Martin Parr curates this year's Brighton Photo Biennial. Picture from Parr's Autoportrait collection.
Martin Parr talks about his latest discoveries, on show in Brighton. In the Q&A with BJP's editor, he also discusses the international photography scene, and explains why the UK is "handicapped".
This autumn, Martin Parr curates the 2010 edition of Brighton Photo Biennial, bringing a typically ecclectic mix of new and established talents to the attention of UK audiences, showing work that's never been seen here before.
I visited him at his home in Bristol in late August to discuss the new photograhic "discoveries" he's showing in two exhibitions collectively titled New Documents, a title that makes a playful nod towards the 1967 show at MoMA in New York that featured Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. But the converation soon turned to the subject of his greatest passion – the photobook. He also talked about why he thinks the UK is too "institutionalised", his fascination with China and South America, and why Italy is "the dark horse of Europe".
Simon Bainbridge: It’s six years since you guest curated a major festival – Rencontres d’Arles in 2004. Are the photographers you’re showing at Brighton people you’ve found since then and been looking for the chance to exhibit?
Martin Parr: There’s been few other things, such as presenting Rimaldas Vikšraitis at Arles last year [in the Discovery Awards, which he subsequently won], so there are a few opportunities, including the New York Photo Festival [where Parr was one of four curators in 2008], to show people you’ve discovered that you feel are underrated.
I very much like this idea of finding people who are emerging, and haven’t had a platform. None of these people [in New Documents] have had shows in the UK. Some, like Mohamed Bourouissa, have shown commercially more than anything else, but it’s a fantastic platform that I’ve been given to show the discoveries that I’ve made.
And they come from all over the place. They go in phases. Sometimes you go to Japan and find a lot of interesting things there, and I've been working in Latin America the last few years, so inevitably I looked and found people.
SB: With Brighton in mind?
MP: No, I just find people anywhere that I like, because I'm always looking. I'm hungry to find interesting new work. And because I have this quite busy travel schedule, I take full advantage of that.
And of course the other thing I'm doing is looking for books. I just came back from China, and there I’m always looking for new people, because I’m looking to see what books they make – that’s another subject I think deserves more attention. And of course I was there shooting for myself. So I’m able to multitask and go to a country, attend an opening, find books, find new photographers, do shooting, and they all fit into one agenda, if you like.
SB: Where do you look? Are you going to countries you know reasonably well, so you immediately know where’s interesting to source work? One assumes you have friends and contacts you rely on?
MP: I guess the priority has always been books. Therefore, I've been to most places in the world where photobooks have been published. That’s my priority, so I always find an excuse to go somewhere like Japan or China or Latin America, as well as America and Europe – that goes without saying – because I know there are books. And you build up contacts, you meet other photographers, you might meet a dealer or two, and you find people you know can help locate the things your interested in, both in terms of the books and in new work.
SB: Do you have a formal network of people?
MP: You build up a series of correspondents. So they’re the people you rely on. They have ears and eyes that you trust. And its through them you make most of your discoveries. So most of the people I've found that I've exhibited, for example, in Brighton, have been because someone has recommended them to me in some shape or form.
SB: You didn’t start with a thematic approach; you brought some people together. But what do you think they have in common?
MP: Apart from Ju [Duoqi], who is not so much documentary, because she creates these images out of vegetables that replicate either portraits or fine art pieces, everybody else is dealing with photographing the world in interest ways.
From the series, The Fantasies of Chinese Cabbage copyright Ju Du Duoqi, courtesy galerie Paris-Beijin/BPB.
And as you mentioned, I didn’t think I'd make a theme out of people who photograph at night, but it’s turned out to be one of main themes. Four or five photographers are doing night shooting. The two Argentines [Esteban Pastorino Diaz and Alejandro Chaskielberg], for example, are shooting at night.
So what I like about this is that you try and pick the most accessible, the most exciting new work, and then you work out what sort of things you can learn from it.
That’s exact what I've done. So one of the things I've learnt is there's a renaissance in the way people are shooting at night. Now, shooting at night is nothing new, its been going on for years, but there’s been a new impetus that I think is very interesting and revealing, and of course its one of the things that photography does very well. Because when you take pictures at night, you can't actually see it with the human eye.
So its one of the magical things about photography, the way it by its nature transforms the world that we live in into a photograph. It has more going for it like that than anything else.
SB: How do you account for the trend towards night shooting? Is it just the process of a new generation playing and experimenting and finding out how to interpret everyday life?
