Since the 1970s, Martin Parr has taken a fine — and at times humorous and poignant — eye toward documenting the social classes of the Western World but, in particular, his native England. His work has been celebrated internationally and recognized as some of the best documentary photography of our time. His work is in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern in London, the Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
He is one of the most important voices of 20th and 21st Century photography, and one of its most respected. Since 1994, he has served as a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos and recently served a term as president of that esteemed agency. He also is a critic, and collaborated with Gerry Badger on the three-volume The Photobook: A History, an essential set for anyone passionate about photography, in general, and photobooks in particular. Photobooks are a subject close to his heart as he has published more than 100 books of his own and edited another 30.
These days he is the driving force behind a project to curate the UK. In 2014, he founded the Martin Parr Foundation, which is now based in Bristol, U.K. and whose mission is to “support and preserve the legacy of photographers who made, and continue to make, important work focused on the British Isles.”
We’re honored to host Parr this June at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival, where he will give the keynote address. When we asked him for a description of his talk, he wrote us: “Martin Parr talks about his long career in photography. Simple and to the point.”
Mike Lee: I would like to ask you about your recent work and what projects you have been engaged in.
Martin Parr: I have set up a foundation, martinparrfoundation.org, which is open to the public, and that is a huge event for me. We have a museum, events — we have a bookshop — we have an archive. It will be my archive, as well as work by other British photographers, especially documentary ones. I’ve been buying books and prints. It will be like a museum, except in miniature.
Oxford is part of my exploration of the British establishment, which is a last chapter of what I have been doing. I have done the British Army in Germany. I have done public schools — I did the city of London, and now then finally there is Oxford.
It is part of an ongoing project that I’ve been pursuing where I have been documenting the UK in all shapes, forms and all classes. It’s just been the establishment’s turn, if you like.
I cover the working class — I am very democratic when it comes to class coverage.
As for Oxford, you see the traditions, which is all part of oxford and that whole feudal aspect of Britain, which is very photogenic to me.
Lee: I wanted to ask about the Belfast series. There was photograph that really struck me, and that was the photo of the double-decker tourist bus passing an old prison, and the look of the aged man, staring off with a sense of sadness and seeming memory.
Parr: Dublin Road Jail.
The Troubles have become quite the tourist attraction. Tourism is a big part of what I do because it is a big way of differentiating between mythology and reality. We all have an idea of what a place may look like, but when we get there, the reality is quite different. That’s fundamentally what I pursue in those photographs.
Belfast is a good example of a place that has reinvented itself through the tourist industry and it’s become a big part of the economy: the Titanic, yes, but The Troubles, also.
Lee: When you were working on this ongoing series—this journey through England, particularly in London — what is it that you see in the changes in that country?
Parr: Obviously, England is a stable country, but is also changing because we have all the homogenization going on throughout the world, but it still manages to keep some of its quirks and traits, despite the globalization that we all live through.
That’s part of my attraction, of course. I have a love-hate relationship with England. Part of that equation is therapeutic value of coming to terms with this through photography. I can express both sides of the argument. In one picture: that’s when it starts to work.
Lee: You said you are democratic in documenting the various classes in the UK.
Parr: Yes, indeed. This is why I brought in Scotland. I have done two books on Scotland; work that I have done over a 25-year period. I’ve gone at least once a year to photograph there.
Lee: What seems the most striking part of the changes in the UK over the last few years, particularly with the Brexit process?
Parr: It remains very stable. All these scenes, like the horse racing and all of that has pretty much stayed the same as it did 10-20-25 years ago. I mean: shopping has changed a lot. Retail is always shifting, which the traditional English events have not.
German supermarkets now do well here. Phases come and go. We don’t have video stores anymore — things come and go — I like how things change. Everywhere changes.
What’s exciting about the future is to work on what’s current to have [it preserved] for people 30 years from now.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.