Goodbye Golden Wonder
Martin Parr Photographic Works 1971-2000 is at the Barbican Gallery, 31 January - 14 April 2002
Review by Stephen Bull
Soon after releasing Gold, their greatest hits album, Steps announced that they were splitting up. There is often a feeling that the appearance of a band's greatest hits collection suggests their career has run its course; that they have achieved their finest work. The same suspicion might arise on the occasion of an artist's retrospective, such as the Val Williams curated show of Martin Parr's work at the Barbican Gallery. Parr himself is quoted by Williams in the accompanying catalogue as declaring that 'My best photography is behind me'. The occasion of this huge survey, covering thirty years of Parr's work, seems like a good time to assess what Parr has achieved so far, and perhaps to consider where his photography might go in the future.
Parr's comment that his 'best photography' is behind him echoes what a number of writers and photographers seem to have been saying about his projects for years. Listening to his detractors, it sounds as if every new Parr series that comes out is never as good as the previous one. Indeed few photographers seem to have generated as much disdain within the small world of photographic criticism over the last decade and a half as Martin Parr. At one point these protests centred around the perceived ridiculing of his subjects. For years Parr was pilloried for his ability to catch what might be termed 'The Derisive Moment'. Latterly, work such as The Last Resort and The Cost of Living have been held up as representing the golden age of Parr's photography; the implication being that he somehow peaked during the eighties. Most recently it has been his series Think of England that has come in for the critics' admonition, primarily for presenting a segregated, overwhelmingly white view of the country (although the authors of such protests seem to have missed the significance of that series' title).
Perhaps the reason for such criticism lies in the way that much of Parr's work is open to a wide range of interpretations. As Williams mentions in the catalogue, Parr rarely comments directly on his images. While texts by various writers often accompany the pictures in Parr's books and magazine work, his own comments appear some distance away in occasional interviews. These interviews tend to revolve around the same debates on class, nullified by Parr's famous admission that he is as middle-class as they come and has no qualms about depicting his prejudices. As a result of this distancing, viewers can easily project their ideas onto his work without Parr's own commentary contradicting their opinion. The idea, for example, that The Last Resort is a response to the stitching-up of the working classes during the Thatcher years is entirely generated from other people's readings of the pictures.
Parr himself, when he discusses his images at all, seems more concerned with his documentation of the 'everyday' ephemera of popular culture. Indeed throughout the exhibition we are reminded of fashions and products of bygone days. Staring at Parr's 1972 image of two bird-watchers complete with their big bag of savoury snacks, you cannot help but observe that you just do not see Golden Wonder crisps much now, not since Walker's took over the market around the mid-eighties.
One way to preserve such ephemera is to photograph it. But, as the retrospective reveals, Parr also collects the objects themselves. The exhibition catalogue features some of Parr's archive of limited edition Spice Girls crisp packets, from back when Geri was a member and they had conquered the world. One room in the show features Parr's own cabinet of wonders: a large glass case from his Bristol home displays his collection of commemorative mugs, miniature plastic televisions and novelty timepieces. Parr's cabinet resides in 'The Reading Room' along with a selection from his library. There are appropriately colonial resonances to this set-up, the politically dubious connotations of which are knowingly countered by the presence of tomes such as Jeremy Paxman's book on The English and Naomi Klein's anti-globalisation survey No Logo. The walls are dotted with the Autoportraits, where the hyper-English Parr maintains his stiff upper-lip despite the indignities he suffers at the hands of studio portrait photographers across the world. Next door, in what is arguably Parr's greatest series (well, it's my favourite), Common Sense zooms in on products being consumed around the planet. Everything is close-up and in primary colour. Val Williams refers to this work as a 'dictionary of the 1990s', but it is also an 'image bank' of sorts. The generic nature of these photographs has allowed them to be reused on a variety of book and CD covers and to illustrate a range of magazine articles over the last three years.
Parr's work is both ancient (some of the black and white images from the early seventies look centuries old) and terribly modern. In one of his earlier, more conceptual moments, Parr built a 'photographic environment' entitled Home Sweet Home which toured to various galleries in the early seventies and is replicated in the retrospective's first room. It's kitsch and seventies and very nineties; a simulated living room, complete with carpet, armchair, trinkets and a tape recorder playing the South Pacific soundtrack. Displayed on flowery wallpaper are (amongst other images) some of Parr's early seventies small hand-tinted photographs in cheap but ornate plastic frames from Woolworths. The last room in the retrospective is also carpeted and wallpapered. The wallpaper is again flowery, but this time in post-kitsch style, bright and deliberately cheap-looking. The armchair, trinkets and tape recorder have gone. Instead the walls show a selection of Parr's beautiful Flowers and Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo photographs, large and conventionally framed. This time the feel is that of a contemporary art gallery, rather than a recreation of a seventies suburban living room.
The circular curation of the show, beginning and ending with similar rooms, is used to underline Williams' suggestion that Parr is returning to his more conceptual roots. It is strange how often retrospectives end like this, by arguing that the artist has come full circle. Undeniably, there is some truth to this; Autoportrait and Boring Postcards are closer to Parr's early experiments and more like the work of an 'artist using photography' than a documentary photographer. His latest series (not included here) portrays mobile phone users around the world, isolated from the crowd in closely cropped images. As a series, from what we have seen of it so far, it seems to stand somewhere between Parr's documentary work and his conceptual projects. Already the subject matter has been put down as 'too obvious'. But it fits in perfectly with Parr's aim to record changing products. Imagine how those phones will look in thirty years time. As ever we cannot take a photographer's own judgement of their work as the final word. Whether Parr's best photography really is behind him remains to be seen.