From the series, The High Tide (c) Alejandro Chaskielberg, courtesy BPB.
MP: Photography is full of phases. Clearly now, Argentina is a hot spot, in a way that it isn’t. That’s a phase. Consistently, Germany was a hot spot 15 years ago when we discovered the Becher school. That was very exciting. America has its moments. The UK has its moments, when things get very hot. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the UK is particularly hot at the moment. One of problems is that we’re too institutionalised [due the influence of higher education], and there isn’t an actual market place for selling and buying photography. That’s a handicap.
Each country has its phase, and each type of photography has its phase. Street photography has had a revival. We’ve had the Sophie Howarth book [Street Photography Now], and people are finding a new way of making street photography, rather than the tired old way that we knew before.
Everything comes and goes. So night photography is one of those things that goes in stages. And, indeed, staged photography. Of course one of the things that staged photography is interesting about – or because of – is the problems with shooting in real life. It becomes more and more difficult to actually go out and shoot on the street. So people go out and reconstruct it. So Mohamed [Bourouissa] is a perfect example. He’s reconstructed night scenes with Algerian youth in the streets of Paris, and he’s literally got them to act out scenes, and it looks very convincing.
From the series, Périphéries (c) Mohamed Bourouissa, courtesy of Gallerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris.
SB: You remain committed to documentary, in the widest sense of the term, and if we were talking about contemporary British photography – though its replicated all over the world – we'd be talking about this more process-driven work that’s coming through with a new generation. Do you ever worry that you’ll be out of synch with what’s contemporary?
MP: When it comes to things are staged or made fake, there are certain people I've liked from the last years. I've liked Sarah Pickering, and I put her in my New York show. I think she’s a great photographer, but she's no longer an emerging talent, she's quite established. I really enjoyed the work of Trish Morrissey. That would have been a contender, but for the fact that it had already been shown.
And part of my remit is to make sure that the when you come to this festival, even if you’re seeing a name that’s familiar, like Alec Soth, you’re going to see new work.
Because I go to a lot of festivals, but I get very tired with seeing stuff that I've seen before. I want this to be – for better or for worse – a process of discovery. To present new things, new bodies of work, and see if people like them. And we obviously hope they do.
SB: The words photojournalist and documentary, there’s a history to them which probably young photographers don’t care about, or even not aware of –
MP: And I don’t care about them either. It's just photography to me. In fact, you could say it’s entirely inconsistent to put in Ju [Duoqi], but I just love that work, and I wanted to include it. There’s neither rhyme nor reason why it fits into what has turned out to be ostensibly a documentary set of exhibitions.
But, in fact, its not, if you look at it. If you look at the House of Vernacular show, that’s not so documentary. And what I like about this is the basic energy. I love the fact that Billy Monk was a bouncer. And he took pictures because he wanted to make a few extra bob by selling pictures to his clients. Oscar Fernandez Gomez Rodriguez is a taxi driver in Monterey, Mexico, and he took pictures from his taxi window because he was making a documentary to show his daughter.
Picture copyright Billy Monk, courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery/BPB.
So often these people have a different motivation to make their work than just being pure photography.
SB: But you’re a Magnum photographer, and you're not interested in people's work that is purely aestheticised, or exploring some sense of inner self or anything like that. There is a commitment to a social interaction.
MP: There is indeed. That’s my own personal bias, and whenever I curate, I usually end up following that.
But, I would say that, for example, in the history of photography book [co-authored with Gerry Badger], we've tried to be as catholic as possible. So certainly in Volumes 1 and 2, we've shown many different disciplines, so I don’t think its fair to accuse me of being narrow-minded in my approach. I’m interested in anything if its good, and if its fresh and original – and exciting.
SB: But what I’m getting at is, for example, there were criticisms that Regeneration 2, five years on from the first one, is less engaged, it’s more about the practice itself.
MP: Well that’s one of the things you have to look at with this next generation. As you know, in the UK, we’re dominated by photography courses, and we believe there are two or three thousand students being churned out every year. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality being thrown out by the photographers is any better. The amazing thing about Argentina is that when I went out there I saw 10 folios of work that were all quite exceptional, and I chose to select two of them. And yet there’s just one small school of photography in the whole country.
From the series, Salamone copyright Esteban Pastorino Diaz.
So it doesn’t necessarily mean that all this institutionalisation of photography [produces more talent] – what it means is it gives lots of jobs to these people because they can teach photography, because that’s the way you can earn a living in the UK as a fine art photographer. You can’t sell prints unless you take them abroad. You can't sell prints in the UK, but you can teach photography.
