Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Britain in Focus, Given a New Twist by Brexit; Exhibition Only Human: Martin ParrNational Portrait Gallery, WC2 Ben Luke

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Britain in Focus, Given a New Twist by Brexit; Exhibition Only Human: Martin ParrNational Portrait Gallery, WC2 Ben Luke

Article excerpt

TO PONDER Martin Parr's uniqueness, compare the presentation of this exhibition with two other big current London photography shows. You could hardly imagine the austere beauty of Diane Arbus at the Hayward and human turmoil in Don McCullin at Tate Britain accompanied by pink walls, tennis court flooring, a glitter ball and even a working caff serving tea and Battenberg.

While Parr sees himself as a "social documentary" photographer, he's not in the heroic or poetic mode. In these photographs covering the last 20 years, he remains fascinated with mass human activity, often in Britain -- on the beach, at the races, in dance clubs, at the Magdalene Ball. His formal trademarks -- saturated colour, lots of flash -- are consistent.

In a catalogue essay, Grayson Perry writes: "Humour bleeds through all these photographs but also compassion". Not all commentators agree. Henri Cartier-Bresson told Parr his photos were "from another planet". Humanist photographer Philip Jones Griffiths wrote that Parr was "the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in". Even the exhibition's organisers don't wholly agree: Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery's director, praises Parr's "wry and satirical gaze" but the show's curator Philip Prodger sees more absurdism: "It is not satirical, in that it seeks to make fun of another's weakness, so much as it is knowing and appreciative of the idiosyncrasies of British national character."

I sort of agree with all of them. Part of his appeal is that you can't pin his attitude down. He seems genial in a video in the show but is affection self-evident in the images? No. Yet neither is the sneering his harshest critics detect. Parr's eye seems as unflinching, whether he's depicting sunbathers in Tenby or swan-uppers in Eton.

His best photographs hold a mirror up to the viewer: it's us, fed by our own histories, our political outlooks, our vanities and pretensions, who determine the photographs' meaning. It's why Parr's celebrity photographs -- Perry and family and Vivienne Westwood in the bog aside -- are the most boring images. …

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