Martin Parr: Back to the books


An exhibition of 30 photo books at the PhotoIreland festival makes a strong case for seeing the medium as an art form in its own right

The photo book is just as valid a way of presenting photography as an exhibition, according to photographer Martin Parr. “Books are durable and portable in a way that exhibitions and even individual prints are not,” he says.

One of the foremost documentary photographers at work today, Parr has collected and publicised photo books for many years. In collaboration with Gerry Badger, he is working on the third volume of their history of the photo book for Phaidon and, as part of the PhotoIreland festival next month, Parr is mounting an exhibition highlighting his choice of the 30 best photo books of the past decade.

“It’s a purely subjective selection,” he says. “There’s been an explosion of interest in photo books in the decade, in line with the renaissance of interest in photography. Everybody has a camera these days. Photography has never been more democratic and easy – and hence, of course, more difficult.”

Digital technology has also changed things in many ways. “Technology now means that anyone can decide to publish a book of their own work. You can do it for about €50. Admittedly, you’ll only have one or two copies but you can print more on demand. Inevitably, a lot of them are rubbish.”

But some aren’t. He points to two of the works his exhibition highlights. “In 2000, Ryan McGinley, who is now one of the best-known photographers around, produced and self-published a book, The Kids are Alright, on his own computer. I think the edition numbered only about 100 copies and he sold them for something like $10 (€7). If you had a copy now, you could sell it for $7,000.”

Similarly, Alex Soth self-published Sleeping by the Mississippi,which gathered together some of the portraits and landscapes he had made over five years travelling along the Mississippi River. Soth’s dreamy images – which he describes as “more lyrical than documentary” – caught the eye of a curator planning the prestigious Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and of the publisher Gerhard Steidl. “The Steidl edition which followed, and which we include in the show, really put Soth on the map and launched his career,” Parr says.

Steidl co-published another featured book, Belfast-born Donovan Wylie’s Scrapbook. Wylie documented the British army watchtowers in Northern Ireland and the dismantling of the Maze prison. Scrapbook, published in 2009, is different. “It’s fascinating because it documents the Troubles in Northern Ireland in terms of the ephemera that people of all political persuasions held on to.” History at ground level, “it provides an extraordinary insight”.

The show amounts to a strong case for the photo book as an art form in its own right, and no one has done more to make it so than Parr, with a strong list of publications to his credit. Born in Surrey in 1952, he established his reputation in the early 1980s with his brash, upfront images of everyday life in the north of England. He also spent a lot of time in Ireland over two years documenting life in the west of the country. By the mid-1980s, his work had moved up a gear as he began to use colour, emphasising the loud and the garish.

He wasn’t mocking or satirising his subjects, however. The mood of his work is more celebratory, and accepting of the incongruity between the way we imagine ourselves and the way we actually look. An exceptionally busy man, he says he loves working. “I don’t believe in holidays. Basically, I can hardly believe that I’m being paid, and not badly, to do what I really love to do.”

Martin Parr’s Best Photo Books of the Decadeis at the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin from July 15th to July 31st