And for myself, and many for my colleagues and many of the new generation, that’s how you start out. I taught photography for many years on a part-time basis, back in the 1980s in Farnham and Newport and places. And it’s a way to generate some income.
SB: But as you’ve said to me before, this is having an affect on the wider photographic culture. In Western Europe, most new photographers have come through college. It’s very rare to find independent voices. That combined with photography finding its place in institutions and private art galleries, does that explain the lesser commitment to social engagement?
MP: Yes. There is less socially engaged photography in the UK now: first, because of the difficulty in actually doing it; secondly because people don’t seem to want to engage. They like this idea of being an elitist artist, working in a studio, and not particularly connecting with the world. You know, for me the fundamental thing about photography – why I’m a photographer – is because I’m a nosey person. And when I go somewhere, I want to find out about it. And you do that by going there and talking to people.
SB: Can we talk about you being a collector, because you collect in the same way as you curate.
MP: One of things I’ll probably be doing is buying work from some of these photographers, because they’re very cheap, they're very undervalued. One of things I can do is to buy some prints off them.
SB: Where did collecting start?
MP: I guess the first things were postcards, and then photobooks, and then I pushed onto prints, because the main thing that appealed to me was to collect British documentary, because I felt it wasn’t being collected with the depth I thought it deserved.
And when I started to earn better money from being a Magnum photographer, and started earning from assignments – and this did give me a better income – I wanted to invest it back with my peer group. And because I knew them all, I was able to get it at very good prices, and I tended to do this thing of buying sets of work, rather than just one or two prints.
So, often what I've done is buy every print from a book, so now I've got a substantial collection of probably 800 documentary photos from the UK.
SB: So one assumes you're being courted by all the major collections and museums.
MP: [Laughs] Well, one of things in want to do is make sure that eventually this collection does end up in public hands. How or when that will happen I don’t know yet. But that is [important to me], that there’s a chance to give it back.
SB: Just give me an impression about how eclectic your collections is. We know about the Saddam Hussein watches, and the plates and trays and things like that. But there's none-photographic objects as well.
MP: You can see here [he says as he points over to a large glass display unit] in the cabinet, which is constantly changing. Ghandi has just come in, Chinese teapots, an Obama shelf there.
SB: Is that what the trainers are?
MP: Yeah, they’re Obama trainers.
SB: We talked over lunch about how you plan your future. How far in advance do you plan in terms of what you want to achieve in the next 20 or 30 years. What's your major mission?
MP: I think my first mission is to do more about the photographic book. I feel so excited and convinced that we’re just beginning to start to appreciate how important this is in terms of our photographic culture. And I’m delighted that the first volumes with Phaidon have done well [and, he says, he hopes to do another one].
I’m involved in a Latin American photobook project, which will come out next autumn, with, we hope, with an exhibition at Le Bal in Paris.
SB: Is that with a foreign publisher?
MP: What's great about that is that it will be published in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. This will be very important because it will, with one book, completely re-evaluate how people think about Latin America.
When we first started researching this three years ago at the Sao Paolo Forum, when the idea was germinated, I was in Brazil, so I went to Rio, and I went to the National Library and asked them about their collection of photography books, and I suddenly realised that half books I'd discovered in Brazil, people didn’t know about.
I started to ask other photographers, because it’s always a good source of information and knowledge, and they too didn’t know what was going on in Brazil, let alone what was happening in Argentina, Chile or Mexico, or any of theother territories. We must give Horacio Fernandez credit – he did Fotografia Pública in 2000, which was the first book about books and magazines. He's been the lead editor and researcher, going to all these major territories making wonderful discoveries. I've been there as well, helping him, in different places like Venezuela and Argentinia.
SB: And the other major focus has been on China.
MP: Yes, the photography book in China I have on my horizon as well. And also Italy. Italy is the dark horse of Europe. And someone else is doing Holland. Someone is doing Germany. So, slowly but surely, these big territories are being looked at more thoroughly. We have Japan again, with the Aperture book. But there's such depth in Japan, you feel you could do 10 books and still not really get on top of it.
SB: You can buy some contemporary Japanese photobooks in Europe at places like Claire de Rouen in London and Schaden in Cologne, but it’s very difficult to find any Chinese books at all, despite the fact that Chinese art has been really hyped for the past 15 years.
