Colin Pantall met Martin Parr at his home in Bristol, where he was invited to delve into his unparalleled photobook collection
He may look harmless in his open-toe sandals and comfortable sweater, but Martin Parr has been poking a stick at the establishment for nigh on 40 years, agitating for a more prominent status for photography through his own work and all that he admires. For the past decade, he’s made it his quest to put the book centre stage within photographic culture, challenging academics to rethink the history of our medium, attempting to put it back into the hands of its makers. With The Photobook: A History, Volume III, co-authored by Parr and Gerry Badger, and published by Phaidon, upon us, I was invited to the Bristol-based photographer’s home, to delve into his unrivalled collection of up to 12,000 books, which he’s used to piece together a previously unwritten account of an undervalued aspect of our image culture.
The approach to Martin Parr’s front door must be made by foot, as it’s set back from a path with not a road or car in sight. It’s a beautiful house, in the halfway zone between the over-scrubbed Georgian terraces up the hill in Clifton Village and the post-industrial anonymity of Bristol Harbour, set within a grand crescent terrace that stands in front of a communal garden and a glade of trees, surrounded by an ocean of comfortable green that has a touch of the primordial about it.
I knock on the front door and Susie Parr, the photographer’s wife, answers, welcoming me into a home that feels lived in and loved; a functional house of wooden floors, scuffed interiors and comfortable sofas. We chat about wild swimming (she’s something of an expert on the subject, having written an acclaimed book charting its history in the UK), and then Martin comes in and we say our hellos. “I don’t understand why everyone talks to him,” says Susie, with a glint in her eye. “If you want the real story about Martin Parr, you should talk to me.”
But it’s the photographer I’ve come to meet, and the prospect of seeing his world-renowned photobook collection at first hand diverts my curiosity from her playful suggestion. After an initial interview in the kitchen, we head upstairs to his office, which feels very much like the centre of Parr operations. Small piles of books, magazines and pictures are spread across the carpeted floor. A large Chris Killip print hangs on the end wall, above the door is a row of Saddam Hussein plates, and all around me are shelves of photobooks, one small part of the most diverse collection of photography books in the land.
Parr puts down a pile of books and starts showing me his latest purchases. “This week I got back from Italy, where I finally found someone who was able to take me to, and knew, the Italian fascist books,” he enthuses. He opens up a book on Mussolini; the spreads are sumptuous, the design a mix of futurism, constructivism and fascism rolled into a masterclass in the language of propaganda. “Italy is probably the most interesting country in Europe in terms of publishing, and although I have many Italian books, I knew there were gaps because the fascist history of Italy is still scorned [and therefore remains somewhat hidden and overlooked],” he tells me, rolling the pages over and enthusing at the montage of Mussolini above a sea of waving hands. “I mean, look at this. Every spread is amazing. This might be one of the greatest photobooks ever made, but it’s not in any history of photography. It is almost completely unknown.”
His enthusiasm is infectious. There is a delight in the possibilities of photobooks, both as design objects and as living expressions of political and cultural histories – a delight that, with the publication of The Photobook: A History, Volumes I and II in 2004 and 2006, and the third to come later this month, has been felt across our photographic culture, challenging us to rethink the medium’s history with the book now centre stage.
Parr’s photobook collection began predictably enough. “I remember buying Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1971 and Tony Ray-Jones’s Day Off in 1974, so I bought a few then, but I didn’t have much money of course. I guess it accelerated in the late 1980s when my father died and he gave me £100 and I bought a copy of Bill Brandt’s The English at Home. And since I joined Magnum and became more established, my income has increased, and that has meant I have been able to reinvest money into books. Over the years, I hate to think what I have spent on books, but it’s probably now my biggest expenditure. I wouldn’t know how much that is because luckily I don’t work it out, but it might be 50 to 70 grand a year.”
The photographer’s collection at home in Bristol © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
The transition from occasional buyer to obsessive collector began when Parr discovered his great passion: “I remember going to Japan in the early 1990s and being completely gobsmacked by the quality and standard of books, and I was amazed that these books were not known in the West. I couldn’t believe it because in the Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, we had probably the greatest movement in photographic publishing, and indeed in photography, and it was entirely ignored more or less. [Former MoMA curator John] Szarkowski did a show of Japanese photography in the 1970s, but he didn’t really focus on the books, and the books are the thing. It’s exciting to suddenly find this mine of photographic publishing, which is phenomenal, that hasn’t been discovered or understood. That’s the excitement you feel.”
