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.”