting. It does no harm — it's better to be talked about than ignored."
Divided opinions aside, Parr is no doubt one of the most popularly recognized and acclaimed shooters of the Magnum agency, and an important figure in contemporary British photography. He has an acute ability to perhaps see things as they really are; the only problem with his work is that every time you go on a holiday, you'll find yourself in situations that are "Martin Parr-ish."
His main hurdles now are more personal he says.
"The challenge is to keep going, to try and keep fresh. You try new projects, new ways of looking, new ways of thinking — and this is a huge subject; the wealth of the world. It's never going to go away, it's just going to get bigger and bigger till in the end it may destroy us. It's a subject I feel very akin to, and it's huge. So there is a lot more to do on it."
"Martin Parr: Fashion Magazine" is showing July 7-Aug. 26 at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Yebisu Garden Place, Tokyo; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information call (03) 3280-0099 or visit www.syabi.com