I first met Martin Parr in 2010. A documentary photographer (Sign of the Times, Last Resort, Real Food to name a few of his works), filmmaker (those idents between programmes on the BBC are his) and avid collector of paraphernalia (space dogs being one example), I’d read that he also had a vast photo book collection and lived in Bristol. A light went on.
At the time I was trying to learn as much as I could about photography (not sure that's stopped), and what better way to satisfy a thirst than to look at book after book of the weird, wonderful, serious, sublime, sweet and scary ways that the art of photography has been stretched and pulled over the decades by famous, amateur and up and coming photographers from all over the world. Luckily, Parr agreed that he needed someone to start the process of archiving his 12,000 strong book collection. But that’s another story…
I had to stop working on the collection in 2012, so rejoining the story now and learning the latest felt like catching up on news of an old friend. A little sadly but definitely sensibly, that huge book collection was recently sold and partly gifted to the Tate. Some of those proceeds have helped to set up this, the soon-to-be-officially-open Martin Parr Foundation at Paintworks on Bath Road in Bristol. Drum roll please.
At the MFP
The MFP will be a home to an archive of Parr’s physical prints and negatives - bearing in mind he has some 45,000 pieces of work on the Magnum Photo site, that’s no mean feat. There’s also an exhibition space for British photographers, a growing collection of works by selected British and Irish photographers and an expanding library of British and Irish photo books (phew), with lectures and talks to boot. As Parr says, ‘Post-war British documentary photography continues to be under appreciated and I wanted to make a small contribution to rectify this. The Foundation will support and preserve the legacy of photographers who made, and continue to make, important work focused on the British Isles.’
Parr and his team seem happy to play it by ear when it comes to the exact evolution of the MPF. It's early days after all. Hush hush ventures in the pipeline, public response and industry engagement will no doubt shape that. I think that wiggle room is the really exciting bit. It’s great to think that the MFP has the potential to show what an active player documentary photography and photo books are in the cultural and artistic fabric of the UK. If the MPF can inspire, inform and help instigate a bubbling outlet for this kind of photography, and show it be a hugely exciting, widely accessible and highly rigorous way to interpret, document and display life; not to mention house the archive, legacy and library of Parr’s own work and that of other British and Irish photographers; well then, that’s pretty special!
Practical and Sustainable
In one article I’ve read about the MPF, there’s great curiosity in the money side and the idea of Parr as a shrewd businessman. Is this to do with the myth that to be a true artist, you have to be a starving one? A strange concept especially in the world of photography. Magnum Photos, the very selective elite co-op of photographers, was started off in 1947 partly so that members could work outside of magazine journalism and, most importantly, retain copyright. A shrewd business move? For sure. But it also enabled the production of a corpus of work like no other. Is there a grand master plan for the MPF? Parr wasn't definite. There's the plan that the MPF will be self sufficient financially, but generally it seems like Parr and his small team will make stuff happen and get stuff in order. Marie Kondo, the guru of decluttering, would be pleased.
In fact, I was taking the picture below of an image on the studio table from ‘The Last Resort’, when, without warning, Louis Little, who does the in-house printing, picked it up, ripped it in four, and put it in the bin. Louis with a beaming smile said ‘Sorry, wasn’t good enough’ and Parr just laughed saying ‘there you go, our quality control in action.’ I felt like I’d witnessed, and documented, something shocking. Over it now, mind.
The ultimate Selfie of Parr and the British Isles
Don't get me wrong, the MPF is the ultimate selfie - the clue is in the name! But the MPF is also a frank reflection of what being British and what life in the British Isles has looked like over the years – take a look at the people, places or things in a Parr picture or in any of the other works by the British and Irish documentary photographers (like John Myer's Middle England), and I guarantee at some point you’ll smile, cringe or feel the odd sense of pride or shame because there we are, caught in a frame, preserved and open to the public.
