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A Conversation With Martin Parr

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David Alan Harvey: What I do on Burn is I will run a set of pictures and then have what I call a conversation, I don’t even call it an interview. You like beaches. I like beaches. You and I see different things at the beach but I am interested in this new take on Benidorm. Had you been to Benidorm before?

Martin Parr: Oh yeah, I did a little book on Benidorm before.

DAH: I didn’t see the book on Benidorm, how did I miss that?

MP: I don’t know, I did it about 15 years ago.

DAH: Somehow I missed that one. I have a pretty good collection of Martin Parr books but obviously I don’t have them all.

MP: It is more of a catalogue type, I’m sorry. I think of all this stuff as beach therapy, you see.

DAH: Explain beach therapy to me.

MP: When I try a new technique, I always do it first on the beach. There are about six phases of my photography career, black and white, then wide angle with medium format, etc., etc., but I always try them out on the beach first because it’s like an experimental laboratory for me. You have all these people, you can do different things, so this is no exception. It is really like the last chapter of exploration. So inevitably, therefor, I begin at the beach first.

DAH: Why do you think that is? How did that come to be your laboratory?

MP: Well I love beaches anyway, so it is always a good excuse to go to the beach and take more photographs and when you are trying out a new idea I always make it the place where I start.

DAH: What led to the long lens? Before you were always up in people’s faces, popping a flash with fairly close range with a wide angle or normal lens. Is it something that changed inside you that said “okay I want to pull back a little bit”, or you just like the look?

MP: In more recent times I have been using the digital on the beach, I have been pulling back anyway, but now I wanted to pull forward. This is all brought about because I had these big propaganda photography books that were from all over the place, but in particular they have very interesting, creative use of the telephoto lens and it just struck me that in the art photography business, which we are part of, the art photography / documentary business, this is a lens that is basically rejected and not used at all with the exception of Beat Streuli. It is very very occasional when you see it, but basically we all use wide angle as a standard.

DAH: Well I think you told me a couple of years ago in Arles, “David why don’t you go a little bit longer”, and you know I started out in photography with a 50mm lens, so I did, I went back since I had been shooting so much with the 35mm. So now I am in the 50-75mm range. I am not as long as you are – you are out there with the 200-300mm length it looks like.

MP: I think it is interesting to experiment and basically I am using this propaganda material as my starting point because they show me what is possible with the telephoto lens, because the art world hasn’t. As you know we turn a blind eye to it. We just blank it out. So it is very interesting to see if it can be made into something interesting. And you know I have had a few experiments now – I think those were the most successful.What I have done in Italy I haven’t edited very thoroughly yet, but you suddenly start to see a pattern emerge and it looks interesting.

DAH: Well that is great. So you will do another book on Benidorm?

MP: I will do a book eventually that will be called “beach therapy” where I’ll explain this process of experimentation and then illustrate it with the set of pictures done with the telephoto. If I do a book called “Life at the Beach” I have to set the whole thing back a bit.

DAH: Yeah, that’s right.

MP: There are different version of that. I did a deluxe version and and beach bag version. There is only so much power the world can take and there are only so many beach photographs that the world can take, but none-the-less you feel that you are onto something. That’s why I was quite happy to isolate the Benidorm pictures from one particular shoot that seemed to really work.

DAH: Well you have Argentina also.

MP: That was the start of the experiment and that showed me what was possible, and then I tried to build on it and since then I have done stuff in England and in Italy.

DAH: Also at the beach?

MP: Yes. It is more difficult though. I am shooting in Rome now and didn’t even bring the telephoto lens with me. What I am generally doing is having the foreground out of focus and focusing way beyond. That is the thing that to me looks more interesting. Now when I did my previous Benidorm book I was using the macro lens which is an insane lens to use on the beach. Macro with a ring flash. And there I was focusing on the foreground and letting everything else fall away. So now I am doing the entire opposite.

DAH: Is the woman with the glasses an original Benidorm picture?

MP: That was one of those things that inspired me, in fact. The out of focus there is very effective. It is an icon that you will remember and I am trying to replicate that feel and look, but that was done on the macro lens. So that was a 50mm lens compared to the 70-200mm lens which I am using now.

DAH: Right. Now this puts you into a completely different relationship with your subjects. Before, obviously at some point, you were so close to the people you had to engage with them probably some of the time. Now you are completely disengaged from the subject.

MP: In fact it works in my value because as you know it is getting more and more difficult to photograph on the beaches in particular when there are kids around because people go nutsy when you start photographing kids. I have been not quite arrested on the beach in Rio, but I have been apprehended to the police being called. Therefor, [the lens] does get rid of that problem. I had my phase of getting really close, and I still do get really close. For example this current session I am photographing in the Vatican Museum for the Museum here, and I am right on top of people so it is not like I am not doing that anymore. But the beach has become a particularly controversial place to photograph.

