With Britain deeply divided over Brexit, an exhibition by one of the country’s best-known and celebrated photographers, Martin Parr, vividly captures images which help one to understand what makes the country tick. New and previously-unseen photographs revealing Parr’s unique take on the social climate in the aftermath of the EU referendum, have gone on public display for the first time in a major new exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
“Only Human: Martin Parr” brings together some of the photographer’s best-known works with the focus on one of his favorite subjects – people. Featuring portraits of people from around the world, the exhibition examines national identity today, both in the UK and abroad, with Parr’s characteristically-wry observations of Britishness.
Although best known for his images of ordinary people, Parr has also photographed celebrities throughout his career. For the first time, “Only Human: Martin Parr” reveals a selection of portraits of renowned personalities, most of which have never been exhibited before, including British fashion legends Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry, and world-renowned football player Pelé.
Parr is modest and refreshingly self-deprecating. He does not judge his subjects, letting the photos speak for themselves. His works record the way the British look at themselves before and after the Brexit debate and at other moments of change. At the press preview, Parr explained that his intention was to examine identity and reflect what the British think of themselves and how others see them.
The exhibition charts Parr’s changing interests and perspectives as he grows older. As well as Britain in the time of Brexit, the exhibition focuses on the British abroad including photographs of British Army camps overseas, and Parr’s long-term study of the British “Establishment” including recent photographs taken at Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex, Oxford, and Cambridge Universities and the City of London, revealing the obscure rituals and ceremonies of British life.
Some of his new works explore the quirks of leisure activities today, a subject Parr has explored since the 1980s. Parr photographs trips to the beach, tennis tournaments – from Wimbledon to the US Open – and a day at the races, to reveal the eccentricities of everyday life. These images take the visitor on a color-saturated journey through places where public and private worlds intersect.
Other photographs capture the infectious joy of dancing, an everyday activity enjoyed by people across the globe. There are photos of men stripping off their shirts along with their inhibitions in hot and sweaty dance clubs and others taken at more formal balls in Oxford and Cambridge.
“Only Human: Martin Parr” also features the unforgettable self-portraits Parr has made throughout his career. For over thirty years, Parr has visited studio photographers, street photographers, and photo booths across the globe to have his portrait taken. The resulting Autoportraits raise questions about portraiture and the business of portrait photography, showcasing a range of fascinating and often humorous settings employed by professional portraitists. Works on display include his Photo Escultura, a group of shrine-like carved photo-sculptures, based on Parr’s likeness and commissioned from the last remaining traditional maker in Mexico City, which have never been exhibited in the UK before.
The exhibition also includes a pop-up café inspired by Martin Parr’s iconic food photography and the traditional British “caff.” Visitors can purchase a selection of Great British tea-time treats and beverages such as a “nice cup of tea” and a slice of Battenberg, or an exclusive “Only Human” beer created in collaboration with British craft brewery Lost and Grounded Brewers, Bristol, during the Gallery’s Friday Lates (18.00-21.00).
Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: “We are delighted to be able to display so many new works by one of Britain’s most widely-celebrated photographers in this major new exhibition. Martin Parr’s witty, surprising, and ingenious photographs not only reveal the eccentricities of modern life with affection and insight, they also change the way we look at ourselves, and the way we consider our relationship to the wider world. ‘Only Human’ contributes to an ongoing debate about what it means to be British in an international context and reflects on the shared cultural and social history that defines the United Kingdom during a moment of change.”
Philip Prodger, curator of “Only Human: Martin Parr” says: “Provocative, surprising, and ultimately uplifting, Martin Parr explores the great issues of our time with sensitivity, compassion, and a sense of fun. This is an exhibition that will make you think and leave you with a smile on your face.”
Martin Parr has been able to build his lifelong interest in people-watching into a successful and lucrative professional career. He loves all things British, embracing its diversity but admits to being a Remoaner and finding some extreme attitudes difficult to accept. He observed ruefully, you have to have a sense of mischief or you’ll end up crying. Parr said: “I am very excited to have the opportunity to show my work at such a prestigious gallery. One of the main themes is British identity, and given March 2019 is when we are supposedly leaving the European Union, the timing could not be better.”