I bought this book a year ago when I went to “Only In England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr” at the Science Museum. I must admit that I got it more as a souvenir of the show. That is until I spent time reading it cover to cover I realised what a real gem it is. (I had my copy dedicated and autographed by Parr when he came to Hong Kong for his “Hong Kong Parr” show.)
The book is in many ways an autobiographical work of Martin and Susan Parr – but more so Martin. The title of the book refers to the Methodist and Baptist chapels in a specific area of Yorkshire. George Parr (Martin’s paternal grandfather) was a Methodist lay preacher and also from the Yorkshire region. Martin would attend chapel with his grandparents every Sunday: “For us, there was something about the Non-Conformist ethos that resonated with the West Yorkshire outlook: hard-working, frugal, temperate, disciplined, self-reliant, fond of tea and cake.”
Throughout the book’s text and photos you get a sense that the Parrs became an integral part of their subject matter: “Although we didn’t realise it at the time, Stanley Greenwood took our interest in the community and chapel as a sign that we might be the ones who could keep the chapel going in the future. This was partly our fault because we had become too involved in the very thing we were trying to document.” Vicariously the reader becomes a neighbour and fellow chapel goer with the subjects portrayed in the book.
To a larger degree than other phonebooks this level of closeness is achieved symbiotically through the text and photos. As cliche as it sounds Susan Parr’s writings breath life into Martin Parr’s photos:
Between films, Lloyd entertains the audience with short, crackly recordings of Glenn Miller or Bing Crosby, played on 78 rpm discs. Downstairs, in the foyer, a lonely policeman comes in for a cup of coffee and a chat with Mary.
When you get to the chapter “Calderdale” – which is absent of text – you sense what a powerful effect the text has on the photos. Every photo becomes part of a narrative more than a single image. They become film stills with a life before and after the shutter was pressed. You feel more empathy for the characters and begin wondering about the circumstances of their lives.