Martin Parr: Interview

‘Return to Manchester’ by Martin Parr at Manchester Art Gallery


‘Bloody Martin Parr!’ That’s all we could say when he replied to my email which I sent on a whim. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to interview Martin Parr. Bloody Martin Parr!’

It all came about when we were considering who next to interview, thinking we haven’t featured a photographer in a while. So I was like; ‘What about Martin Parr? He has that exhibition coming up in Manchester Art Gallery.’ We never even thought he’d reply, but I’ve always believed if you don’t ask you don’t get? What was there to lose? So, I typed my message on the generic Contact form on his website, left it as that and went to sleep. I couldn’t contain my excitement when I woke up to a reply! Bloody Martin Parr has replied. Bloody Martin Parr!

I was shitting it at the Press Launch, lets not lie. I hadn’t slept all week as my mind couldn’t turn off to the fact I was going to interview one of Britain’s (if not one of the World’s) most famous and established photographers! So yeah, I was nervous, but bless him, he is a charming man, a wise, father-figure, welcoming and inviting and putting you at ease.

He reminded me of Louis Theroux, (I do love Louis). Parr wears a uniform, a grey jumper over a non-offensive shirt and jeans. He has a manor about him, engaging, interested and intuitive. He knows his craft well, and he wants to learn about people. Also, he says things like ‘going for it big time,’ and ‘having an absolute hoot’. Hilarious!

‘Return to Manchester’ shows Parr’s connection to people, featuring a huge range of Mancunians from across all the suburbs. He said over 1000 people are featured in this exhibition, and before the exhibition launched, Martin and Manchester Art Gallery hosted a private hour, where they invited everyone that is featured to come and see the photos, see themselves on the walls.

The idea of the exhibition was to take a portrait of Manchester as it is now, 40 years since he last did a project here. He has a signature style, light-hearted, quirky, he takes photographs of real people in real situations. Parr was looking to find new ways to photograph this ever-changing city, yet I noticed quite a lot of comparisons in the images, so I asked him, was he looking for direct comparisons to what he had shot then, to what Manchester looks like now?

MP: ‘Yes I guess. Certain things like food, eating, are comparable. Yes a little comparison but also a new typography of Manchester constantly changing, its quite dramatic. Some things didn’t exist those years ago. The biggest and most dramatic changes to Manchester are the development of Northern Quarter and Media City so I was keen to get those in. One thing that doesn’t change are barbers and hairdressers. They remain run by individual people. They are not a chain so I love going to photograph places where people have their hair done. They are more likely to be an individual shop with more character to it.’

Speaking of Media City, we asked Martin the classic Cotton On question – if you could live in any painting/artwork, which would it be and why? This question stumped him a little!

MP: ‘Wow, I mean I love looking at the Lowry’s, I think I’ll live in a Lowry-esque terrace house with all those stick people outside with no cars. Yeah I had a look at the Lowry’s here [Manchester Art Gallery] this morning, and some of the pictures I took, the one of the Media City centre is Lowry-esque. I do like Lowry as a painter, he is obviously a real character.’

I wanted to talk to Martin about his Autoportraits project, which I found hilarious! He visits photography studios from countries all over the world, gathering ridiculous and unusual self portraits, many where his face is Photoshopped in weird and wonderful ways, including in a sharks mouth, or posing with Putin.

MP: ‘Oh yeah I love doing that, and that’s ongoing, I want to find new ways of having portraits taken, I recently did one with a woman who runs a company called Hey Saturday, her job is to photograph people for dating websites. So although I’m married, and quite happy about that, I’ve got some dating site pictures!

CO: Are they not all just selfies on dating sites?

MP: ‘Well no! She argues that that doesn’t do you any good. You’ve got to have an expert to take these pictures.’

CO: I just don’t know people that would do that? I have friends on dating sites and its all just holiday snaps and selfies.

MP: ‘Oh no, she is very busy. That’s why they aren’t getting the right dates! Because they need to invest in their profile pictures. Tell them from me, Hey Saturday, look them up!’

CO: I’m on it, I’ll tell them!

So there you go, I wont reveal any names but you know who you are!

We talk a lot about the University experience here on Cotton On so it was interesting to hear about Martin’s too. Martin studied in Manchester and said that his Uni tried to teach him commercial photography, not art photography. He mentioned how he failed his theory as he wanted to do more of the art and documentary style of work. How different that is today! Parr said he hoped some of his old tutors were still around to see ‘Return to Manchester,’ an ‘up yours’ to the tutors who failed him and wanted him out. So I asked Martin about that.

