Martin Parr’s “The Non-Conformists” published by Aperture

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Silver Jubilee street party, Elland

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.

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Hebden Bridge Picture House

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Two local policemen taking breakfast, Colden Row Farm, Heptonstall


Old Town fete

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Travelling hairdresser, Heptonstall

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Silver Jubilee street party, Todmorden

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Halifax Town football ground

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Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel

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Sarah Hannah Greenwood and Charlie Greenwood, Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel


“Hong Kong Parr” Exhibition – Guided tour at Blindspot Gallery

First off apologies for the crappy images in this post.  I was holding a pile of Martin Parr books (yet to be autographed) while single handedly taking photos with my iPhone. Luckily I wasn’t the one who was told by Parr to take the lens cap off his Leica film camera after he had taken a photo of Parr with the lens cap on. The good many there had a great laugh at the man’s expense.  Without missing a beat Parr said: “All good photographers throw away their lens caps.”

I learned a great deal on this guided tour about the photos on display and about Parr’s approach to photography. He professes that he takes “many more bad photographs then everyone in the room.” Yes and he definitely takes a lot more good ones as a result.  The “happy accidents” are the fruits of a disciplined work ethic which produces a prodigious amount of good photos.  Although he’s too humble to say a good sense of the moment and eye for composition also helps.

Parr is reluctant to talk about the meaning behind his photos. According to him, his first priority is to entertain. The “agenda biting at you underneath” is for you to figure out. Regarding the “Hong Kong” series of photos Parr explains they were commissioned by the Blindspot Gallery and some of the photos address the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. In particular the enormous amounts of wealth on display by the mainland Chinese in Hong Kong shopping for luxury items and expensive condos.

A few more interesting tidbits were offered up by Parr during the tour:

  • He always goes to Happy Valley (race course?) every time he is in Hong Kong
  • Each good photo has some sort of twist or story behind it
  • He uses very light flash to make the colors pop
  • When the subject looks at the camera it usually destroys the photo
  • Sometimes when the subject looks at the camera it works
  • Parr never hangs his photos at home and prefers to display works from others
  • He has over 800 prints from other photographers

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Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

“Only in England” is now showing at the Science Museum in London and is a must see. It is perhaps one of the most lovingly curated photo exhibits I have ever seen. The show consists of many unseen works by Tony Ray-Jones which were selected by Martin Parr – who cites the former as a major influence.

Parr also displays in the show his own early photos from the 1970s. Although the two have never met there is a very intimate dialogue between the bodies of work. Each room in the exhibit alternatively displays photographs from Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. Their styles are different but there is a continuity between the rooms. This could be the result of the shared subject matter and sensibilities alluded to in the title of the exhibit.

Having admired the prints I also spent a significant amount of time combing through the contact sheets from Ray-Jones. They were displayed strikingly on a large wall at the very back of the exhibit. Looking at the sheets closely you can see the creative process of both photographers. Parr definitely brings his own aesthetics to the table when making photo selections for the show from these contact sheets. They are also testament to the talents of Tony Ray-Jones as a photographer.