They shoot tourists, don't they?

The photographer Martin Parr's latest exhibition is a cheeky portrait of global tourism. But Will Self wonders if he has gone far enough
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Martin Parr's new exhibition of photographs opens at the Photographers' Gallery in London this week. The title of the exhibition and attendant book is Small World, and in some ways it might be a nice conceit to envisage homogeneous groups of upholstered mid-Americans, or attenuated Japanese, being diverted from their treks around Trafalgar Square or Buck House, in order that they might come face-to-face with Parr's images of mondial tourism.

For Parr's subject-matter is twofold. Firstly there is the replication of parts of the world in other parts of the world. So we are given bits of Luxor transplanted into a Las Vegas casino; double-decker buses and half-timbered cottages being photographed by Japanese visitors to the Rainbow Village Theme Park in Japan; and further Japanese mites standing in front of a miniature reproduction of the Arc de Triomphe in Tobu World Square.

The other strand to this collection of photographs is the search for images of either signifier-congruence or discontinuity. Thus Parr photographs the back of a tourist photographer's cagoul, which providentially has the same colour coordination as the refulgent Dutch bulbs he is attempting to capture with his lens. A vending machine which employs a photograph of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona as a decal, is juxtaposed with a "real" photograph of the Cathedral, in front of which is posed a fat man with a yellow T-shirt, emblazoned across the back of which is the inappositely apposite designation "Bali".

Parr is fond of that old post-modern chestnut: the medium that portrays itself; and of course photographing images of tourism gives him ample excuse to capture people wielding handi-cams on Turkish asses, or letting them dangle pendant on their bulging bellies while they goggle at the Pantheon. In one triumphantly depressing photograph a plump American in a leather windcheater props himself on the knee of "Santa-Claus" in a shopping centre somewhere in Lapland, allowing Parr to place the tourist's garish "Le Clio" camera at the very centre of his own frame.

As with Parr's previous collections of images The Last Resort and The Cost of Living, he employs colour film to impart an uneasy hyper-reality to his depictions of Caucasian flesh griddling in equatorial locations. Thus the body of a sunbather reclining on a stack of sun beds on a Tenerife beach is basted by Parr's lens, giving his flesh a kofta kebab tinge. Parr is also a master of the confused mid-ground, a melee of oblique and diagonal lines of sight obfuscating what would otherwise be a slice of pure banality.

It is the employment of these techniques in his other excursions into social documentary photography that have given Parr's photographs a reputation for cruelty, for the exploitation of the people he depicts. In The Last Resort, Parr photographed the lumpen proletariat at play in a technicolour twilight of chip wrappers and mouldering lidos. In The Cost of Living, he captured the frozen moments of bourgeois life, as taut faces etched with propriety failed to kiss one another, failed to make contact.

Viewed in one way, these evocations of a rapidly shrinking world are just as cynical and manipulative. Much play is made of the contrast between the tourists' worried, herded visages, and the predatory mien of those who would sell them wooden tortoises in the Gambia, or their bodies in Thailand. But at another level, there is a way in which Parr seeks to expose the sense in which we are all in this together: oriental, occidental, tourist-consumer, tourism-purveyor. In Parr's Small World there is little wonder, and no awe at all.

Simon Winchester's introduction to this collection straddles an uneasy line of argument. On the one hand, he complements the cynicism of Parr's imagery by informing us of the vast size of the modern tourism industry. He reminds us of the equalisation of our "ways of seeing" that mass travel has inculcated. He draws our attention to the ironies implicit in our drive to apprehend the world we live in as a global photo opportunity.

Yet at the end of his essay, he gives what amounts to an impassioned plea for the right-to-travel; recalling that it is only tyrannies and fascist regimes that attempt to prevent their citizens from heading abroad armed with Kodaks.

The somewhat schizophrenic character of this encomium teases out the questions which linger behind the images themselves. One cannot look at one of Parr's carefully arrived at photographs without wondering just how long Parr himself had to wait in front of the Golden Temple in Bangkok for the woman to come along and take a photograph while holding a postcard, which itself depicted the Golden Temple. This evocation of the photographer himself as a kind of meta-tourist is amusing once, not so amusing twice, and trite, when - as in this collection - the same effect is strived for numerous times.

There is this problem and there are also other problems. Whatever the Baudrillard-influenced semiologists of the contemporary scape say, the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing new about the "themed environment"; nor is there anything particularly fresh about the notion of mass tourism. The themed environments may be bigger and the masses of tourists massier, but the fundamentals remain the same. In a way Parr's photographs of the Pantheon are the least convincing, because, after all, the Greco-Athenian tradition of monumental architecture was itself the "themed environment" par excellence.

By the same token, Roman tourists were carting off bits of the Pantheon and trashing the site getting on for two millenia ago; plus ca change, mais plus c'est le meme chose. British Palladianism in the 18th century, in particular Claude Lorraine's landscaping of aristocratic estates, was an even more extreme example of this. There are many many more, from Frederick the Great's sub-classical Sicilian pretensions to the Capitol in Washington.

However, if it is the human element that Parr wishes to comment on, in Small World he is blocked from being as devastating as he was in his previous collections by the very decontextualization imparted by his choice of such themed environments as backdrops. In his photographs of English chip- eaters and tombola attenders, the semiotics of the backgrounds are immediately assimilable by the viewer. In the photographs collected for Small World no such interpretative act is possible.

In a way, Parr hasn't been "nasty" or cynical enough; and the images themselves, while amusing on a first flick-through, suggesting deeper incongruities and surreal elements to-be discovered at leisure, are unfortunately exposed on more careful consideration to be tending towards the very banalities that Parr is attempting to satirise.

It may well be that Parr has captured elements of the global village in this collection, but I for one would have been happier if he had gone the whole hog and been ruthless in portraying the village idiots that inhabit it.

n 'Small World' is at the Photographers' Gallery, Great Newport Street, London WC2 (0171-831 1772) until August 19. A book of the same name is published by Dewi Lewis Publications on June 30, price pounds 25

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