MP: ‘Well the first thing I need to point out is that I am a very commercial photographer. I work for people like Gucci. I do a lot of very well paid commercial work. But that’s on the back of a lifetime of doing my own work. But no, I think the way the commercial world and the art world fuse together now is quite different.’

What stood out to me in this exhibition was the comparisons, both in the sense of the then and now, that’s a given, but what I saw were the comparisons and the differences across modern Manchester as a whole. I think part of me noticing this is down to the curation of the exhibition, thanks to Manchester Art Gallery’s Natasha Howes, she deserves a round of applause. The placement of images, all from modern Manchester, show so many sides to our amazing city. For example, the detail, perfection and price of the Mackie Mayor’s brownies and cakes, positioned next to the every-day, builder’s type, dessert pies sold at Bury Market, next to the home-made, botch-job of the fairy cakes bake sale (20p a cake) for the Royal Wedding. He has a unique, bold way of showing us our daily lives, but really making us look into it, so we see the contrasts of our city.

I was curious to know what Parr really thought about Britain. Someone that has documented and visited so much of it, seen it evolve and change, was he proud of this country, proud to be British? Or does he see a side of it he doesn’t like?

MP: ‘Yeah, my photography gives me the chance to explore the contradictions I feel about Britain, and I’m pretty pissed off about the Brexit vote and what’s happening there, so that’s a tension I can express into the pictures. It’s almost like a form of therapy photographing Britain. There are many aspects that I like and many aspects that I am angry about.

CO: Do you think you’ll document Brexit?

MP: ‘I am doing a show next year at the National Portrait gallery and I will have a room, a very big display called ‘Britain in the time of Brexit.’ So yes, I am aware of that as a theme and I will incorporate it.’

Martin is busy man indeed, as well as the new exhibition mentioned above, he recently opened the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, a gallery, library and archive space for Martin’s work.

MP: ‘Yes just opened last year, going pretty well. In October 2017. Busy programme,. We just launched a membership scheme this week, where you get a chance to buy a 10 x 8 signed print, for £125 and join the second level of membership, that’s compared normally to £3500, so it’s a considerable reduction!

CO: I’d say! A very good incentive!

MP: ‘Basically it’s a bribe! So tell your readers about that! Put in the link if you can!’

Hahah! As promised, here is the link:

Cotton On’s photographer raised a good point whilst we browsed the exhibition, saying how the old images are more interesting, and that part of the exhibition stands out. ‘Yes the modern images are great, but as we are Manchester now, we see these scenes everyday. Parr shows us a new way of looking at the scene yes, but it’s our lives. The old images are before we were born, how people used to live, our country’s history, times we never saw or lived. In 10/20 years time, the current images of the modern Manchester will also be looked on with nostalgia, with remembrance.’

It raises the point of how different people will come and see this exhibition and how they will connect with it? If you were here in the 70s, and still live here now, I imagine the exhibition will be a real trip through time and memories. If people come from outside of Manchester, never lived or experienced any time here, what would they see in the photographs? They’d be no personal connection to the locations, but will there be connections to the styles, clothes family and community that are in the images? I found myself looking through the grid images of the modern day to see which places I have been, to see if I recognised anyone in the photos, to see if I attended any of the events. Outsiders can’t do that. What will this exhibition be for them?

Whatever it is to them, to me it represented so much. It’s my home town, where my family have always lived and grew up, I base this whole blog around what Manchester has to offer. It felt like Martin Parr was doing the same for this exhibition, exploring the big and little places of Manchester, trying to represent as much as possible but leaving enough for you to interpret it as you will. What an absolute pleasure it was to meet Martin and talk to him about his work and life. He has really captured Manchester now, and will continue to capture our diverse and sometimes ridiculous country. He is always listening, watching, looking for the next magic moment. Natasha Howes said ‘Martin has an amazing curiosity for the picture around the corner.’

And the conversation ended with him wishing me and Cotton On good luck – major chuftie moment right there! I could have pinched myself, Martin Parr just wished me Good Luck! Bloody Martin Parr!

Return to Manchester‘ is on at Manchester Art Gallery from 16th November 2018– 22 April 2019. Free. Find out more about Martin Parr on his website.

For a listing of all exhibitions and events across Greater Manchester, check out our What’s On Calendar.

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