Martin Parr is the most iconic British photographer of our generation; quite possibly because he captures such iconic photos of “Britishness”. He is known for his anthropological studies of the social strata of the country – but always with a great eye for snapping what may at first seem mundane, but actually has a deep sense of humour and purpose. The people, moments and objects he photographs; from holidaymakers at the beach to victoria sponge cakes to the motor mechanic industry – they are all the pockets of life that make up our cultural identity. His photos are candid snapshots that appear bright and are often described as kitsch at its best. However if you scratch the surface, these are deeply important rituals – they are things that are so ingrained in our country’s psyche that they go un-noticed. They often describe how people chose to live, chose to work and chose to spend their money and time – there is no doubt its documentary. But what Martin has a knack for, is capturing people at their most relaxed, and perhaps most eccentric. Perhaps it is his personable demeanour – he always seems humble, impartial and extremely approachable, allowing people to open up to him. He is the Louis Theroux of photography. He also takes thousands of photos that are then meticulously cut down to just a handful that he feels define what he was trying to capture. It’s this process that is perhaps his real art – his ability to pick the one picture from the multitude that captures the moment in all its toe-curling, laughter inducing and thought provoking charm.
Featuring 375 works, this exhibition brings together several projects from the last decades of Martin’s career, along with a new body of work commissioned especially by the Hepworth Gallery where Martin has documented the “Rhubarb Triangle”; a nine square mile area of land in Yorkshire where the rhubarb is grown in large indoor warehouses with no sunlight – the lack of photosynthesis causes the rhubarb to be extra sweet. It’s even picked by candlelight. Yorkshire forced rhubarb even has legal protection over its name, like the Champagne region in France. The photos aren’t like Martin’s earlier work – they feel mature, slightly civilised – they capture something with less humour, but equally as British. Yet they do still have Martin’s unique ability to capture charming and touching moments that feel like they provide a real insight in to someone’s personality through their portrait.
The exhibition also celebrates Yorkshire Rhubarb Festival, which takes place every February, and plays host to a variety of rhubarb themed events. They exhibition even has its own rhubarb beer to go with it.
The rest of the exhibition, titled “& other stories” is a selection of some of Martin’s most famous work from the last four decades. It starts with his early black and white photographs of the congregations of his local church in Yorkshire, before exploring his early colour work documenting holidaymakers on the English coast in the eighties and global tourism in the noughties. The works are extremely familiar and humorous, yet they have a strong underlying dialogue of consumerism, capitalism and identity.
The exhibition is the biggest survey of Martin’s work in 14 years and feels like a concise snap shot of what makes him stand out as a brilliant photographer with a prolific output that shows no sign of slowing down. His works displayed are exhibition copies – they’re pinned to the walls with magnets and should one tear another can be printed – there aren’t art photographs in a limited series and Martin speaks openly about his printing process and being unafraid to make money from selling his pictures.
With this show, The Hepworth Wakefield has yet again proven its self as one of the most outstanding galleries in the UK – it’s intimate, carefully curated and positively vibrant in its ability to leave you smiling – well worth the trip.
By Toby Mellors
Martin Parr: The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories at The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire, WF1 5AW.
4 February – 12 June 2016, admission free