DAH: I think that is right. I always look around for mom and dad first if I see a kid because that can be an issue.

MP: Years ago when I was doing the last resort, which is the first big body of work I did, I shot on the beach, again as part of the beach therapy process, people didn’t even think about that. Now it is always in people’s minds.

DAH: At my beach here for some reason nobody minds. There are kids running all over the place. But in most beaches it has gotten like that. Well that’s great, thank you Martin.

MP: Thanks David.


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Martin Parr

21 thoughts on “A Conversation With Martin Parr”

  1. Nice…short and sweet ;-)
    I find it fascinating learning and seeing the working mind of a photographer…seeing the very beginning of what could become a body of work. Thanks for the insight DAH!

    On a side note….very much looking forward to what comes out of Venice.
    Hope everyone is getting their asses kicked….in a good and best way of course! the learning kind of ass kicking…

  2. I’m still not convinced about long lenses. I still feel they do not share the space. And that they are inherently judgemental.
    It seems no accident that the orthodoxy is the human perspective, not that of a Falcon. All the exceptions and experiments merely reinforce the reality, which isn’t so much a rule as a truth.

  3. Parr is fascinating to me because I have no idea why I’m drawn to his pictures. They shouldn’t work.
    This set is a case in point. The picture of the young couple shot from the back goes against every canon we’re taught as photographers. Each and every image here was a scene begging for the cliché shot and the cliché point, and I’m pretty sure Parr’s hard drive content could be curated to illustrate lurid magazines articles on “the decadence of old age” or “the ravages of mass tourism”. Instead, we have a story that is melancholy and reflexive, but neither sugar-coated nor revulsive.
    Simply amazing.

  4. marcin luczkowski

    I have mixed feelings about this series, for many reasons. For me the best Martin Parr’s series is “parking spaces”

    Master of all masters

  5. Pingback: JSP Visual Week In Review | 09.13.14 | JerseyStyle Photography

  6. Hi all!

    Although I like Martin Parr, these are not my favorite ones… Maybe is a work in progress… The effect of blur the foreground is good in some pictures, but the whole serie…
    I like what he says, about the process, the laboratory in the beach, how it changes form one lens to another. How a photographer is experimenting constantly…

    Here I leave two Spanish photographers who shot in beaches: Carlos Perez Siquier and Txema Salvans.


    http://www.txemasalvans.com/eng/index.html (Sundays, Spanish hits, Meating,…)


  7. I like Martin for his ideas and attitude as much as for his photography. In particular ‘The Last Resort’ is a standout document (though I didn’t really like it when I first saw it), but my fave Parr work is the recent ‘Non-Confomists’ book of some of his b&w photos taken during his time (1970s) in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Many of the photos therein are superb; as is the book in general. Incidentally, around the time Martin was working in New Brighton on ‘The Last Resort’ a photographer named Tom Wood was also working in the Liverpool area and produced a wonderful book titled ‘All Zones Off-Peak’ – well worth having a peek, though it’s hard (and expensive) to get hold of these days.


  8. @ ALL:
    Picture 29, from Playa Grande in Mar del Plata, is my favorite… It’s hard for me to understand how can people go there and spend two weeks holidays in such a crowd place. If someone can explain that to me, I’ll really appreciate…
    My grandmother has a house in MardelPlata, and she goes to the beach from 7 to 10 am, before the “masses” arrive!

    Shine. P.

  9. There are several interesting points in this discussion. While it is generally true that long lenses are less used in the “fine art” photography world, there are of course exceptions. Andre Kertesz central part series shot from his apartment window springs to mind for one.

    I do like some of these, and agree that the ones with out of focus elements in the foreground seem to be the most interesting. The out of focus elements lend a feeling of depth and dimension as opposed to the flattening and compressing effect of some of the others. The photos that merely flatten and compress are interesting as well, but are more likely to turn into pure pattern studies.

    It’s amusing to contrast these with Davids Rio photos, where almost everyone David chooses to photograph is young and beautiful.

    I live in a beach community, yet seldom spend any time time. I’ve no idea why people are drawn to beaches either Patricio.

  10. Great conversation. I always loved taking a longer lens to the beach. I do wish a number of images had been edited out as they dilute the few that make you go ‘holy shit!’ Like #10 for example is amazing but then the one after feels meh. #2,4, 28, 31 also favorites. Yeah def feels like work in progress. It also feels like the telephoto work has to become a whole entity unto itself, and doesn’t necessarily play well with the more usual ‘street’ style. When he does nail it though, I could see the print going really big! And fewer being better (for once for Parr).

    And what a rough life Mr Parr has, slogging it from beach to beach. ;) Hats off!

