Only Human review: Hamming up English eccentricity
The photographs of Martin Parr expose the absurdity of human behaviour
Scenes of trepidation: Porthcurno beach by Martin Parr
There is something peculiar about the nature of Martin Parr’s photography and the publication of Only Human, a book accompanying a new exhibition of his work at London’s National Portrait Gallery, does nothing to dispel the problem.
Parr’s early work in black and white was influenced by Tony Ray-Jones, a gifted photographer who visualised scenes with a complexity of composition and a solicitous eye that remains outstanding. Such qualities seemed discernible in Parr but any such subtlety receded when Parr burst into colour and began using a flash gun with the eagerness of a child with a new toy. The result, as in The Last Resort (1095) and Signs of the Times (1992), was humorous for some but supercilious for others.
In Signs of Times, people are photographed in their homes, along with other shots of items of décor, in ways that ridicule their aspirations. Using a camera to make fun of people did not go down well with photographers in the famed Magnum cooperative who repeatedly opposed his attempts to become a member. Eventually he scraped through with a majority of one vote. Parr never looked back, his camera never stopped clicking, and his staggering output of pictures is now not far short of the 50,000 mark.
Only Human brings together 220 photographs from the last 20 years and they pose a provocative question: to what extent is Parr’s recent work different from Signs of the Times? The sarcasm, softening with age perhaps, is now muted but his brand of humour remains – witness the title and front cover of Only Human – as does the colour saturated nature of his images, the close-ups with a wide-angle lens and the homing in on the idiosyncrasies of people.
A constant in his work is the presence of a social semiotics, a concern with the transparent ways we display a particular identity, whether self-consciously or unbeknownst, through a coded set of signs based around our choice of clothes, food, traditions and rituals, modes of holidaying and partying, selfies …
It would be unsophisticated to naively equate signs with inner meaning, failing to distinguish between an outside and an inside. Parr’s pictures do not allow for such epistemological doubting, inviting us instead to revel in photographic riffs of the nowt-so-queer-as-folk kind. This is his metier, wryly exposing the absurdities of human behaviour and hamming up the notion of English eccentricity.
The criticism that Parr’s quantitative heft comes with a deficit of affect remains a potent one. When his work is compared with Tom Wood’s, it is plain to see what is missing. Wood, born and brought up in Mayo but working in Britain, photographs people in ways that reveals something, however slight, that is important about them. Behind Parr’s gleeful encyclopaedism, on the other hand, there is a formalism that makes too many of his pictures boringly predictable: a young man at Cambridge University’s Magdalene Ball, splayed out after too much drink; women with silly fascinators at Ascott; nationalist excess in Brexit-voting parts of England.
There is one post-Brexit vote photo that amplifies into meaning, engaging the viewer’s involvement, posing an unknown. A group of people are on a beach in Cornwall (where 56.5 per cent voted to leave the EU), the empty sea is before them. The scene feels trepidatious, uncertainty pervades, and a girl in the centre stares outwards as if something she needs to see is out there. It’s her future, of course, as it is the boy’s who, close to a red danger flag, looks backwards for an answer.
Only Human: Martin Parr is at the National Portrait Gallery from March7th- May 27th npg.org.uk