The excitement is apparent when Parr asks me what books I’d like to see. I mention Kikuji Kawada’s The Map and Eikoh Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses, two Japanese classics from the early to mid 1960s, and we wander down the stairs past prints by August Sander, Alec Soth, Garry Winogrand and the Bechers to another room filled with more books. Parr brings them out. The Map is a £30,000 book, but there are no white gloves, no plastic covers. I ask him if he ever wears gloves. “No,” he says with disdain. These are books made for touching and feeling and smelling. This lack of preciousness adds to the feeling of openness and accessibility. The value, the gravure printing, the paper and design are only one element of these books. Far more important is that they are a physical and visual connection to people, places and events from the last 172 years of world history.
As we are talking, Parr gets out some Soviet propaganda books and we enter the world of Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Then he lifts out a book commemorating the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China that shows faces scratched and scrawled upon; a direct reference to the thought control of the Maoist leadership and an indirect nod to the sufferings of The Great Leap Forward. In his collection there’s communism, fascism, surrealism, feminism, consumerism – every ism you care to mention. And though Parr is an expert on the photography side of things, he also knows that his photobooks go beyond that, into the great political, art and social movements that have shaped our world.
Combined with this excitement, there is also a restlessness about Parr’s photobook collecting. “It’s the continual research to try to refine and understand this forgotten history of photographic publishing, and slowly but surely I’m closing the gaps in my knowledge through my collection.” He says that the last major gaps in his knowledge are Chinese and Italian photobooks. “I am working on a book on the Chinese photobook, and that is probably one of the last countries with a substantial publishing output that hasn’t really been explored. So with that coming out later this year [and with the Italian books he’s recently acquired], I’m slowly getting there. It’s a continual global research, and the exciting thing is going into the territories that haven’t been done. You’re looking into the dark. You have to slowly put the jigsaw together.”
So in recent years, Parr’s collecting habit has been accompanied by a drive to challenge photographic history through his books about photobooks. Although the three volumes he’s produced with Gerry Badger are the most influential of this sub-genre, he readily admits they were not the first to cover the subject, acknowledging Andrew Roth’s popular The Book of 101 Books, which kickstarted the boom for photobook collecting 13 years ago. But he cites another book as more influential in shaping this new history and the way it is presented. “The first was Fotografía Pública, which Horacio Fernandes published in 1999. It’s on photography publishing between 1919 and 1939 and was accompanied by a show at the Reina Sofia in Madrid during Photo España. I saw that show and was amazed by it, and I realised then that there’s nothing sexier than reproducing a book and putting it in a book. It just looks great. That really was the first book that showed books and magazines [as photographs of them] in a book.”
Fotografía Pública inspired Parr to make his own photobook history, but it was a Magnum connection that helped shape the idea and make it a reality – Chris Boot leaving the agency to work for London-based book publisher Phaidon Press. Boot initiated publishing Parr’s collection of Boring Postcards, as well as the history of photobooks, initially editing it himself. But Parr soon realised there was so much material that it would have to be split into two volumes, and he chose Badger to work with him and do the text because he valued his writing, his viewpoint as an image-maker and collector in his own right. “One of the reasons Gerry writes so well about photography is because he is a photographer. Likewise with Szarkowski. He understands how photographers think, and that insight is a great bonus to those two great writers on photography. I’m just very lucky to have found somebody who is such a brilliant complement to my restlessness and inability to write.”
For Volume III, the writing process took place through meetings at Parr’s house, where the two determined key areas that would be included. The final chapters include sections on propaganda, protest, desire and memory, areas not touched upon in the previous books, and bring the history more up to date, the most recent being Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, published last year. Parr recognises that the selection process is subjective and open to debate. “Whatever happens, there will be someone who will complain, someone who says, ‘Why wasn’t I in it?’ Gerry and I agree on 95 percent of the book, but there’s always a difference in opinion and approach, which we always work out amicably.”
Creating a legacy
Since the first two volumes of The Photobook: A History came out, there has been a spate of books about photobooks. “We are not the only people contributing to this forum,” Parr says, pointing to a shelf on the subject. “Many other books have come out; specific books about Holland, Switzerland, Latin America, Germany, and many small ones like Finland and Denmark.” To a large extent, the publication of these books was made possible by the interest generated by the first two volumes of his series. “We knew it would be a contribution to the ongoing interest in the photobook, but we had no idea it would be so successful both in terms of the numbers bought and in terms of the impact, and then on the prices of books [as they became more collectible],” says Parr. “So now people blame us for that. You can’t win, really, can you? Since then, despite the internet, there’s never been more publishing activity, or more interesting books come out.”
