Martin Parr

Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai, India, 2018, From ‘Death by Selfie’ © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / PHOTOINK

Martin Parr In Conversation with Ravi Agarwal

Ravi Agarwal: You have such a huge body of work. You have a life of photography, it’s really hard to think of things and you have been very open, I have been reading up on the website, reading your interviews. You’ve always been extremely candid and that’s a very good resource. Just to begin with if you could briefly tell us about what got you into photography.
Martin Parr: My grandfather, who is a very keen amateur photographer, he lived in the North of England and I was brought up in the South. I would stay with him during the summers and we went out shooting processed film, made prints and by the age of thirteen or fourteen, I decided that I wanted to be a photographer. It was a very long time ago, it was in ’67, fifty three years ago and now I’m a photographer indeed.

RA: I started photographing when I was thirteen and I’m sixty years old now. I was particularly interested in reading about your move away from Pictorialism very early on and you moved into a different kind of space and you also shifted from black and white to colour which was all very radical at the time because photography was and still, in some way, continues to be black and white as serious art photography.
MP: Now, I think now it can be anything. As you said, twenty or thirty years ago, colour was almost heresy. Although India had very good colour photographers with Raghubir Singh and even with Raghu Rai but particularly Raghubir was pretty ahead of his game.

RA: The word ‘art’ comes with certain connotations, everyone wants to be an art photographer and that implied fine art photography, all confusing words meant to be in black and white and there’s a big legacy of how the Friedlanders or the Bressons drove the pulse of the time. I was thinking of your early pictures that I saw in one of the books. You’re not doing classical pictorialism, you are rather looking at fore- grounding and the subjects. You’ve presented a human critical view of what you’re seeing.
MP: When I worked in black and white, it was more of a celebration of society and then it became more a critique and then I changed to colour. Especially with ‘The Last Resort’ which was the very first colour project that I did.

RA: It’s interesting you’ve used the word ‘critique’ because somehow that’s implied through your work but it’s never overtly stated.
MP: It’s a critique on society and a critique on my view of the world.

RA: I see it in many different ways, it’s idiosyncratic, it’s very particular to your underlying brand of humour but also a deep insight into what you see. A very astute eye. How would you react to that?
MP: It’s not my job to say how good or bad my eye is, that’s other people’s jobs. The one thing that the English are good at is self-defamation. If you were talking to an American they’d be telling you how great they are.

RA: You also remind me of working against your idea of a photograph and in some ways being irreverent to the system because you form your very particular eye and you continue with that without any apologies. You don’t play to anybody else but your own eye. Photographers usually have a difficult time finding a language, finding their form.
MP: I accept that I find my own language and build my own vision and I’m very happy I’ve got that behind me, which I can utilise as I continue to work. I agree with you, it’s not an easy thing to achieve and I’m very privileged that I’ve managed to do that.

RA: What do you look for when you interact with young photographers?
MP: I meet a lot of young students and I always look for something that is very original. I can usually see what an intern says they’re looking at when I look at their work and sometimes you see that spark of individuality, which isn’t always fully developed but you see the strands of it coming through. That’s my job as a teacher, to encourage that and purposefully point them in their own uniquely personal atti- tude and direction.

RA: I guess it takes a certain kind of mind and a certain kind of eye to do that. One of the stories that everyone is always interested in is your entry into Magnum. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?
MP: It was quite controversial at the time but in the end I got the two-thirds majority, which in politics is a huge deal. I don’t think even Modi got that majority, it’s regarded as a landslide. Controversy has always followed my career.

RA: Why would you say controversy has followed you? What about your style?
MP: I never really understand why it is so controversial because all I’m doing is photographing rundown seasides or going to supermarkets. People go to wars and famine and various other things but they don’t get criticised. I’m always puzzled as to why I’m so open to criticism when to me what I’m doing is perfectly obvious and ordinary.

Martin Parr New Brighton, England, 1983-85 From ‘The Last Resort’ © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

New Brighton, England, 1983-85 From ‘The Last Resort’ © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

RA: I guess that’s a compliment to your pictures. They’re revealing things that people don’t want out in the public space.
MP: If you can tell me why, in one simple sentence, I’d be very pleased.