MP: One of the things we’re onto now is that apparently there is this small number of books from the 1980s, I have some of them, and from the 90s, but Ruben Lundgren [one half of the duo, Wassink Lundgren], who’s doing this search with me, met this woman called Caroline Smith who’s got a collection [of Chinese books], and we’re going to see her.
But one thing we realised is that no one really knows anything about it. You might know about one part section. There’s three main sections – one before 1949, one from 1949 to, say, 1980, and one from the 80s onwards. People are quite knowledgeable about the last renaissance, but for example, people’s knowledge of even the great communist period and what was published then is very limited.
I put a couple of books in the propaganda section of Volume 1 [of The Photobook: A History], but we’re going to expand that [if there’s a Volume 3], because it didn’t really do it justice.
SB: Some people are very pessimistic about the future of the book. How interested are you about how photography is disseminated online?
MP: Well in spite of everything, the book is in quite rude health. Although while more and more books are being published, I suppose less of them actually sell out. The ones that do go very well, and of course you have the new Blurb books coming out. I’ve just judged Blurb’s [Photography.Book.Now] competition, and it was fantastic to see the top 39 books [that made the final shortlist]. There seem to be more books than ever before. And it’s just fantastic that you can make a really high quality book with people like Blurb, for relatively little price, and we’re delighted that Blurb is one of our partners in the festival.
And the other thing we must say is that HP has given continual support, because this will be the first frame-free photo festival. Connor Kilroe, my former studio manager, is in charge of printing the whole festival, which he's currently doing, and I love the fact that there will be no frames, and they’ll all be digital prints.
So even people who before didn’t really use digital, like Stephen Gill, we will be making digital prints for him for the first time. I love the idea of the immediacy and the spontaneity that this notion of a frame-free exhibition generates. And that very much fits into the spirit of discovery, which is at the very core of what Brighton should be about.
SB: This is the great thing about a festival. If you go somewhere like Arles or Madrid, you’re going to see as many shows as you would in Britain in a while year or more, and be able to get these things in front of people quite quickly and generate debate.
MP: This is great. And one of the things you can do this time, unlike some previous Brighton festivals, is you can see it all in Brighton [because in previous versions, shows were spread across the south of England]. And of course the Fringe has more than 60 shows. So, of course, we are combining both our guides. So you can get off the train in Brighton, and have a very pleasant day out, and you can go and see the five main shows, and as many of the Fringe festivals that you can squeeze in.
And you don’t have to travel to Eastbourne or Bexhill to see the main shows, although of course Bexhill is doing a fantastic show about Southern American photography at the same time, but it’s not technically part of the festival itself.
SB: Let me finish off asking about this process you’ve witnessed in your lifetime as a photographer in which photography has gone from being something that went largely unrecognised in the wider art world, and there being very few higher education courses, to the position we’re in now where thousands are studying photography each year, and the Tate is very actively collecting photography, and has its own photography curator. Where does photography fit in to the arts scene now? Have all these changes been an entirely good thing?
MP: One can never underestimate the importance of the art world embracing photography 20 years ago, starting with the Becher students. We cannot underestimate how important it is that there is a market, even if it's less so in the UK. It’s healthy in Germany, France and America. This market is based on the fact that photography has been embraced by the fine art world. And of course, we’re a bit slow in this country, but finally the Tate have done this – and its all good news for all photographers, no matter how far down the food chain that you are.
SB: We’re going to go through huge cuts in arts funding, and I suppose the old argument about why we need photography-specific spaces will come up, when we have all those other galleries that are not genre specific.
MP: But the thing with that is that you tend to have the very big shows. You have to be quite a big name to get a show at the Barbican, or the Serpentine or the Whitechapel. So what is missing is the chance for the newer, mid-generation photographers to come through, which is why you still need spaces like The Photographers' Gallery, because they can fill that need, and we need our regional spaces. So though you could argue that the battle has been won, and photography has been accepted in the fine art world, we still need the smaller venues to show the emerging photographers and the mid-career people.
Brighton Photo Biennial runs 02 October to 14 November. In addition to the new discoveries he's showing in the exhibitions, New Ways of Looking and A Night In Argentina, he has commissioned Alec Soth, Stephen Gill and Rinko Kawauchi to make new work about Brighton, while Molly Landreth and Zoe Strauss focus on the city as a major gay capital. The festival also has a show about vernacular photography, and a related programme in nearby locations in southern England, plus the Brighton Photo Fringe is staging more than 60 of its own exhibitions. For a full list of related events, including the opening weekend (01-03 October), talks, workshops and a portfolio review (where you can meet BJP editor Simon Bainbridge), click here.
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