Martin Parr – Bristol and West (Myth or Legend?)

12th November 2011, saw a group of  OCA South West students meeting in the cafe at the Mshed in Bristol to visit the Martin Parr exhibition ‘Bristol and West’, a collection of just over 50 photographs from the last 30 years depicting Bristolians (and people nearby).

Visitors were asked to vote for the images they liked best as the museum was to add at least the most popular one to its collection.  I must admit I didn’t vote as I’m not a Bristolian and, as you’ll discover, I’m not a particularly big fan.

The alternate title I’ve added to this exhibition is ‘Myth or Legend’, because Parr is such a controversial figure in the photographic art world that it’s difficult to determine whether or not he’s a genius or simply well marketed and hyped.  Taking about 100,000 (yes one hundred thousand) photographs a year and apparently choosing 10,000 to print and a lesser number to mount and exhibit, makes Parr possibly the most prolific maker of photographic images around.  Together with his well-known penchant for collecting anything and everything to do with photography makes him somewhat eccentric I think.

Was I impressed?  I have to say some of the images are great, but only some, the majority seem to me to quite ordinary.  Now is depicting ordinary a matter of genius or is it simply …… ordinary?  I’m certain I’m not qualified to determine the answer to that, but do I think that ordinary warrants the prices charged for those images, only if you’re the person who has everything, more money than sense and is attempting to be a benefactor of the arts.  Jealousy?  Envy? No, I don’t think I’m jealous or envious of the ability that’s apparent, of the money then?  Probably, but has that coloured my judgement?  Maybe, I can’t tell, at least I’m being honest.

So which images impressed and which didn’t?

Bristol 2000 - Martin Parr Magnum Photos

Well I certainly like this one.  It’s crisp, clean,  creates a lot of nostalgia and is also a really modern statement of a particular age range and class of citizens.

Royal Commonwealth Society function for a summer evening. Bristol 1986 - 89. - Martin Parr

This image to me is pure genius.  The facial expressions say it all, hypocrisy.  This was a moment that must have taken some getting as Parr has an upward angle and the subjects couldn’t have been unaware of him, so either he saw, shot and moved on extremely quickly, or they were very relaxed in his company and with what he was doing.

George and Mary Whitman, in front of their Phoenix prefab. Brislington, Bristol, 1994 – Martin Parr Magnum Photos

This one whilst recording the scene of a historical style and type of building is one of the simply ‘ordinary’.

Unfortunately for me there were too many of the last image quality and it leads me to wonder if the genius is pure happenstance from taking so many photographs in the first place.  The law of averages would dictate that out of 100,000 photographs a year, some of them must be pure genius, brings to mind monkeys and typewriters.

Myth or legend?  To me, both.  It’s a myth that he should be called a legend, but his publicity has made him one.

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