This past Monday morning was a sad morning. It was the last Monday morning in a series of Monday mornings that I’ve been spending inside the headspace of Martin Parr. Starting the week by spending some quality time with this series of photobooks that we’ve recently acquired has meant that I’ve had a bit of irony and humour to get my week going. Now that I’ve finished, and they’re all on the system, it means I have to go back to working on dusty old things. Oh well.
Having taken the lead of developing the University’s Photographic Book Collection in the past few years, and having pushed for the acquisition of this new collection, it fell to me to process and catalogue these 24 works by Parr representative of nearly 30 years of his work. We recently acquired this collection of presentation copies from Peter Fraser, a contemporary photographer who also worked with Parr as a printmaker for several of his exhibitions and books. Each of these books includes presentation inscriptions to Fraser signed by Parr, often with a nice note or message (“Thanks for all the help!” or “Car maniac!” or “Bon appetite”).
“Parr is both renowned, and controversial, and has a recognized place in the canon of photography. His work has challenged the conventions of documentary and explored the world of the vernacular. In consequence it is amongst the most provocative and debated work of the last two decades … The collection is highly relevant to photographic studies, photo history, and critical theory. ”
Senior Lecturer in Art History
Parr’s work is as provocative as it is humorous, and having the excuse to take a leisurely stroll through his work, from his black & white 1984 book on Ireland A Fair Day to his first colour book, The Last Resort, all the way through to some of his private publications like Flowers and Parrjektif, has been a true pleasure. The collection provides a good overview of Parr’s publication history; well represented here are his works with Promenade, Cornerhouse and Dewi Lewis, as well as private publications and small press works like his Nazraeli Books. The collection also provides a good sampling of his developing style, from documentary to satirical to pure “Parrworld”. I’ve often found myself laughing out loud (especially awkward in an open-plan office) when cataloguing these books; perhaps that’s because I’m an outsider here, in Great Britain, and so it’s easier for me to laugh at his satire, but his humour is spot on, so dry and to the point. Perhaps, too, some of that humour is shared; as a curator and collector of a large early print collection you sometimes have to find the humour in the prospect of working through some rubbish 18th or 19th century publications (imagine months spent on processing 19th century government reports and not finding any humour or enjoyment in the mundane!), and Parr, a known collector and curator of his own collections, does the same with his photobooks.
My favourite photograph in these 24 books has to be an image early on in his 1997 West Bay of a seagull staring directly into the camera from the bottom of the frame, with a group of lunching tourists in front of a chippy in the background. Parr is most effective when he’s photographing people, but with the deadpan, almost human, look of restrained disgust of this grumpy bird he’s managed to capture the feeling of a what a subject of his photographs might feel when first viewing them. Also, this book is bound in Bognor deckchair canvas, how about that?
We have begun to push the Photographic Books Collection in new directions with this and other recent acquisitions and hope to continue the trend in the future. Scottish documentary photography and seminal photobooks of the 20th century have begun to take precedence in our collecting strategies, and a new focus on photographically illustrated poetry has seen a wonderful new subset added to the collections.