Photographer Martin Parr on being back in vogue - and setting his sights on the British establishment

The photographer is back with a vengeance. He talks to Hettie Judah

At the age of 63, Martin Parr is desperately trying to get into Eton. “They’ve got a new headmaster, so I’m still hoping,” he confesses, grinning. “I may have to do five A-levels or something.”

A photographer whose reputation is founded on an unsentimental flair for capturing the public and private rituals of his compatriots, he hopes to add the exotic rites of an Eton boyhood to his current investigation of the British establishment.

(Parr’s own childhood in suburban Epsom, by contrast, included extended stints of bird-watching with his dad at the Hersham Sewage Works.)

Parr has been a detached connoisseur of evolving tastes since his days at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s.

In his first public exhibition Home Sweet Home (1974) his now-familiar yen for kitsch was already on display: his photographs were shown against floral decor, clipped into cheap Woolworths frames, within a mock-up of a living room thick with cloying perfume and a soundtrack of showtunes. By the 1990s, Parr’s wry-bordering-on-waspish observations of Britishness – and rather British observations of the world – were inescapable, a defining aesthetic touchstone of the decade. 

Unlike his carefully edited photographs, Parr suffered from overexposure. Following a Barbican retrospective in 2002, the mania for his work trailed off in the UK, though he exhibited widely overseas, and was honoured with the artistic directorship of the eminent Arles Festival in 2004. 

But for spring 2016 Parr – a man who notoriously wore socks and sandals while photographing backstage at Paris’ haute couture collections – is back in vogue. He has three UK exhibitions, the first of which, a retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield features a new series on West Yorkshire’s “rhubarb triangle”: a district with a long tradition of growing early, forced rhubarb.

This is followed by a show revealing the closed and tradition-bound world of the City of London at Guildhall, and an exhibition, curated for the Barbican, that looks at Britain through the lens of international photographers. There are books too – a collection of his food photography, Real Food, and another on the rhubarb triangle.

Parr hints that there is more, soon to be announced. He seems incapable of stopping even within the context of a conversation, answering questions before they’ve finished. He and his wife, Susie, have just been to India, though you couldn’t call it a holiday. “I shoot all the way through. Occasionally, I’ll take a photo of Susie, but it’s quite rare, so these trips are usually work trips.”

The Rhubarb Triangle and Other stories

He has a camera phone but barely uses it: “Can’t be bothered. I’m either photographing seriously or not at all.” The interest in photography that image-sharing platforms generate excites him and he’s present on social media, but delegates the running of his profiles: “I don’t even know what’s going to come up next in my Instagram account.”

As such conscientious brand building suggests, the business of being Martin Parr is, these days, serious business.

His collections of kitsch and ephemera, from boring postcards to Saddam Hussein watches, have provided material for multiple publications and exhibitions; the photography books that he’s amassed over decades gave rise to a three-volume history of the photo book and will inform the Barbican show.

The president of Magnum since 2014, he discusses the evolution of the venerable photographic agency in corporate tones: “... previously it was B to B but now we’re changing it to complement that with B to C. We’re building on our Instagram and social media base to find a new audience.”

Parr’s interest in the business of photography extends into the less-venerated reaches of the medium. Autoportraits, a book revised last year, offers deadpan portraits of Parr, with comical props and backdrops, taken in tourist studios around the world. At the Hepworth, he’ll set up his own rhubarb-themed portrait pop-up for a day later this month.  

West Yorkshire is close to his heart. He lived in Hebden Bridge as a young man, capturing the town and its disappearing ways of life, including its Methodist tradition, in The Non Conformists, which will also be shown at Hepworth. It was he who suggested the rhubarb triangle series to accompany his retrospective: “it’s just got that ring to it: it’s a no brainer.”

Far from disappearing, the rhubarb industry is “in rude health”, says Parr. The work of forcing rhubarb, in which heavy root clumps are lifted from soil after a period of frost then cultivated in low sheds, is gruelling, and often conducted by candlelight to protect pale stems and yellow, light-starved leaves. “There was an ex-miner who said mining was easier,” Parr recalls, admitting that the largest grower “now employs teams of Romanians”.

The impact of immigration became a central theme of Parr’s Black Country Stories (2010-14). The narrative Parr presents, though, is not one of embattled British identity or the panic that saw Ukip’s support surge. “In the Black Country, immigrants [have] brought new life to the area – a lot of people would understand that,” he explains.

“It’s not a particularly wealthy part of the country and we know why – because the industry’s all left – but at least it’s been rejuvenated by the immigration .”

Now his lens is turning to the Establishment – the City of London photographs will be the first exhibited in an ongoing series. Other notches on his bedpost thus far include Harrow, Oxford University, Christ’s Hospital and the British army in Germany.

Having explained emphatically that he goes into each project with the same documentary approach, there are nevertheless flashes of the angrier Parr – the acerbic observer of the Eighties and Nineties. “I am always aware how established the Establishment is.

These elite groups still run the country,” he says. “The irony of the City of London is that the technology has to be very good, and yet the actual systems the people come from, whether it’s the liveries or the whole set up of the City of London, are ancient and continue to be so. It’s still white and middle class: you rarely see anyone of colour in a livery company, [or] women.” He won’t be drawn into discussing culpability in the City, saying that his interests lie simply in showing less-seen aspects of Britain: “This is more to do with how the country’s run and how secret and potentially feudal it still is.”

Hearing him describe the photographs he’s selected for the Barbican show, it’s hard not to imagine that he might relate the practice of these visiting photographers back to his work abroad in the 1990s, when he faced criticism for the superficial portrayal of other cultures.

“You get out of something what you put in,” says Parr the curator. “If you come for two days you’re not going to get very good pictures – if you spend nine months here you’re bound to get something better. The works show people starting with the clichés. Then the more eloquent photographers go beyond that.” 

Parr himself is in a “going beyond” period. He may be churning out books and galloping through shows, and he can still not resist turning his lens on a garish Indian Swiss roll, but his observation of Britain in his time has become the project of a lifetime, yielding more the deeper he gets. A childhood of bird-watching more than paid back.

‘The Rhubarb Triangle And Other Stories: Photographs by Martin Parr’ is at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield (to 12 June); ‘Unseen City’: is at Guildhall Art Gallery, London (4 Mar to 31 July); ‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’, Barbican Art Gallery (16 Mar to 19 June)