RA: Well I think they’re brutally honest. You expect that from journalists but one doesn’t expect that from photographers. It’s also a language that people don’t understand so easily. I had also read somewhere that you haven’t been to Iran. You don’t see yourself as a political photographer, do you?
 I mean there is a bit of politics there but it’s not overtly shoved down people’s throats. Of course one can’t ever be so far away from politics in this society. It is there but in a subtle manner. People will take whatever they want from it politically.

RA: Depends on what you call political I guess....
MP: What’s political is a very difficult thing to define. All photo journalists and documentary photographers have to come from the left. They have to like people and there’s not much point really. I come from the left, of course and I’m sure you do too. I don’t need to inquire your stance on Mr Modi, I already know it.

RA: Another thing that I’m interested in is a photographer who I really respect is Allan Sekula who taught you the documentary form and never wavered from it. In your long career, photography has undergone so many languages and so many changes.
That’s part of the excitement of photography. About thirty years ago, colour was regarded as heresy and now it’s perfectly normal.

RA: And you’re sticking to the documentary format?
MP: I mean it’s in the real world and the real world implies I have to photograph what’s going on in my own particular style and manner. That’s my priority. That’s my subject you know: the real world. I came to India and we should talk about this and I had a pop up at India Art Fair. I’m interested in the wealthy people of the country but most people would come with regards to the poverty in the country which can obviously still be found. Well I’m interested in the wealthy people because they like art so the place I can find them very efficiently is an art fair.

RA: You’ve been coming to India for a long time; since ’85?
MP: Yes I’ve visited the country often. I’ve already booked my flight for next year. It’s hotter during the miserable British winter. You’re never going to be bored over here, if you’re bored in India you might as well just pack up.

RA: What draws you to India?
MP: It’s such a fascinating country. It’s lively, it’s colourful, there’s never a dull day, people are great. It’s chaotic, the food’s fantastic, hotels are great. What’s not to like!

RA: Your repertoire of work is extraordinary in Great Britain and you always talk about the importance of the connection.
MP: I’m both repelled and drawn into India. It’s a funny old addiction, India. It is yin and yang but everything isn’t as straightforward where everything is sweet and nice. Not like Sweden or Japan where the entire society runs brilliantly. India has its problems and it’s a frustrating country to navigate but at the same time it’s incredibly rewarding, the people are all friendly and interesting. You’re never bored in India.

RA: You have other projects like the ‘Selfie’ one but you also have ‘Gone To The Beach’....
MP: Indians on the beach are quite fascinating because firstly women go in fully dressed, secondly they don’t generally swim. They like to get wet and cool down, so the scenes on the beach, in Goa at Baga beach, where we often go it’s a mixture of Europeans, Russians and Indians, again really a fascinating place.

RA: I read somewhere that you shoot beaches in Great Britain because that’s where you feel the English society comes with all its quirkiness.
MP: Well yes, beaches are very quirky places. In England the beaches are all slightly run down because everyone prefers to go abroad now also the English weather is so unreliable. Some places have a mixture of shabbiness and history that makes them very photogenic.

RA: In India, how difficult is it to shoot on the beach?
MP: Pretty easy! No problem at all. The danger is that you get these young guys playing games on the beach and the moment they see the camera they start posing. Young Indian men are very vain. It appears there are more men than women in India. For example, I photograph a lot of people dancing in India and you very rarely see women dancing. I’ve been to all these discos by the beach. Women dancing are a very small minority.

RA: I think it’s still a very traditional patriarchal system. Women aren’t seen all that much in public.
MP: In fact, the idea of them going fully clothed into the sea really tickles me.

RA: Here the relation with the body is very different than in Europe. I was thinking and looking at your photos. They’re also very intimate. How would you describe them?
MP: It wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind. Sometimes there’s intimacy and I do get close but I don’t think they’re necessarily intimate.

RA: But they’ve also got the kind of detail, something you don’t normally miss.
MP: Yes, they do. Again though, you’re making these value judgments, which I’m very happy to hear. It’s not one that is my priority but I’m happy to go along with it.

RA: How would you put it then? What are the words that you would use?
MP: Well, I’d say there’s a bit of mischief there and at the same time it’s documenting. For example, I’ve just done a book called Death By Selfie and it’s all because of my fascination with the selfie. Smartphones have had a dramatic effect on society in the past fifteen years. When I looked up the death by selfie statistics, India by far has the highest number of people being killed while clicking selfies. Therefore I made the assumption, perhaps correctly or incorrectly, that more selfies are taken in India than anywhere else in the world. I believe that is true and in my recent visits to India where I’ve been specifically looking for people during selfies; it’s being consolidated by my evidence.

