Gerry Badger1 describes Martin Parr as “not quite an out-and-out modernist, not quite a postmodernist.” Parr is someone who is a successful photojournalist, who also works conceptually and exhibits in galleries and museums. He is comfortable working in all facets of life, in all cultures, but is probably best known for his tongue-in-cheek photography about modern culture. When Parr switched from doing black and white photography to making colour photos in the 1980s his vision changed from “gritty romanticism to hyaline realism2.”
Martin may deploy humor, in a typically English, somewhat mordant fashion, but at root he is commenting upon modern mores, from a sharp, edgy, ironic, critical, yet consistent political point of view.
Badger, Gerry3 (2010 :9)
Parr is a critical observer of consumer culture which he uses to playfully and ironically depict his subjects.
In his series Japanese Commuters which the course material points us to, we can see that Parr has photographed all his subjects unaware. The fact is they are all asleep. The set of images is a humorous typology of Japanese commuters on a train, all but one, almost doubled over in their sleep, as if deep in prayer. They are definitely not flattering portraits: the subjects’ vulnerabilities on show for all to see. We notice the thinning hair on some, noses that appear distorted or even almost non-existent. Only a few of the subjects have visible mouths.
How often have I not sat on the bus watching my fellow Asian travellers take a seat and within a minute of the bus moving off from the stop find them nodding off into oblivion. Or be in the unlucky position (or seat) of having such a person sitting next to me and have him/her nodding off on my shoulder! Take it from me – it is not a pleasant experience! So in my mind’s eye I am watching Parr’s subjects for clues as to which way they are going to lean when the train changes direction around a curve or comes to a halt at the station.
What a difference in style from Walker Evans’ subway portraits to Martin Parr’s Japanese commuters! As Geoff Dyer4 (2007: 7) states in The Ongoing Moment “To see if style could be identified in and by … content. The only way to do this was to see how different people photographed the same thing.” Evans shows us engaged passengers or passengers deep in thought in their own private world in the context of the carriage. Parr shows us obscure angles of people’s heads, rendering them almost featureless and totally anonymous, completing overflowing the frame. The lone figure in Parr’s set who is not doubled over in sleep is sitting upright, but we cannot see his face. Parr has cut off his head at mid neck level and all we see is the gold knot of his silk tie, the pinstripes of his dark suit and white shirt. He becomes even more anonymous than his sleeping counterparts. We can make out no context whatsoever in Parr’s images and have to rely on his captions to anchor the context of his images.
At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image … the caption helps me choose the correct level of perception …
Barthes5 (1977, p. 39)
- Badger, Gerry (2010). The Pleasures of Good Photographs, Essays by Gerry Badger, published by Aperture in June 2010 [online]. Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/ParrByBadger.pdf [Accessed 19 July, 2016]
- Dyer, Geoff (2007). The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books Edition
- Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press
- Parr, Martin (1998) Tokyo Commuters [online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYD12J76K [Accessed 20 July 2016]