This impact on prices can also be seen as a reflection of the increase in how seriously photobooks are taken. “Price, in one sense, is a vindication of the process,” says Parr, “because prices are determined by supply and demand. Of course, if books become popular the price goes up, and if they’re in Volume III, the same happens. People are desperate to get hold of Volume III, so they can start buying up the books. I could do that but I can’t be bothered. Occasionally, I buy an extra copy if there’s a particular book I like, but not to the extent that it would be like insider trading.”
I mention the rumour that he bought 35 copies of The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel and he laughs. “That was annoying because it was entirely wrong. That was Sean O’Hagan [photography critic at The Guardian], but I’ve got him to correct that. I don’t know where he got it from. I think he wanted to hear that. We pull each other’s leg about it so it’s very funny. And that’s the sort of stuff that goes around. People love that. It’s a good story. Who cares if it’s true?
“The truth is, I met Cristina very early on and I said to her, “This is a great book. Do you realise how good it is?” I may have bought three or four from her, and often I will do that with a book I really believe in, just because they are a good thing to have. It’s worth supporting someone even though these books become highly sought. I told her it was a great idea, with good design, and then everything fell into place perfectly. This book has become legendary in a very short period of time and launched the career of an otherwise unknown photographer. Her problem, of course, is what to do next, because when you do something that good it’s difficult to follow up. But she’s smart so she’ll be fine.”
The photographer’s collection at home in Bristol © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Intricate design also extends beyond the page to the mechanics of the book in the latest photobook history – from the multi-volumed slipcase editions of Paul Graham to the boxed design of Peng Yangjiun and Chen Jiaojiao, to the wire-bound simplicity of Ricardo Cases’ Paloma al Aire. The most complex design award goes to David Alan Harvey’s Based on a True Story, a book with a loose-leaf interactive narrative that is quite a sight to behold. And although making photobooks can be incredibly expensive, the first two volumes from Parr and Badger have also legitimised cheaper papers, bindings and production methods, and this is apparent in the number of recent books inspired by design techniques they illustrated.
“When people make a good book, you obviously see that design copied,” says Parr, who isn’t concerned. “It’s all good. It’s the same with photography. The language of photography is constantly evolving, and photographers have an impact on that. There are the photographers who people notice, who have a vision. Who those photographers are in the third volume is difficult to say. There will be books rediscovered. For example, do you know Gian Butturini’s book on London? It is entirely unknown in the UK, and it will become better known here. There was a whole wave of photographers in the 1960s who came from abroad and photographed Swinging London. British photographers weren’t doing it.
“There are photographers such as Rinko Kawauchi and more recently Lieko Shiga, and they have had an influence and have become part of the language of photography. But funnily enough, the biggest woman photographer in Japan is Ume Kayo. She’s part of the social networking generation and basically makes Facebook pictures with an edge. She’s a really interesting woman and outsells everybody in Japan, and yet she’s not known at all outside of her home country. Because everybody’s very slow you see. Curators are very slow,” says Parr, the suggestion being that curators like to stay in their comfort zone and stick with what they know.
Another change is the way photobooks have become a part of exhibitions – he cites the Daido Moriyama + William Klein joint exhibition at Tate Modern in 2012, in which the photobook was central both to the relationship between the photographers and the way they disseminated their work. “In the vitrines, there were 50-odd books [many of which Parr loaned from his collection] that give a bigger picture of why these two people are so important. That’s something that has really changed. Museums now understand the relevance of the book and will include them in exhibitions… and that’s a very dramatic and positive shift because you can see how the work was published and disseminated.”
The photobook also increases accessibility to photography, and Parr is almost evangelical in his desire to see the debate about photography moved to territory where photographers are central to the discussion. “Not many people get to see the big shows, and therefore the book has been somewhat underrated. The history of photography, which is so subjective, has been written by academics and theoreticians who are usually sat lazily at their desks. They don’t get out there and they don’t necessarily talk to photographers. They take the institutionalised view of what the history of photography is about. So, in a sense, we always think our books are a revisionist history because they bring into play people who have been overlooked, projects that have been overlooked, projects that have influenced people, projects that have been entirely forgotten and projects that haven’t had the attention they deserve. It’s shifting the ground away from academia and the institutionalisation of photography and in a sense putting it back into the hands of photographers. I think photographers should have more control over their own history.”