  11. I’ve never really ‘got’ Martin’s photography (sorry Martin, I know you’ll get over it). I see him as a social commentator, interested in the minutiae of our times and as a ‘this is how it looks’ photographer. As such I think that maybe he pays more attention to the documentation of objects than to the making of a good photograph. He just happens to document things with a camera rather than going out with the intention of making great photography that not only depicts reality, but transcends reality to become an object of beauty in itself: a photograph. Does that make sense and resonate with anyone else?


  12. MIKE R,

    “Does that make sense and resonate with anyone else?”
    As a famous philosopher once said, “yes… and no… with reservations.”
    “He just happens to document things with a camera rather than going out with the intention of making great photography that not only depicts reality, but transcends reality to become an object of beauty in itself: a photograph.”
    I don’t think you can be faulted for thinking that’s what a ‘photograph’ is, and no doubt many people who call themselves photographers have exactly such intentions. One of the conundrums that photojournalism has always faced is that in trying to depict reality, it’s the images with graphic and aesthetic appeal that seem to have the most impact and get seen and remembered.

    An analogy to what you’re calling a ‘photograph’ is the ‘story,’ whether in print or told orally… it has an arc with a setting, characters, a beginning, middle, and end or punch line… and storytellers, like photographers have relied on that formula over and over again because it has proven a very effective way to hold people’s attention and get complex messages across. But we all know that real life is not like that… it doesn’t package itself as neat and discreet stories. In dramas and movies and TV shows we used to see almost exclusively this pattern closely followed. In recent years however we are seeing and hearing ‘stories’ that don’t follow an arc so closely, that are not neat little packages, where events and emotions and problems may never be resolved and mysteries never answered… this is becoming quite trendy, in fact, and we are learning to enjoy such open-ended and ambiguous ‘stories.’

    So maybe the same thing is true in photography. A lot of what many of us admire in photography today may have seemed aesthetically too unconnected, out of balance, out of focus, filled with too many disparate elements, etc. for an earlier or less sophisticated audience to appreciate. In English and some other languages ‘poetry’ was for many centuries something that followed specific meters and patterns and it had to rhyme… if it wasn’t in an identifiable meter and didn’t rhyme, then it wasn’t considered poetry. By the mid 20th century all those rules had been suspended and anything that still followed them was regarded as at best quaint and at worst doggerel.

    Now, I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to aestheticize reality, both in images and words, and package reality into pretty photographs or neat little anecdotes. My own personal taste in photography gravitates to the upper echelon of New York Times photojournalists like Tyler Hicks, Chang Lee, Ruth Fremson, Lynsey Addario, Amy Vitale, and the NatGeo/and/or Magnum photographers like John Stanmeyer, DAH, Jonas Bendikson, Gerd Ludwig, Stuart Franklin, etc. (just to drop a few names and there are many others) and I recognize that while all of these people are essentially trying to document and convey something about reality, they are at the same time aestheticizing it, making it attractive and arresting to look at with graphic visual elements, balanced compositions, controlled color palettes, etc. And I would agree that Martin Parr does not really seem to fit into this group. But I don’t think that makes his work any less ‘photographic.’ And Martin Parr certainly seems to have his own aesthetic which he imposes on his images rather than merely ‘recording documents.’ I suspect there may come a day when the photojournalist icons of today may be regarded as people who made the world look too pretty and well organized to be real.


  13. Got a headache from getting too little sleep over too prolonged of period, drinking too much coffee, eating waaaaaaaay too much high calorie food and being chilled to the bone so my brain is not really up to the sophisticated, philosophical, conversation going on here. I have not been able to visit Burn for awhile so I will try to post a few muddled thoughts, anyway, if for no other reason than to make a gratuitous appearance.

    First, the photographs: much different than any beach fare I am used to seeing with the sensuous beauty of youth and in particular gorgeous pictures of nubile women pushed aside to emphasize the wear and tear life wreaks on the human body even when it survives in reasonable health. At first, many of the pictures struck me as a bit repulsive, but then I wondered why. Parr just shows us as we become if we are successful and fortunate enough to life long enough. I myself have long fantasized about the coming day when it might be possible for me to spend some real time hanging out on warm beaches washed by warm surf where I can enjoy at least the sights of the kind of beauty David has long depicted, but if that should happen, given all my multiple surgeries, accidents, artificial bones and the resultant scars and deformities, I will look worse than most of Parr’s beach people.

    Still, if the opportunity should yet come, I will want to take it and I would not want to hide from Martin Parr’s long lens, should he happen to be there, prowling about. I would avoid these particular beaches, however. Too crowded.

    Now, as to the discussion of lenses and whether one can even make art with certain lenses, telephoto in particular, to me it is a nonsensical discussion. To think “outside the box” has become an inside the box cliche, but such notions definitely nail one’s brain deep inside the box. Of course an artist can make art with a telephoto lens. Or any lens that suits that suits the artist’s purpose.

