Britain Through the Eyes of the Photographer Who Knows It Best

Ahead of the UK leaving the EU, the National Portrait Gallery is showing a major exhibit of Martin Parr's work.

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29 January 2019, 12:04pm

Bad Fallingbostel. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery 

Martin Parr has an intimate understanding of Britain. The photographer has been travelling up and down the country for some 45 years, capturing the UK in all of its beer-swilling, seaside-flocking, St George's flag-waving glory. His subject is usually the everyday, making the banal suddenly intriguing – alien, even – through garish colours and his eye for eccentric details. Far removed from the artifice of fine art photography, the visceral, often grotesque, nature of his photos mean they're not for everyone, but this has never seemed to bother Parr much.

Over the past few years, Parr has been documenting Britain's social climate in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum. Speaking to the photographer on the day Theresa May's Brexit deal was due to be voted on in Parliament, he told me: "Of course I’m worried. The next chapter is unchartered territory."

But rather than focus on the catastrophic doom of it all, Parr offers a wry take on the matter; one recent photo series consisted of various foods threatened by Brexit, playing on public fears of an impending "cheese crisis". "My work's not overtly political, but it's always an underlying element," he explains.

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Stone Cross. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

A number of Parr's photos of Brexit Britain are set to appear at the National Portrait Gallery this March as part of "Only Human", the first major exhibit of his work since 2002. "It's very much an examination in the time we're about to – or supposed to – leave the EU," Parr says of the show. "Who we are, what we're aspiring to, what we're like and the various British clans we can look at through photography." It also features portraits of a few British icons, such as Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin and Vivienne Westwood. "I love meeting these people," he says, "but I don’t go after celebrities."

With Brexit heightening tensions between London (which voted 60 percent in favour of remain) and the rest of the country, Parr hopes the show will draw people's attention outside of what he calls the "London metropolitan bubble"; travelling around the UK, he's seen the "anger and frustration outside of the rich south-east". However, he's adamant that the show isn't an attempt to school audiences on political divisions: "It's about entertainment. If it opens debate, that's great, but it's not what I expect."

Parr has always wished to be seen as an unpartisan documentarian, "showing people various scenarios and inviting them to look", stressing that he's "not making morality judgments". Instead, he prefers to take an anthropological lens to his subjects, distilling modern life into a series of both obscure and deeply familiar rituals. Since the 1970s, his photos have satirised habits of leisure and consumption, from those unchanged for decades to more recent phenomena, like the incessant selfie-taking of tourists. "We've become more globalised, immigration's increased. But at the same time, we haven't changed that much," he says. "We are a contradiction of the old and the new running alongside each other."

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Salford, England, 1986. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Manchester – a city Parr has returned to repeatedly throughout his career since attending university there in the 1970s – is filled with these "contradictions". His 2018 visit culminated in an exhibition, "Return to Manchester", currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery, with selected works appearing at the upcoming National Portrait Gallery show. From the city's BBC centre to Gay Pride, where parade-goers are pictured brandishing inflatable penises, Parr's photos embrace the city's changing landscape. "Part of the traditional Manchester has been lost, but you just have to accept that. We can't live in the past," he says.

Some of the most striking images from the Manchester series don't focus on British traditions. Whether it's a ceremony in a mosque, a West India parade or the dance floor of a Sikh 21st birthday party, there's seemingly no separation between Parr and his subjects, no sense of voyeurism. With Brexit creating an increasingly hostile environment, these photos – displayed alongside certain archetypes of "Britishness" – are an important reminder of the multiculturalism that rescues the UK from the threat of a dreary, not to mention dangerous, insularity.

"Only Human: Martin Parr" opens at the National Portrait Gallery on the 7th of March, 2019 and runs to the 27th of May. The accompanying book, 'Only Human', by Martin Parr is published by Phaidon.

See more photos below:

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Moss Side, Manchester, 1972.
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Manchester, 1981.
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A 21st birthday party at the Royal Nawaab restaurant, Levenshulme, Manchester, 2018.
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Yates's Wine Lodges, Ashton-Under-Lyne, 1983.
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Magdalene. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery
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Durban. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery
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Lobster pots. All photos copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery