INTERVIEW: MARTIN PARR

REALITY CHECK

British photographer Martin Parr does not tend to make life more beautiful than it is. He documents reality around him, yet does so with an eye for all things off and odd. Not the designer dress takes center stage, but the champagne stain above the belly. ‘‘With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality,’’ Parr once said. ‘‘I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.’’

The sad thing about visiting such world famous sites as the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum is that they are hardly the main attractions any more. The spectacle these days consists of the bus loads of camera-wielding visitors who come in wave after wave. Their overwhelming presence has changed the sites. I mean how to ignore dozens and dozens of sneakers, shorts, baseball caps and bright-colored shirts while trying to take in the beauty of, say, Versailles?

Despite being there en masse, there is often very little communication between them.Though they flew in from all corners of the world for exactly the same reason, they by large will ignore each other. It is as if everyone pretends that no one else is there, just to keep up the illusion of discovering, of being the first, as once some 19th-century adventurer was.

This attitude is reflected in the pictures people take of just about everything. As soon as they leave the bus, no matter the light and time of day, they will start clicking away. Preferably there should be no tourists in the frame, other than the photographer’s close circle of friends or family. Most tourists seem to want the site to be pure. At best, they may put just a few people in the frame “to show the contrast.” Martin Parr has long been fascinated by the phenomenon of mass tourism and the urge of tourists to photograph things that have been photographed a million times. Parr does not take photos of the site itself, but of the people visiting and photographing the site. His work is all about people.

At the Acropolis in Athens, for example, he photographed two groups of tourists posing for a portrait against the backdrop of the temple. At Machu Picchu in Peru, he captured a guide surrounded by tourists explaining the famous Inca site with the help of a photo of the very site they are all standing at. So real, and yet so surreal.

On his blog, Parr explained what fascinates him about mass tourism. When he started taking tourist photos many years ago, he wrote, people would take one photo with themselves in front of the object of their desire and move on. Today, with the arrival of mobile phones and digital cameras, the entire site is documented from every angle. Some people not only photograph but film the entire experience as well.

“From the moment the tourist enters the site,everyone has to be photographed in front of every feature of note,” Parr writes. “Now it is almost impossible for me to shoot a photo when someone is NOT taking a picture or posing for one.”

Parr asks himself what on earth happens to all these images. Well, one thing is certain, these days you do not want to visit anyone who just returned from a holiday, unless you like to sit through four hours of photos and film of things you probably saw a million times better on Discovery Channel. Nowadays, people also upload and share images via social networking sites. One of my friends does. As no one dares visit him after his holiday and he cannot be bothered to make any kind of selection, he just uploads every single photo he took. And so, suddenly you have the Facebook pleasure of seeing him, his wife and daughter walking through Istanbul’s Istiqlal Street 165 times.

Parr wrote his comments on mass tourism andphotography when in Barcelona earlier thisyear. The Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) until October 21 shows part of his oeuvre, as well as part of his collection of kitschy souvenirs. Tourist souvenirs and photos go hand in hand. Not only because the average photo often lacks all originality, but also because both essentially serve as proof to show that he or she was there.”

Born in Epsom in 1952, Parr was encouraged to become a photographer by his grandfather. Following his graduation from Manchester Polytechnic, he rapidly gained an international reputation thanks to his innovative imagery and ironic social commentary. In 1994 he was asked to become a full member of Magnum, arguablythe world’s most elitist photographers association.

Parr is of course interested in more than just tourism. He has an eye for all things big and small, odd and off, whereby he is not easily misled by society’s ruling conventions. At a day at the races in Britain, some peoplemay be taken aback by the defile of money and power. Parr just sees a bunch of strange “animals” wearing enormous and funny hats. At the Millionaire Fair, a kind of shopping festival for the ultra-rich, he is not interested in the designer dress per se, but in the slightly bulging belly underneath with a stain on top, or in the baby face with cigar and bling watch, who may have inherited daddy’s money or made a blast in the dot com revolution, and now does not know what to do with his dough. At the Dubai Art Fair he does not take photos of the works on display, but finds corresponding patterns between the art on the walls and the clothes people wear.

In short, in a world where people tend totake themselves an inch too seriously, Martin Parr’s subtle irony is refreshing, to say the least.

The Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) shows Parr’s work until Oct. 21

TEXT BY Peter Speetjens

ArtEli Rezkallah