The photographs that skewer British peculiarities

Parr has his own rationale for his approach. “One can learn much more about the country where you live from a comedian than from a conference of sociologists,” he told Puss Puss magazine in January. His Benidorm series (1999), for example, is as witty as it is observant, and features die-hard sun-worshippers and snoozers caught off-guard; while the 2019 Death by Selfie series shows, in a light-hearted fashion, how seashore selfie-taking is becoming more popular than swimming.

London-based street photographer Alan Schaller, the co-founder of Street Photography International, interviewed Parr for his podcast in 2020 at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. He rejects the criticism that Parr is looking down on people in a snobby or sneering way. “I just don’t see it,” he tells the BBC. “If people are interpreting his work like that, maybe it says more about them than him.” Far from being exploitative, he sees street photography as “an important discipline” that helps document our history, and as for The Last Resort: “that series has made so many people pick up a camera”.  

But what Schaller most admires in Parr’s work is its distinctiveness. “He’s using the same tools as everyone else but he’s getting a very different look. When he did his colour work, he came alive,” he says. “It’s so hyper-real.” The subject matter is also highly original. “His eye guides him to things that are very British, but that you wouldn’t necessarily think so,” he says, referencing Parr’s images of baked beans. “People can say what they like about his work, but you can’t deny it’s iconic.”

If we don’t always recognise the Britain in Parr’s photos, it may be due to its impermanence. British identity is “evolving”, says Perry, not least because of the internet, which he describes as “the great blender, mixing all local eccentricities into a bland global paste”.

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