martin parr might just have created the most enduring document of brexit britain
The photographer's new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery reveals the true, mad, and delirious horror of our national culture right now.
Stone Cross, St George's day, West Bromwich, England 2017. Copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery.
There are two images of the Queen in Martin Parr’s new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Only Human, that might as well stand in as a whole for the show, and to a larger extent the work of Martin Parr himself.
The first is an image of the Queen, shot from behind, entering into a car. Instantly recognisable by the silhouette of her hat and jacket, both in matching pastel blue. Beyond the waiting car, a hoard of Her Loyal Subjects crane to get a shot of her on their camera phones. The occasion is the 650th anniversary of the Drapers’ Livery Company, one of those ancient ritualistic guilds that used to run the City of London. The second image of the Queen is taken in Paderborn, Germany, on a British Army Base. It’s a cardboard cut out of her, perched behind a buffet table draped with a Union Flag tablecloth. She’s frozen in all her finery, arm outstretched to shake hands. On the wall behind the cutout is a more formal portrait of a younger Queen at her coronation. Somewhere between these two extremes of pageantry -- worshipful devotion and wistful self-deprecation -- lies a reality of modern Britain. As a country we’re either in dumb thrall to our history or else gently mocking it.
Martin Parr might be, from his investigations into leisure time, social life, working class communities, the most anthropologically interesting of photographers to have documented British life in the post-industrial era.
But comprising of images shot since 2002 -- when he had his last British retrospective, at The Barbican -- this exhibition eschews the greatest hits to focus instead, on the now. Only Human comes at a perilous and fraught time for Britain, and the exhibition reveals how Martin has captured those times. Rooms of the exhibition are themed: Brits Abroad, Brexit Britain, Ordinary People, and The Establishment. These are the best moments of the exhibition, and show Martin Parr at his best too. They reveal the true, mad, delirious horror, of our national culture and everyday life right now.
There’s a neck tattoo across a hairy back that reads “English and proud”. A white Staffordshire bull terrier wears an England shirt. Two orangemen wear matching Union Flag trousers and shoes, Rangers wristbands, T-shirts emblazoned with William III. There are images of posh old relics at Lord’s reading the Telegraph. There are the future posh old relics at school at Harrow playing rugger, covered in mud. There people on boats toasting the Queen near Eton as they sail down the Thames, on an annual Swan Upping jaunt. There are ordinary families waving Union Flags to celebrate Harry and Meghan’s wedding. There are uniformed fox hunters, and wild pissheads out on the lash. Hen parties, cricket fans on tour, celebrations for carnival and Ramadan and passed out Cambridge students at the end of their degrees. There’s the high-tech neo-feudalism of City bankers and expats living out fever-dreams of the Empire in Kenya and Zimbabwe. All of this forms the mesh of Martin Parr’s Modern Britain.
Martin Parr’s images are strikingly simple and almost brutal in their colourful, stereotypical, visions of life. And, in that, they do reveal some kind of truth. We might as well call Only Human an investigation of the long run up to Brexit, so much does it ask the question, perhaps, of ‘How’ve we done this to ourselves?’.
Or does it? It’s hard to accurately gauge the politics of Martin Parr simply from his looking at his photographs. He’s been labelled just about everything – from sneering snob looking down on the working classes to loving chronicler of the quirks and oddities of the country. He’s presented as satirist, social-critic, voyeur, celebrator. The answer of course, somewhere in between all that. There’s no real judgement to his images, they present themselves to you, you make up your own mind. You get the feeling, really, that he might quite simply be interested in humanity, life, society. How we spend our time, what that says about us. He has a fondness for Britain, even, you think the bits, like the spirit that motivated Brexit, he disagrees with.
Speaking at the opening, Martin says he was, in his images that chronicle Britain in an age of Brexit, trying to find a “resonance of this moment, rather than a direct representation of it”. He mostly chronicles the communities of the areas of the country that voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. There’s a tenderness to these images too, they don’t come at you with force of disgust or anger, he doesn’t decry them as stupid, bigoted idiots, but reveals the humanity of them.
Martin Parr, 'Only Human' is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019. All images copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery. The accompanying book 'Only Human by Martin Parr' is published by Phaidon.