Exposed: the age of excess

Martin Parr, the photographer who divides the critics, has finally found a gallery for his iconoclastic new show
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The Independent Culture

Martin Parr hopes his latest exhibition will be seen as a fitting epitaph to an age of greed and excess – a monument, albeit unintended – to a time pre-credit crunch when the super-rich guzzled champagne and nonchalantly chomped cigars.

As it begins its only UK showing at Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art this week, Parrworld already appears to have polarised those in photographic circles – much like its controversial creator has done. Record numbers flocked to see the Englishman's typically uncompromising documentary photographs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris on the final leg of its successful continental tour. But he found his plans to stage a similar event in the British capital "dismissed" by curators of at least one major London gallery, believed to be the Hayward.

So instead he opted to bring his latest creation to the North-East, where more than 100,000 are expected through the doors to see it. Parr has long divided the photographic community. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French father of modern photojournalism, said he came "from a totally different planet" – and it wasn't a compliment. Parr scandalised the battle-hardened legends of photojournalism when he finally won his long-fought battle to join the hallowed Magnum agency by the narrowest of margins.

Critics of Parr's particular brand of social commentary have long accused him of cruelty towards his subjects. It was an easy objection to make when the people he was photographing were working class revellers on a New Brighton beach or the aspiring middle classes of Thatcher's Britain. But in his new series, Luxury, he turns his lens on a less sympathetic subject – the world's rich. Having spent five years following the new money around the playgrounds of the plutocrats in Russia, Asia and the Middle East he has created a body of work which conjures the spirit of the times. From the Botoxed faces of ageing ladies in the polo crowd at Dubai or the oligarch wannabes of the Millionaire Fair in Moscow, Parr admits that he had no idea they would so quickly become relics of a lost age.

Speaking yesterday, he said: "When I started this there was no hint of the economic crash. I was photographing the very wealthy in the same spirit that people might photograph poverty. Then the crisis came along and the way you view these things changes. I now look at it as an epitaph of this particular period. Wealthy people have not disappeared, they are just not so willing to show off their wealth."

Harder to swallow will be his pictures from the Gosforth Races, showing ordinary local people dolled up for a day out, puffing on cigarettes and downing bottles of cheap rosé as they cheer on the runners in the Northumberland Plate.

Parr, 56, concedes that not all his subjects are happy with his images. One woman from Dubai complained to the gallery there when it was shown. But these people are in the minority he insists. "There is an element of mischief. I am not doing propaganda pictures on behalf of people. I photograph people as I find them. But people have issues about how they look." Of more concern, following his failed negotiations with the London gallery perhaps, is the condescension still shown in Britain towards photography as an art form, he said. His biggest audiences are overseas.

"We don't much love photography here because it is still regarded as a low art form," he said. "The status is very low. Only last month the Tate appointed its first photography curator – and that is the high cathedral of art in the UK."

The larger part of Parrworld consists of the artist's vast personal collection of photographs. He is currently in talks with both the Tate and the V&A to provide a permanent home for them. They include an array of work by British and international photographers, among them Chris Killip's classic studies of Tyneside in the 1980s and David Goldblatt's images of apartheid era South Africa.

Then there is the extraordinary ephemera – the "shadow of human foible" as he puts it – that he has gathered over recent years, much of it from eBay: Barrack Obama statuettes, Saddam Hussein wristwatches and Margaret Thatcher Toby jugs, not to mention the commemorative miners' strike plates and Taliban tea towels.

Parrworld: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 16 October 2009 – 17 January 2010

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