RA: Well, it would make sense because there are so many more of us.
MP: Well, the only country with an equal number of people is China and they’re not as obsessed with clicking selfies. So you are the top selfie country in the world.

RA: Well, I grew up in an India, which was very conservative in the sense of being understated and had the British hangover far more than one can observe now. So I’m used to the other side of life, which is understated, quiet and the ironic, which is something that I see in your work as well and you yourself are also dealing with ways of managing your public persona. But it’s changed now from your pictures as well. People are far more out there and very vain and more present. But you’ve been to beaches in India, what are the kind of places you enjoy visiting?
 Mumbai, Mysore, Delhi, Calcutta. 

RA: And on the streets?
MP: Yes! Street life is very exciting in India. There is never a dull moment on an Indian street. 

RA: And you’re coming up with another book after Death by Selfie on India.
MP: Yes I am doing more books. I am always doing books!

RA: I think you have over a hundred and sixty or a hundred and seventy plus books, right?
MP: A hundred plus yes. I mean, if you include zines and other forms then about a hundred and thirty.

RA: But you’re also sort of, since very early on, a big lover of the photo book.
MP: Yes, I have collected them over the years. I have a very good collection, which has now gone to the Tate, as it was getting too big for me to handle. So that’s where it now resides and we continue to add to that collection.

RA: But you’ve been collecting photo books for a long time, much before it became fashionable to.
MP: Yes, luckily I was quite ahead of the game and then they were a bit cheaper.

Martin Parr

RA: So, tell us a little bit about your interest in the photo book.
 I think the book is how a photographer can make a statement. There is something very satisfactory about the book. You can pass it around; you can smell it and you can see the full breadth of the project. People don’t throw them away. Shows come and go, magazines come and go, but people keep books and collect them. And funny enough, in this Internet era that we are in, the book has never been more popular. So it’s almost like an antidote to the Internet.

RA: Now photo books have almost become like art objects now.
MP: Yes and you are now seeing a real blossoming of Indian photo books in the recent years, which is a great way of getting Indian work out of and beyond India.

RA: Are there any Indian photo books that you really like or have struck you in any way?
MP: There are certain artists that have found a lot of recognition in the West from their books like, Dayanita Singh and Sohrab Hura, who is a great example of a young photographer whose work really blossomed through the photo book like The Coast.

RA: Yes and now I want to take you back to something that I read and which made me really curious. You are very interested in the Bechers, the Becher school are stylistically so different because they have this typographical cataloguing style of working and yours is very alive, very documentary and of people in a very different format. So are there some things about them that you relate to or you really appreciate?
It was very exciting when the Becher school was launched and I realised that this is an important contribution to photography. They, more than anyone, have helped put photography into the art world because their prints were big, expensive and limited edition. I’ve also been a typologist myself. I fully acknowledge the importance of their form and I think that they are an incredibly strong group of photographers and of course, their originals are amazing in the way that they established a proper school and made the art world embrace photography. We can never underestimate their achievements. So further down the food chain, with people like me, we benefitted from their presence and their contribution to the art world.

RA: Now this art and photography division, which is sort of still very alive here in India, though it seems to have become more complicated and entangled everywhere else, and you’ve naturally straddled all spectrums of it.
MP: I’ve had a foot in all these different camps. I do fashion, I do advertising, I show in the art world and art fairs, show in photography galleries. I like the fact that photography can be high and low at the same time.

RA: Many young photographers are caught up in this question of thinking of language, thinking of form and how one might suit the other. Also tweaking a language to suit a certain kind of space, etcetera. Would you like to say something to them about how one should proceed with trying to find their language?
Well I think that you can find your language by making a connection to your subject matter and you take everything that is there to learn from the history of photography. You learn from what other photographers have done and then make it your own. I think there is not much difference in other places. I mean, I know Devika (founder PHOTOINK) very well and she has told me how reluctant Indians were to collect photography, but now that door is open. It’s not easy to survive as a gallery today, as you all know, but it’s great that she has such a great presence at the India Art Fair, a great stand and hopefully she has done well with the numbers as well.

RA: I am again, very interested to know about what you think about how the photograph speaks to something, should be more important than how we think of a language. So what you said about connection but a brilliant photograph will stand out. 
MP: Absolutely, yes. It’s a very democratic language, where all photographers will understand photography. It’s a very accessible medium.

