Ahead of his return to Yorkshire for a new exhibition of his photographs, Martin Parr talks to Chris Bond about his career behind the camera.
THE past, LP Hartley once wrote, is a foreign country “they do things differently there.”
It’s a sage observation, you only have to glance through old photo albums to see how fashions, hairstyles and even people have changed.
Photographs are a snapshot in time and as such they evoke memories in a unique and often powerful way, taking us back to our childhood and those special moments.
It wasn’t so long ago that we had to stroll into town to get our holiday snaps processed, all the time never quite sure they were any good until we finally had them in our hands. Now, of course, digital cameras and mobile phones allow us to take pictures in an instant and delete them in the same breath.
Even so there’s still an art to photography and the work of two of the most influential photographers of the past 50 years has just gone on show at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Only In England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, features more than 100 works drawn from the Tony Ray-Jones Archive, which forms part of the National Photography Collection at the museum.
These are being shown alongside 55 early black and white photographs from The Non-Conformists, Martin Parr’s first major body of work capturing the lives of ordinary people in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley in the mid-1970s.
Between them the two men photographed scenes from seaside holidays and chapel services that are imbued with an awkward charm and unmistakable Englishness, capturing life in what was a more innocent age.
Over a three year period in the late 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones travelled around the country documenting English customs and identity. His photographs are often both humorous and melancholic and were seen as a radical departure from the more formal photography of the time.
He quickly came to the attention of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, which exhibited these photographs to widespread critical acclaim in 1969. But in 1972 tragedy struck when Ray-Jones died from leukaemia at the age of just 30. Despite his untimely death he had in his short, but prolific, career left a lasting legacy that has shaped the development of British photography.
Among those he inspired was a young Martin Parr who was still a student in the early 70s. “His work came as a great revelation to me,” says Parr. “I studied his book A Day Off – An English Journal and I really liked his picture of Brimham Rocks and the couple having a picnic.”
He says Ray-Jones’s pictures captured a sense of Englishness. “They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.”
Parr was invited to go through the 2,700 contact sheets and negatives in the Ray-Jones archive to select 50 vintage prints, and these form part of the Only In England exhibition alongside a number of his photographs which have been printed especially for the show.
Parr himself is revered as one of Britain’s foremost photographers. Born in Surrey in 1952, he used to go bird-watching with his father as a youngster. But it was through his trips north to see his grandfather, George Parr, in Yorkshire that first kindled his interest in photography.
“He was a great amateur photographer. He lived near Bradford and I used to come up and visit him as a teenager and we’d go on day trips from the Dales to Scarborough.
“He gave me the bug, but it was more his passion for photography that he gave me rather than the techniques.”
By the time he was 14 Parr already knew that he wanted to be a photographer and continued his amateur pursuit before going to study photography at what was then Manchester Polytechnic in 1970.
After graduating he ditched city life and moved to Hebden Bridge where he set up the Albert Street Workshop with a group of friends. The workshop doubled as an informal studio and became an artistic hub in the town.
“It was a very good way to connect with society. In the workshop we used to hang photos on the wall so that people could come in and not only look at pictures of themselves, but also the local community.”
Parr says he was drawn to the former mill town because of its heritage and isolated location. “Visually it’s an attractive place and it has a great working tradition. By the time I arrived it had already become this slightly alternative centre, although not to the extent it is now.”
He began documenting the town and its people and during this time became intrigued by the non-conformist chapels not only here, but also in nearby places like Todmorden and Mytholmroyd.
This led to The Non-Conformists, a photographic project shot in black and white, which focuses on the working lives of this group of people dotted around the Calder Valley.
The pictures carry the obvious influence of Ray-Jones but what was it that drew him to these congregations? “I had a hunch these churches weren’t going to be around forever because there was no one in the Quaker congregation under 60.”
It also gave him a focus and together with his future wife Susie, whom he had met while studying in Manchester, he started recording this declining way of life. Through these pictures he affectionately recorded all manner of people from hardy gamekeepers to henpecked husbands and jovial shopkeepers.
Since then his work has evolved. “In the early days, the black and white photographs like those of The Non-Conformists celebrated society, whereas latterly it became more critique based.”
By the mid-1980s he had moved away from recording traditional ways of life and also began working in colour photography. “If you’re a documentary photographer you can’t just do nostalgia alone, you’re obliged to try and reflect current trends in society. You can’t just photograph things from the past.
“Photographers love nostalgia and I’m no different but I fully understand that photographing a supermarket is just as important and valid as doing pictures of Morris dancers.”
Parr became interested in recording the rise of consumerism and tourism – “all the isms” as he puts it – and the publication of The Last Resort in 1986 brought his work to a wider audience.
His use of colour and the way he recorded a decaying holiday resort was seen as radical at the time and transformed the field of documentary photography in Britain.
Parr has been in the business for the past 40 years during which time he’s become a Magnum photographer, published more than 30 books and had his work on show in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums in the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and London’s Tate Modern.
But he’s particularly pleased to be returning to Bradford where half a century ago his grandfather first ignited his passion for photography.
Only in England is on display in the city following its run at the inaugural show at Media Space in the Science Museum, and Parr hopes the exhibition will have a broad appeal. “These photographs are from another era but hopefully they will appeal to people interested in northern life from the 70s, particularly the Hebden Bridge area.”
Alongside the exhibition Parr is “in conversation” with his wife, Susie Parr, at the museum next Saturday and is also giving a talk about his career at The Hepworth Wakefield on Friday – both of which are already sold out.
Parr is revered among the photographic fraternity, but what does he make of the way digital cameras, mobile phones and the internet have changed the face of photography.
“Anyone with a camera now thinks they can be a photographer and there’s a huge interest in it,” he says. “When I started out there was no such thing as a prints market but now half your income can come from this.”
So has this digital revolution diluted the quality of photography or simply made it more accessible and affordable to ordinary people? “It’s bad for us old fashioned photographers but as with all revolutions there are advantages and disadvantages.
“The world’s a completely different place today and there’s much more interest in photography, and in my view there’s never been a more interesting time to be a photographer.”
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr runs at the National Media Museum, in Bradford, until June 29.
Martin Parr and Susie Parr in Conversation, April 12, National Media Museum. This event is sold out.
Parr is also appearing at The Hepworth Wakefield on April 11 when he will be discussing his work (this is also sold out).