Steak and stilton pie and fish and chips: the perfect comfort foods for a sunny, but disarmingly cold London afternoon. I'm at Kennedy's on Whitecross Street, just around the corner from the Barbican. It's a weekday lunchtime and the place is bustling, with a takeaway queue snaking out of the door. Sausages and pies punctured with little flags denoting their contents are being kept at steady temperatures under lights, while lunch-goers eye them eagerly. Sauce sachets are grabbed indiscriminately and handwritten signs decorate the walls.
I'm here to meet photographer Martin Parr for lunch.
"I didn't want to have a whole fancy restaurant scene. This is quick and dirty—and tasty," he tells me as we sit down.
This does a slight disservice to the soft, beef-filled pastry and hand cut chips that soon arrive at our table. It also turns out that Parr's choice of venue is largely to do with it being on a nearby street to his London studio but, yes—sitting down for a silver service lunch with Martin Parr would have felt slightly disingenuous.
This is because Parr's food photography is the very antithesis of the "food porn" that litters our social media feeds. A flick through his new book Real Food, which brings together over 200 of his food shots taken across two decades all over the world, reveals an obsession with the kind of nutritionally derelict convenience foods even the canniest of food marketers would have trouble attaching to any emerging trend. Think waxy sausages accompanied by tinned vegetables and gloopy looking mashed potato, tins of Spam, and fluorescent cream cakes. Parr tells me that he is on a mission to puncture "the whole food snobbism, food fad thing."
While Parr eats much of the processed food he photographs, he also confesses to being something of a "foodie." Indeed, one of the aspects of frequent travel he enjoys the most is the chance to try different cuisines. Peruvian and Japanese are his favourites.
It's just that … well, the crap stuff is more interesting to photograph than the fresh scallops or naturally photogenic ceviche.
For 40-plus years, Parr has been documenting the endearingly absurd idiosyncrasies of everyday life—how we dress, how we relax, the objects we cling to—but it was only after adding a ring flash to his kit in the mid-1990s that food really became part of his repertoire. Providing even illumination across the image with few shadows, with the ring flash, there is nowhere to hide.
"It's very democratic and objective," says Parr. "That's the secret."
When it comes to setting up the shot, he's an opportunist and often shoots on-the-go.
"I put the ring flash on, go above it, and snap away—if I've got the right camera," he explains. "Most of the time I don't."
While Parr doesn't construct his images, he has no problem with people setting up their dishes for that perfect Instagram shot: "Fine, join the club!" In fact, the modern quirk of Instagramming our every meal fascinates Parr and he speaks enthusiastically about recently capturing two Japanese tourists photographing their meals, having been "after a good photographing food shot" for some time. There's a project in there somewhere, no doubt.
The British relationship with food has changed immeasurably in Parr's lifetime.
"It's sort of gone from one extreme to the other, from being completely useless and indifferent to food here [in the UK], to being completely obsessed by it," he says.
Parr can barely remember the food of his childhood growing up in "bland" suburban Surrey in southern England in the 1950s and 60s, only roast dinners and fish and chips on "very formative" trips to visit his grandparents in West Yorkshire (his grandfather was a keen photographer and gave Parr his first photography book.) Parr's first ever photo essay in 1967 focused on the original Harry Ramsden's fish and chip restaurant (now a nationwide chain) in Guisely, close to Leeds.
"It was very classy, there was a piano playing. It was aspirational," he remembers.
Though Parr implores me to get out to the rest of the country with "my MUNCHIES hat on," we both spent time on the Yorkshire coast as children and have a long discussion on the relative merits of fish and chips in Scarborough versus Whitby. Parr also tells me that he can't think of "a better food capital" with such "staggering" variety and quality as London, an idea that must "appall" the French, he suggests with a rye smile.
His lens however has always been drawn to the kind of food that evokes a strong sense of place: a cake sale for the Samaritans in Dorset, snails smothered in thick herb butter in Paris, hot dogs on a New York street. Children of suburbia often feel rootless and Parr is fascinated by the way food is tied in with national and regional identity.
Halfway through lunch, Parr turns his attention to the mushy peas sitting in a ramekin alongside his battered cod and douses them with malt vinegar.
"You can never have enough vinegar on your mushy peas," he enthuses.
How very British.
Photos by Liz Seabrook.
Want more British food icons? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running everyday this week on MUNCHIES.