The growth in social networks concerned with the photobook is symptomatic of photographers taking control, says Parr. “There’s a whole network of photobook clubs around the world. I got invited the other day to give a talk to the Bangalore Photobook Club. I think that is really amazing.” This growth is both global and local. Close to home, Parr will be participating in the Bristol Photobook Festival, which takes place in June, an event organised by book dealer Rudi Thoemmes, featuring talks by Parr and Badger, as well as photographers from around the world. It will take place in Bedminster, a stone’s throw from the building where Parr’s main photobook library is housed. He drives me across the river from Clifton and shows me shelf upon shelf of French, German, Dutch, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and South African books lined up row after row. There’s a line of Krass Clements, a bag full of Dayanita Singh’s latest publications, and a shelf full of BJPs.
Parr goes off to organise his latest purchases while I look through a book on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. It’s a mixture of war photography and hand-coloured portraits; propaganda serving the Imperial Japanese Army. It’s all a bit overwhelming, really. All these books seem to emphasise just how vital visual history is to our lives, and how under- examined it is. But it’s not all heavyweight stuff. I see Parr’s collection of Osama bin Laden souvenirs and a bag full of Martin Luther King memorabilia. All around there are bubble-wrapped frames, both of Parr’s own work and that of others, evidence that he is not just a photographer and a collector, but also a curator in his own right.
“I enjoy doing the curating,” he says, “because I have the platform to show new people, which is what I have done in the two main shows I have curated; Rencontres d’Arles in 2004 and Brighton Photo Biennial in 2010. Festivals should be about a process of discovery rather than just seeing familiar names. At Arles, I had new names who were showing for the first time in Europe, and it also gave me a chance to re-evaluate people.” At Arles, Parr showed Chris Killip’s In Flagrante prints blown up large, and worked with Timothy Prus of the Archive of Modern Conflict to show Henryk Ross’s incredible Lodz Ghetto pictures. At Brighton, he showed the work of photographers as diverse as Mohamed Bourouissa, Alejandro Chaskielberg, Viviane Sassen and Billy Monk. The schedule never stops for Parr, with his next curatorial experience being Staged Reality at the Dortmund Festival. “I’ll have two of the people from this year’s BJP new talent issue, Jill Quigley and Patrick Willocq [plus Lorenzo Vitturi, another recent BJP favourite]. The show is based on the idea of photographers intervening in reality by incorporating staged elements and concepts. That’s coming up in June [20 – 22]”
Parr is also editing a series of 10 books for Portland, Oregon-based book publisher Nazraeli Press, the latest of which, number seven, focuses on the work of Mexican taxi driver Oscar Fernando Gomez, who featured in his Brighton show. The previous book in the series was Leeds photographer Peter Mitchell’s Strangely Familiar, a classic example of a great body of work that was virtually unknown. “With Peter, it was great to correct this overlooked body of work. I’m very privileged and lucky to have a platform, where if I want to present or show something it will be taken seriously, so I try to use this to help as many people as possible. With someone like Jon Tonks [whose first book, Empire, about British Overseas Territories in the south Atlantic Ocean, was recently published by Dewi Lewis, and who featured in BJP’s 2014 talent issue], I saw a portrait that he had done from one of the islands, and I asked him if there were any more. We met up because he lives around the corner and I became involved in editing the book.”
In his Bedminster library, Parr has finished shelving his books and it’s time for us to part. He’s off to finish editing a film and I’m off to get a plate of goat curry at St Nicholas Market. I’ve spent half a day in the company of one of the great evangelists of world photography and I’m exhausted; not by the unceasing force of photographic nature that is Martin Parr, but by the power of the photobook. I’m exhausted and I’m converted. But as I walk towards Bedminster’s North Street, there’s a niggling thought at the back of my mind. What was it Susie Parr said? “If you want the real story about Martin Parr, you should talk to me.”
To celebrate the launch of The Photobook: A History, Volume III published by Phaidon, authors Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, and Hannah Watson from Trolley Books, will be in conversation with Simon Baker at the Tate Modern on Monday, 09 June 2014, 18.30 – 20.00pm. Tickets for The Photobook: A History are priced £12 (concessions available). For more information and to book tickets click here.
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