    I think its quite all right not to like Martin Parr’s work or to think it does not or rise to a certain level of beauty, but the images shown here are definitely photographs. To me, they do transcend reality by making reality seem just a bit more real yet unreal than even reality can be.

    Been doing some beach work myself lately. There were a few gorgeous mothers with their very cute little ones hanging out on the beach. I did not ask permission but I did photograph them with a medium long-lens but I could tell by the way the mothers looked at me when I started edging too close that maybe if I took another ten steps, the mothers would surely kill me. That, sometimes, is the bigger question than getting permission – how do you know for sure when you have taken the 9th step?

  14. Seems Mr. Parr has the working method as follows; map out received wisdom; in the space that is left is the realm of possibility. Novelty is one thing; would be curious to hear more about his wry social critique that he always sneaks in no matter what new method he deploys.

  15. As I have mentioned previously here at Burn, I do not approve of beaches, as they encourage people who should never be seen without their clothes on to disrobe. Secondly, beaches are an intermediate zone between dry land and water; being on one smacks of indecisiveness. If you want to go in the water, then go in the damn water. If you want to stay dry, then keep your damn shoes and trousers on and go to the movies. Thirdly, the water is filled with fish, who have so little regard for themselves and each other that they relieve themselves in the water that other fish and people want to use. This strikes me as rude in the extreme and therefore I want nothing to do with either the fish or the water; encouraging this sort of behavior only encourages more of it. As far as I can tell, the only really good excuse for all of that water is that it gives the Navy something to move across; without the water the Navy would simply be the Army, albeit with snappier uniforms.

  16. Akaky, you have shed more light, wit, understanding and deep analysis on this Martin Parr essay than all the rest of us commenters put together – including Martin Parr. Now I finally understand. Enjoyed every word….

  17. “Sometimes, getting close is too easy.” – Garry Winogrand

    This is shock-of-the-new, evolutionary photography. I think this was the sort of thing Clement Greenberg was thinking about when he stated that the integrity of the medium must be respected as an underpinning of the Modernist approach. There are so many fresh ideas at play in this essay just by extending the focal length of the lens, like:

    – Inverting the plane of interest from the front to the rear in a minimum two-plane image. Ralph Gibson was able to thrust the rear-plane elements into the foreground through a kind of optical illusion using contrast, but that’s different from what Mr. Parr is doing here. I don’t think this was ever done in painting, at least prior to the invention of the camera.

    – Flattening the rear plane by introducing out-of-focus frontal structure. It seems the nature of the telephoto to compress distant objects somehow becomes “decompressed” when there are elements in front. I’m seeing the opposite of what Gordon observes; he sees depth-of-field in the back of the picture when the front objects are unfocussed. It would be interesting if both states are experienced by the viewer simultaneously, or if half of the viewers see the illusion as Gordon does, when the rest would see it as I do. How cool would that be?

    – The way in which content and context is inverted. Front figures are made less important; at the same time they are given more respect (to their privacy?). The people “behind” contain more interest and information. This is turning tradition on its head; the Everyman is given full voice. What does this mean for paparazzi and photojournalists? Is this a solution to the problems of engagement in street and documentary photography?

    – The new problem of having to find and compose for “clean” foregrounds, as opposed to the traditional issue of making proper consideration to an image’s background composition. The photographer will have to learn to see differently. I’m not to sure about this, but somehow related is the turning upside down of the notion that the camera is an extension of the eye; now the eye becomes an extension of the camera. This might be an answer to Biginabox’ issue with the challenge of the telephoto to the human perspective.

    There are all kinds of interesting problems to be answered, and all kinds of dynamic conflicts between Form and Content with this approach. It’s also a natural development for Mr. Parr to go from the exploration of flattening the front plane with the contouring properties of the ring-flash, to flattening the rear plane by decompressing the effect of the telephoto.

    A good photographer never rests.

  18. I don’t enjoy this series of photographs visually, but I enjoy it intellectually and I’m happy with that. I thought of that while looking at the “Urbanistan” work in the essay that follows. That work is visually enjoyable. The photographer has mastered all the high-end documentary photography techniques from dramatic composition to excellent post-production to traveling the globe to find visually stunning new places, or more likely, visit stunning old places where many have gone before to do a similar take on what has been done countless times before by countless photographers. Muslims with AK-47 against the backdrop of ancient desert towns and dramatic skies; how can anyone ever tire of that?

    Parr, on the other hand, goes to a boring beach and handicaps himself with a boring lens. He then attacks the situation with visual ideas that germinated in old propaganda photography while passing on the lure of dramatic post-processing techniques such as the extreme tonal contrasts that were used in the aforementioned essay. The resulting work challenges both the viewers expectations and the foundations of documentary photography. I love that kind of thing.

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