RA: So would you say that younger photographers should not be necessarily caught up in this question when you think about what works for them?
 Just get on with your work and try to find that natural momentum, which is going to carry them forward. If you spend too much time analysing it, you won’t get anywhere.

Martin Parr India Art Fair, New Delhi, India, 2020 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / PHOTOINK

India Art Fair, New Delhi, India, 2020 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / PHOTOINK

RA: I think that it becomes a kind of a hindrance to developing language than to make a language instrumental to something. I also want to talk to you a bit about your collection of books that you donated to Tate. It’s fascinating to think that, of course, you are a person who wears many hats but besides being an artist, you are also a collector of many sorts. Could you tell us more about it because not all photographers are collectors?
 I just have a natural collecting gene. So at Martin Parr Foundation, we still collect books, we have a great collection of English, British, Scottish and Welsh books. Also a great international collection, which I bought from another photographer. We also collect prints.

RA: Are some of them in your foundation? 
MP: Have you seen what we’re doing?

RA: I’ve seen your website and the foundation is quite an extraordinary resource you’ve built up. I wish more people could do it. I wish I could do it. Again, I am trying to draw you out on your photographs, which you describe in many ways, but there is also this sense of fun. They are fun photographs as well and is that the way you see them and the world?
MP: The fundamental thing is to document the world and my interpretation of it but also there is this sense of mischief. You know, it would very easy to settle down into doing PR pictures. For example, that was the Art Fair, that was what other photographers there were doing, the PR pictures. So I am trying to put my stamp on it, rather than doing the general ones that media people want to stamp on.

RA: Yes, but you’ve always done that.
MP: Yes, it’s what I’ve done all my life and it’s what I believe, what I do.

RA: Do you feel a sense of being very British in them? 
MP: Yes, I feel like a very British photographer.

RA: Also because you are very well known everywhere, including India and there is so much that young photographers can learn from you, which is also what I am trying to convert through this interview. When I am mentoring young photographers, they are often caught in these questions of how to do something and how to succeed in something, though they should be more caught up in their practice.
 The danger is over intellectualising all these things. That is a strand of Indian mentality. It’s dangerous.

RA: Yes, that’s a very important message that I think has to be conveyed to young photographers that you just have to go and do it. So, have you visited any art photography schools here?
MP: I have done a few lectures in India, in Goa and Mumbai. My knowledge of schools in India is very limited.

RA: So would you be more open to talking to and engaging with young photography students in India?
MP: Yes, definitely.

RA: So that’s something that we should talk about further because it would be wonderful. There are not many institutes in India that teach photography. Can I ask you a little bit about your equipment because I am interested in it?
MP: I use Canon.

RA: But you’ve done six by seven as well.
MP: In my early career, yes. In my analog career.

RA: And if I may ask you, a lot of your photographs seem to be a little wide, fixed lens. 
MP: Over the years I have twenty four-seventy, a macro lens, which is a fifty five.

RA: But earlier works were also with zooms or you were using fixed lens. 
MP: No earlier works were done with a thirty five mil.

RA: You’ve completely switched to digital now? 
MP: Yes.

RA: And what do you think about it?
MP: It’s great and easier. I used to change film every ten shots on my six by seven but now there are about five hundred images on my card.

RA: But you have no nostalgia for the film?
MP: Some nostalgia but I don’t look back. Young photographers love it and think that film is sort of superior.

RA: Is it?
MP: I don’t think so.

RA: Why do you think the young people think so then?
MP: I think it’s like the popularity of vinyl; people want to get it back and do something different.

RA: And finally, you said that you’re interested in the middle class and upper middle class in India. So where have you photographed them, in what kind of locations?
MP: Well, I have been to polo clubs, a few parties, I’ve done some weddings but I would like to do some more. The Art Fair was a great location, it wasn’t as glitzy and glamorous as one might expect because in places like Taiwan it’s glitzy but not here.

RA: Did you not go to the art fair parties?
MP: No. I went to a few parties, probably not the ones that I actually should have gone to because they are a bit more exclusive.

RA: And you have an upcoming show as I read it on your website. 
MP: Yes, in many places actually, there are always shows happening.

RA: And a new body of work?
MP: Nothing particularly new at the moment. I have an Irish Show in which I will have new work.

RA: Right, post Brexit. 
MP: Haha yes!

This conversation was initially published in our November Bookazine. To read more grab your copy here.

Date 27-03-2021