black and white, colour photography, documentary photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, irony, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr, Project 3 Reportage, reportage photography, Research point Project 3 Reportage, street photography, Surrealism
This blog entry continues from Research point (i) at: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/research-point-i/
The British photographer Martin Parr (b. 1952) changed to colour photography in 1984 and his series and book ‘The Last Resort’ (Parr, 1986) was comprised of photos taken between 1983 and 1985, a period of economic decline in northwest England. The series of forty photographs:
were taken in New Brighton, a beach suburb of Liverpool. Shot with a medium format camera and daylight flash, the photographs are an early example of Parr’s characteristic saturated colour, influenced by the American colour photography of William Eggleston (born 1939) and Garry Winogrand (1928-84) (Taylor, 2003).
However, Parr represents a clear beak with humanistic photography as represented by for example by Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau (b. 1912). Cartier-Bresson ‘took great exception to the attitude expressed in Parr’s pictures. Parr, he complained, seemed to come from a different planet’; Parr admits that their photographic visions “differed” (Gayford, 2014), and that ‘his previous, black-and-white documentary work had been romanticizing and nostalgic in its refusal to look at the ugly side of working class life’ (Goldberg, 2005:135-140).
The attitude that Cartier-Bresson took exception to is readily seen in Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’. For example one of the photographs shows (see fig.1.) a woman lying sunbathing on a white towel while her young daughter crouches beside her:
Other buckets and a spade lie in the foreground of the picture, denoting a family day out at the seaside. The ordinariness of the scene is undermined by the unintentionally comical location of the family on a patch of concrete right in front of a large piece of haulage machinery, possibly a crane. Huge tank-like wheels loom over the reclining figure.
A low wall intersects the picture plane, separating the family from a path leading to the water. In their isolated enclave, picked out with the bright synthetic colours of the buckets and a discarded pair of red jelly shoes, they seem oblivious to the comedy of their situation. Beyond the wall, an older man wanders by; he too ignores the surreal quality of the scene. In contrast to the young mum and daughter, he is dressed drably in brown jacket and trousers. His hands are clasped behind his back, a grey plastic bag swinging from his arm.
The scene suggests a futuristic wasteland where families share beach space with industrial machinery, and this, as much as the flourescent colours of the toys, gives it a recognisably 1980s aesthetic: science-fiction films of the period conveyed a sense of post-industrial apocalyptic dread that this image seems to gently satirise. Here the machine is neither aggressive nor benign; it is simply part of the landscape (Taylor, 2003).
Like many of Parr’s images there is here as noted by Taylor, comedy, irony and a sense of the surreal, qualities not appreciated by all, for example the picture editor who said of Parr: ‘a gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people’ (Gayford, 2014).
The surreal quality of the images echoes the origins of street photography in the 1930s but here the surrealism does not rely on accidents or visual coincidences but instead, as Sontag pointed out, ‘poverty is no more surreal than wealth; … What is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time’ (Sontag, 1977:58). In ‘The Last Resort’ Parr was accused ‘of exploiting his working-class subjects, of making fun of them, sneering at their lobsterred complexions, their fish and chips and chemical ice-creams, their chain smoking and their rampant breeding’ (Blanchard, 2002), that is exploiting the social distance between his subjects and most of his viewers. Again, Sontag describes it:
The Surrealist strategy, [1930s] which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities, a joke, …(Sontag, 1977:75)
However, Martin Parr says such photographs are about using humour and irony to seek vulnerability in society, and that he is a serious photographer who uses humour and irony as a device to engage with his audience; that he uses images of friction, ambiguity or irony to put his finger on societies vulnerabilities (Casper, s,d). Thus he says of the Britain in the 1980s:
I benefited from not liking the 80s or Mrs Thatcher’s politics. Of course, in the end I like the sense of irony and the humour you get in Britain. It drives you nuts if you go to America. Everything’s too nice and everyone is so keen to serve, so you miss the irony. The ability for us to laugh at ourselves is Britain’s saving grace (Blanchard, 2002).
Questions and Summery:
For Joel Meyerowitz (see above) using colour in his street photography freed him from the need, as in traditional street photography, to have a ‘caught’ moment in the picture and instead to invest the photograph with something richer composed of the many elements present on the street, what he terms an ‘overall-ness’.
An analysis of contemporary photographer Martin Parr’s work (see Taylor above) shows how this ‘overall-ness’ quality of colour photography can encompass irony, humour and surrealism, but a deeper surrealism to that of the caught accident, or juxtaposition typical of the earlier black and white genre. This earlier genre was in the most part ‘humanistic’ in that life on the street was seen to represent a free somewhat bohemian aspect of life. With the use of colour came the use of street photography as method of social criticism often showing the greed and vulgarity of much of modern life in a style that embraces humour and irony, qualities derived from (or a degraded form of) the original Surrealism favoured by earlier photographers of the genre.
Blanchard, Tamsin (2002) A life less ordinary In: The Observer [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2002/jan/13/features.magazine37 (Accessed on 24.09.14)
Casper, Jim (s.d) Martin Parr: Mischievous Ironist [online audio] At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/martin-parr-martin-parr-mischievous-ironist (Accessed on 24.09.14)
Gayford, Martin (2014) ‘Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs’. In: The Telegraph [online] At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3615454/Ordinary-lives-extraordinary-photographs.html (Accessed on 24.09.14)
Goldberg, Vicki (2005) ‘Martin Parr’ In: Vicki Goldberg. Light Matters. New York: Aperture. Pp. 135-140
Parr, Martin (1986) Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, London, Penguin Books
Taylor, Rachel (2003) The Last Resort 40. At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/parr-the-last-resort-40-p11922/text-summary (Accessed on 24.09.14)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Parr, Martin Untitled From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85. At: http://mediastore.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/a/0/5/2/LON6994.jpg (Accessed on 24.09.14)