Martin Parr shows us what it
is to be Only Human
For decades Martin Parr has been capturing moments of the mundane that when filtered through his unique lens become rousing spectacles. Centring his work around themes of leisure, consumption and communication, his work can sometimes be taken at face value which is often translated as being grotesque or ordinary. But that’s part of the point, in taking pictures of the orthodox, the obscurities of reality quickly get thrown into the mainstream. In doing so, the viewer is invited to investigate national characteristics and cultural motifs which ultimately makes the familiar a strange phenomenon.
Only Human is Parr’s most recent collection of work is currently exhibiting in the National Portrait Gallery until the end of next month. Made up of 220 photographers over 20 years, the exhibition is a pivotal piece in our understandings of how times change on a nationwide scale. Underground had the chance to check out this newest series of work and take part in the deconstruction of the culture around us.
Keeping with his individual style, Only Human observers Britain and Britishness in a time of socio-political turmoil. In each room, Parr has curated designated spaces for each theme that he touches upon to explore this motif. From a room full of photographs of different ways Britons dance lit up by a disco ball, to Ladies Day at the races with faux-grass to match, the exhibition is an immersive take on his trademark-saturated colour and heavy-on-the-flash portfolio.
In the middle of the heavily decorated rooms, is an instalment of a traditional “caff” where viewers are implored to practically become a model of Parr’s work by doing the expected in such surroundings: having a cuppa and a piece of Battenberg. Participants are also able to have the viewing pleasure of photos taken in similar locations or watch the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘London’ music video, which was shot by Parr, playing on what now looks like an “ancient” television set.
In amongst his shots of common people Parr has incorporated a series of images of renowned individuals, some which have never been exhibited before. In this collection the viewer is met by images of Grayson Perry and his family, Vivienne Westwood next to a toilet, Tracey Emin, Cara Delevingne and Pele. While these photos are all very pretty and bring perhaps a certain level of humanity to these public figures, they maybe are less pivotal than those taken of the everyday lives of ordinary people. Alongside a selection of famous faces, Parr also adds only two photos of the Queen to his exhibition as well as a collection of his own self-portraits all framed and hung as a centre piece of the display.
The main event for many gallery goers is his display of photos that investigate what he calls ‘Brexitness’ which he has been collecting since 2016. With the Union Jack and St George’s Flag recurring motifs for Parr’s ‘Britain in the time of Brexit’, this section of the exhibition is loaded with images from the areas of the country with the highest concentration of Leavers. Exploring the social semiotics of the tiny island we inhabit, Parr aims his lens and fires capturing slogans such as ‘stack it high, sell it cheap!’ and images of an elderly woman against a blown-up image of a croissant on the side of a Sainsburys, something we may miss once we leave the EU… The viewer also gets glimpses of what makes Britain so great, the people behind our industries and the idiosyncrasies when it comes to taking a trip to the beach.
But in the harsh glare of Parr’s camera all that glitter’s is not gold. Instead the unfiltered insight into the subconscious movements of a nation finds the viewer forced to realise what is considered customary is often the most peculiar. Take the image that many reviewers have found most interesting and perhaps is the most epitomising of this notion, which is a photograph of a group of people at the beach in Cornwall. The beach is full of brits who stare in trepidation out into the cold British sea and towards what? Europe? The future? Who knows. In the photo a red flag sits close to being cut off from the angle, potentially slipping your gaze. But when you notice it you won’t stop sweating the rest of the small stuff in the photo as well. And that’s what makes Parr and his slice of Britain so engaging, and why he’s made a shine for himself.
The gallery is ended by an exit through the gift-shop that embodies classically comedic side of Parr’s work that allows shoppers to laugh at themselves and our cultural eccentricities, whichever way they come – even printed onto the wrapping of a chocolate bar. In this way his work is almost a cathartic release, a chance to come face to face with our own strange humanity breath it in almost and then finally let it go.
Words by Aimee Williams-Maynard