Snaphappy; Martin Parr Finds It Hard to Stop Taking Photographs, Even on Holiday. as a New Exhibition Chronicling 20th-Century Photography Opens at Tate Modern, He Explains to Sheryl Garratt

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that behind his images there's humour and irony For Martin Parr, seeing his pictures in a major exhibition at the Tate Modern is more than just a personal triumph. It's a victory for photography as a whole. Sitting in the fourth-floor cafe while his prints are being hung in the gallery next door, he recalls a famous incident in the Eighties, when Creative Camera magazine interviewed Alan Bowness, then head of the Tate, about his approach to photography. If an artist chose to take a photograph, Bowness proclaimed loftily, he might consider showing it, but straight photography had no place in a gallery.

But times have changed, and photography is slowly becoming an accepted part of the art world. In 2000 the Turner Prize went to a photographer - Wolfgang Tillmans - for the first time, and now the Tate is staging its first major photography exhibition, Cruel And Tender, a show Parr describes as 'a potted history of straight photography from the 20th century'.

For those used to seeing Parr's photographs in magazines and books, the huge prints in the Tate will come as a surprise. They resemble advertising hoardings in size and colour, but what Parr aims to show is the gap between consumerist dreams and their mundane reality.

'I'm using the language of advertising, commercial work - things of which I'm part but at the same time try to question. I'm using bright colours, which are normally associated with upbeat subjects, in quite an ironic way.'

He tends to focus on the artificial, the ugly, the alienated. He will always see the wasp on the jam, the lipstick on the teeth, the debris on the beach.

There's a shot in the exhibition that illustrates his style perfectly.

Beautifully composed, it shows a large woman in a tight, tacky, floral top about to tuck in to some monstrous confection of spray-can cream and watery-looking chocolate. Since her head isn't visible, you focus on the details: the garish rings on her fat fingers, the ugly dark bruise on her arm, and of course the 'I love bingo' watch. Your first response is to smile, but the more you look, the sadder the picture becomes: a heart attack in the making, a portrait of a woman slowly but inexorably committing suicide.

Born in 1952, Parr grew up in Surrey. His grandfather was a keen amateur photographer who passed on a love of the medium to young Martin. His father was a birdwatcher who often took his son on twitcher trips to Hersham sewage farm, and Martin inherited his obsessiveness and fastidiousness. A former train spotter, he is still an avid collector, of images of the world first and foremost, but also postcards (some of which have been compiled into the strangely compelling Boring Postcards books), photography books (he's writing a history of the genre), magazines, Spice Girls merchandise and other ephemera. …


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