Rhubarb and other stories – Martin Parr at the Hepworth


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


to harvesting


right through to consumer products


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”.


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.


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.



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.