In fact, there's the opportunity to get your portrait taken by Parr at the MFP next month. They had already sold out of one batch of sessions, but you can check here if there are any more.
The MFP also seems ‘very Bristol’. Parr commented that for the last 30 years Bristol has been just a place to live, a great place to live, but just that. I’d argue that a little bit of Bristol has rubbed off on Parr. Bristol is made up of individuals not afraid to do things their way and luckily, everyone in the city is fine with that. There may be tensions as opinions differ, but creatively in the last 20 years, look what Bristol - individuals and supporters - did to food, beer, music, graffiti, …an old paintworks factory…whatever next I wonder?
So here are 5 reasons to visit to the Martin Parr Foundation at Paintworks.
1. SEE FIRST CLASS PHOTOGRAPHY HUGE!
This is the opportunity to see prints big, in stunning quality and in an order that tells a story. On line or on a mobile phone only gives an impression not the full effect. The first exhibition is Martin Parr’'s Black Country Stories from Wednesday 25 October 2017 – 20 January 2018.
Then ‘Town to Town’ by Niall McDiarmid, who has an amazing eye for street portraits and ability to capture those moments when it all comes together at the right time. Poetry.
In Spring 2018, there’ll be the David Hurn ’Swaps’ show (currently in Cardiff). Throughout his career, Hurn swapped photos with fellow photographers, in the end amassing an incredible collection of prints. Read his amazing story here in his own words.
2. GET TO KNOW THE WORK & INTERESTS OF A BRISTOL BASED INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED PHOTOGRAPHER
Showing us around Parr was enthusiastic, welcoming and open. More or less. He's got an unnervingly direct and matter-of-fact way of speaking, but the place was clearly like a second home to him and he has obvious great affection for it - even the small things, like the cupboard door pictured below: "You just have to push and it pops open" he says with great glee as he steps aside so we can take turns to look at the stacks of old school chairs crammed inside. And, of course, the photos books. You can see him soften and get lost in those books. ‘Happy’ is how a portrait of him in there should look. That personality, not surprisingly, is evident in his photo work too: elements of stark directness, bursts of humour, and an eye for the extraordinary in the everyday. There's also a conflicting spirit of holding in high regard tradition, habits and the way people are as well as the urge to go out on a limb and poke fun at it. In an interview with the Telegraph from last year, Parr commented, "If you don’t have mischief, it turns into PR and propaganda.” Oh.
3. GAIN ACCESS TO A WORLD CLASS ARCHIVE
By appointment you can do research on British and Irish photographers and view prints and book maquettes, including works by Keith Arnatt, Richard Billingham, Elaine Constantine, John Davies, PaulGraham, Ken Grant, John Hinde, Peter Mitchell, TonyRay-Jones, Paul Reas, Simon Roberts, Graham Smith, Tom Woodand Eamonn Doyle. The collection will include two original maquettes of ‘In Flagrante’ by Chris Killip, the full sets of ‘Belgravia’ by Karen Knorr and of ‘Hackney Flowers’ by Stephen Gill and the original prints from Victor Sloan’s 1989 exhibition, ‘Walls’, from the Orchard Gallery in Derry. Google any of them and you'll see, that's a big deal.
4. EXPAND YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN A ONE OF A KIND LIBRARY
The new collection, which has been started off by buying someone else's Post war British and Irish photo books, will be available too as resource for study. Not quite ready yet (!) but it'll be a must for anyone wanting to learn from the greats or test a theory.
5. Erm…enjoy Paintworks? Go for a beer and a pizza at Boca Bar? Eat in an airstream at the Tube Diner? Buy a flat there?? Go over the road and take a walk in the picturesque and wonderfully wild Arnos Vale cemetery?
Open from Wednesday 25th October 2017.
The Martin Parr Foundation is based at
316 Paintworks, ArnosVale, Bristol, BS4 3AR.
The Foundation will be open to the
public from Wednesday – Saturday
from 11.00 – 18.00.
Admission is free.
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