Interviews, Photobooks

The photobook according to Parr

Colin Pantall met Martin Parr at his home in Bristol, where he was invited to delve into his unparalleled photobook collection

Taking control

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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