Martin Parr – Return to Manchester

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After a quiet January due to both of us suffering from a bad cold and chest infection, we had a couple of busy days last weekend. On the Friday we had tickets to see the St Petersberg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall with our son (the tickets were his Christmas present) so we decided to make an afternoon.

First stop was the Manchester City Art Gallery to take a look round the major exhibition of photographs of Manchester and some of the surrounding towns by Martin Parr, the well known documentary photographer, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) between 1970 and 73. (He was almost kicked out, apparently, for failing a photography theory course!)

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The city made an impression on the young lad from the suburbs. He’s quoted on the exhibition website as saying

“I remember so well arriving into Manchester in 1970, having traveled from the safety of suburban Surrey. It was exciting and felt very real. “

As a keen photographic student should, he explored Manchester, taking photographs of the city and it’s inhabitants. And since leaving the city he’s returned on several occasions . This exhibition includes photographs from his student days and subsequent visits to the city. And the City Art Gallery also commissioned him to create a new body of work on Manchester and its inhabitants in 2018.

The earliest photos were largely black and white, “street photography” featuring mainly working class locals in the streets and pubs of the city, and several series of photos one featuring the homes and residents of a street in Salford,

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another one of residents and staff in Prestwich psychiatric hospital, the interior of Yates’ Wine lodges in Manchester and nearby towns and a photographic game involving matching up couples who were photographed in Piccadilly Gardens.

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I particularly liked the 1972 series June Street, a project with his friend and fellow photography student Daniel Meadows.  They had hoped to photograph the real Coronation Street, but it didn’t exist. So instead they selected a typical street of terraced houses in Salford – June Street.

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They got the residents to pose in their living rooms. The resulting photos brought back the memories of my youth as the interiors of the houses and the clothes the residents wore were very typical of the 70’s.

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The people appeared to have dressed up in their best outfits and were quite formally posed – quite different from Parr’s later work which are mainly (but not exclusively) informal “street photos”.

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I was never a drinker in Yates’ Wine Lodges which were but did venture inside very occasionally. But the photos, including one from the town where I grew up, really got across the atmosphere of the bare, “spit and sawdust” establishments.

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These days Parr is best known for his photographs emphasising bright vibrant colours, particularly yellows and reds, with his subjects caught unawares or in informal poses. A major part of the exhibition were photographs taken during recent visits to Manchester


……………… meeting people shopping, in hairdressers, in Mosques, in cafes, at markets, in factories, at parties, playing sport and in the gay village. He has captured scientists doing ground-breaking research at Manchester University, fans of the city’s world famous football teams and the state of the art facilities at the BBC in Media City. (Exhibition website)

and was interesting to see the city from his viewpoint.

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He must have took far too many photos to display full size so there was a large selection of smaller photos covering two sections of the wall.

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Here’s a few of my favourites

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At one time I spent hours doing this!

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And these photos taken in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford bring back memories of when I was more active politically

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The exhibition also included a short film with Martin Parr talking about Manchester and the exhibition and showing the printing of some of the photographs on display in the gallery.

Rhubarb and other stories – Martin Parr at the Hepworth

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Last Sunday we drove over to the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Although we were only there a few weeks ago on New Year’s Day we wanted to see the exhibition of photographs by Martin Parr that had opened since our visit.

As the Gallery’s website tells us the exhibition is

A comprehensive overview of Parr’s work is on display, from early Yorkshire-based black and white photographs of rural communities to his recent international examinations of consumerism.

It included the series of photographs shot in and around Calderdale (TV’s “Happy Valley”) not long after he’d graduated, The Last Resort, showing ordinary working class people in the run down seaside town of New Brighton, The Cost of Living, a photographic essay portraying the new middle classes of 1980s, his Autoportrait series and more recent pictures featuring people at work and at leisure.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was a series of photographs commissioned by the Hepworth  – The Rhubarb Triangle

a series of photographs taken over the last 12 months in an area of countryside known as ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’ between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell in West Yorkshire, which is famous for producing early-forced rhubarb. Parr’s photographs capture all aspects of the rhubarb business, from the back-breaking work of moving the rhubarb from field to shed, the freezing cold and exhausting labour of picking the vegetable by candlelight (or occasionally by head-torch), and the consumption of the rhubarb by coach parties and food tourists.

This seems to have resonated with local people as I’ve never seen the Hepworth so busy.

Martin Parr is known for emphasising bright vibrant colours, particularly yellows and reds, in his photographs. So bright pink forced rhubarb made an excellent subject for him. And his with his interest in photographing ordinary people at work and play The Rhubarb Triangle was a subject made for him.

The series covered all stages of rhubarb production from preparing the beds in cold, dark sheds in the winter

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to harvesting

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right through to consumer products

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I’d seen his Non-Conformist series of back and white photographs shot around Hebden Bridge in the 1970’s before at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool but it was interesting to see them again in the context of his later work. I particularly liked some other black and white photos shot around Calderdale in the 1980’s. I could relate to them as the community in and around Halifax and surrounding towns and villages is very similar to the one I grew up in on the other side of the Pennines. It was interesting to see his photograph of spectators on the overgrown terrace at Thrum Hall, he ground of Halifax Rugby League Club. Somewhere I visited around the same period. There were a number of other run down Rugby League grounds around that time and the modern stadia used by the major teams in the Superleague are certainly very different. I can still be nostalgic for the “old days” though.

The Last Resort series and the The Cost of Living in the adjacent gallery, both shot in the 1980’s, really showed the gulf between the classes during that period. It would be interesting to do something similar today. There would be many differences including fashions and technology but I think that they would reveal that the chasm between the classes would be even wider.

The Autoportrait series was great fun. In this case the subject of the photographs is Martin Parr himself taken during his travels for assignments around the world. He has his photo taken at portrait studios, by street photographers, in photo booths etc. often posing with pops. So there are shots of him in all sorts of fancy dress and posed in front of famous landmarks or with “celebrities”.

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The final gallery displayed a large selection of his photographs, many featuring people at work and play. The back wall was covered by a display of photographs of all sorts of subjects, most of them featuring the bright vibrant reds and yellows the photographer specialises in.

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Given my job, I have to be interested in industry and people at work so there were quite a few photographs that struck a chord with me.

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Interviewed in the Telegraph (not really my paper I have to say!) Martin Parr tells the art critic Alastair Sooke

“You are after iconic moments,” …….. “but they are very difficult to produce. Most of the pictures I take are not very good. For the rhubarb commission, I took three or four thousand – and ended up with 40. If I knew how to take a great photo, I would stop.

“My job is to record things with integrity, and I can always do that,” he says. “Whether I take a ‘great’ photo is down to luck.”

I think he is being too modest and self effacing. Getting a good photo always involves luck, whoever you are, but the evidence of this exhibition is that he knows what he’s doing.