Martin Parr: How to put photography in the frame

The photographer's art isn't valued in Britain, believes Martin Parr. That's why the famous Magnum snapper agreed to be a judge on a TV show. Ciar Byrne reports

Monday 07 January 2008 01:00

Musicals and opera have already been given the reality television treatment; now it is the turn of photography. A new Channel 4 series, Picture This, takes six wannabe snappers and sets them assignments over the course of three weeks, eliminating the unsuccessful contestants until just two remain to battle it out for the prize.

Martin Parr, the acclaimed photographer best known for his colourful pictures of British seaside life, is one of the three judges on the show.

The documentary photographer became involved with Picture This because he believes that photography is not given the prominence it deserves in the UK, whereas in other European countries and in the United States it is celebrated as an important art form.

Before agreeing to take part, Parr met the programme-makers several times to discuss the concept. "My thinking was that if we've got this very good slot to give oxygen to photography, it's probably good to be involved to make sure it's not bad. TV-makers usually don't know much about photography," he says.

While photography isn't a subject often covered on television, there have been two series devoted to the subject in the space of a few months Picture This follows in the footsteps of BBC4's The Genius of Photography, which also featured Parr.

"The funny thing about photography is that it's our most democratic and widespread art form, but we don't take it as seriously as the rest of Europe does," Parr says.

The winner of Picture This will have his or her work exhibited at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, and a book of their images will also be published. The latter was Parr's idea, "because having a book published is one of the goals of a photographer".

He says: "This is a genuine deal. Whether the book would have been published without the oxygen of the television programme is difficult to say."

Parr is refreshingly honest about the quality of the contestants in the show. "When I first met them and saw their work, I was slightly disappointed, but they were very keen and their learning curve was quite dramatic," he says, adding the question: "If you're looking for a real new star of photography, does one have to pitch this higher?"

Parr, who was born in Epsom, Surrey, in 1952, was introduced to the camera by his grandfather, a keen amateur photographer who lived on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire. He went on to study photography at school and again later at Manchester Polytechnic.

After college, he went to live in the Pennine village of Hebden Bridge, where he taught photography as well as using black and white film to capture the "traditional aspects" of the area. In the early part of his career, teaching provided the bulk of his income and he remains keen to pass on his knowledge to future generations of photographers. In 2004, he was appointed Professor of Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.

In 1982, Parr began to use colour, creating the lurid palette he is now known for. In 1994, he joined Magnum, the iconic agency set up as a co-operative by several great photographers, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But, whereas the founders of Magnum crossed new frontiers in war zones and far-flung places, Parr preferred to concentrate on his local environment or down-at-heel British seaside resorts.

Magnum paved the way for Parr to do more commercial work, including fashion shoots for the likes of Paul Smith and Louis Vuitton, and magazine features. The photographer, who uses amateur film combined with flash to create his images, believes his pictures already use "the language of advertising", making them more accessible.

He enjoys the freedom that commercial work allows him. "If you do an editorial, it hardly feels like commercial work. You're being paid to do something you would do anyway," he says. With fashion advertising, "you're buying time and freedom and still using photography".

But he has some words of warning for magazine editors. "One of the things I regret is that magazines now are so lifestyle-orientated that the opportunity to do bigger projects is gone. This is a serious misjudgement on the part of magazine editors." Parr is also appalled by the fact that Britain is "the only developed Western country that doesn't have photography reviewers" in its newspapers.

Most titles he works for are in Europe or the US, as he finds the British attitude to photography discouraging. One of his current projects is to produce 96 pages of photographs on dance for an American magazine.

"We don't like photography as much. We don't have photography festivals or if we do, they're rather small," Parr says. "We're a nation full of people who are interested in books and words and music and a little bit of art, but we have never really quite liked photography."

On the Continent, however, he believes the approach is different. In 2004, Parr was the guest artistic director for Rencontre D'Arles, a major photographic festival in Provence. "It was sensational for me to go to Arles and be confronted with the seriousness with which photography is taken. You suddenly realise that it's a bigger world.

"There are 65 to 70 photography galleries in New York alone. In the UK, there are no more than five and they're all in London."

The German photographic curator Thomas Weski has said of Parr's work: "Martin Parr is a chronicler of our age... Leisure, consumption and communication are the concepts that this British photographer has been researching for several decades now on his worldwide travels... Parr enables us to see things that have seemed familiar to us in a completely new way."

Today, 12 million Britons own a digital camera and sites such as Flickr have millions of subscribers. For Parr, this is a cause for celebration.

"I feel more confident about what I'm doing. Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work. The really good people are the ones that survive."

Picture This is shown on Sundays at 7pm on Channel 4

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