Alec Soth's Archived Blog

December 5, 2006

Martin Parr & Lionel Richie

Filed under: artists,photographs (mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:06 am


Tonight I had dinner at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in rural Kentucky. While gnawing on heat-lamp aged shrimp wontons, I couldn’t stop thinking about a radio program I’d heard earlier today. Apparently the one thing that unifies Sunni and Shiite Muslims (besides Allah) is Lionel Richie. (Listen to the program here or watch a Nightline episode on the topic here).

As I reflected on this remarkable example of truth being stranger than fiction, I noticed a display at the front counter of the restaurant:


My eyes have probably scanned a scene like this a thousand times. But I doubt I ever noticed it until I became aware of Martin Parr. Parr opened my eyes. He made me see the world around me in a new way. For this reason alone I think he is an important photographer.

Martin Parr, London, 2004, ©Alec Soth

But plenty of people dispute Parr’s importance. In a recent Magnum in Motion slideshow, Parr says, “I always find it very strange that people think it is controversial to go into a supermarket and take a photograph of someone – while there is no controversy associated with the idea of going into a very volatile situation in the Middle East and photographing victims.”

It is peculiar how much heat Parr generates. I’m reminded of the story about Henri Cartier-Bresson visiting one of Parr’s exhibitions and chastising his work as being “without humor, where rancor and scorn dominate, a nihilistic attitude symptomatic of society today.”

In an interview archived on YouTube, Charlie Rose asked Cartier-Bresson if he worries about globalization. “The present society is crumbling to pieces,” says HCB. Isn’t Parr’s achievement the documentation of this crumbling? Of course we need photographers showing us, say, the war in Iraq. But don’t we also need someone to show us the unifying power of Lionel Richie?


  1. Ask any actor worth their salt and they’ll tell you that doing effective comedy is way harder than drama. With all due respect to HCB, Parr is Erwitt’s successor when it comes to raising the level in humor and irony found in everyday life- with a very real slice of existential angst thrown in for good measure. In fact, he does it so well, one’s apt to forget he was also one of the leading pioneers in the British new wave of color photography.

    Comment by Stan Banos — December 5, 2006 @ 1:26 am

  2. May I ask where you were in Kentucky? I was just in Lexington and I’ve been enamored with the James Baker Hall/Wendell Berry crowd for awhile. You wouldn’t happen to be there for work? And if you haven’t seen Jim’s photography, I definitely recommend it. It’s a shame it isn’t more easily found online.

    Comment by Raabia — December 5, 2006 @ 1:38 am

  3. Stan used the word irony which is a key part of Parr’s work. The pursuit of irony is a peculiarly British past time and Parr is a very British photographer. I think that is part of the reason some people don’t ‘get’ him or worse misconstrue him as irony doesn’t resonate with everyone. Apart from being a great photographer, he is a gentleman to boot, and a champion of the ‘unknown’ photographer.

    I’d love to know the story of your portrait of him, if there is one. Fascinating mesh of lines and fun egglestonian shoes.

    Comment by rob — December 5, 2006 @ 1:44 am

  4. I like Martin Parr’s work a lot, but when I watched the Magnum in Motion piece the other day and heard the statement about controversy, I was a bit puzzled. I think photographing war, conflict and victims in “volatile situations” also stirred loads of controversy and still does. But it’s true it’s remarkable how much controversy Parr’s work generates.

    Comment by Arthur Fleischmann — December 5, 2006 @ 5:07 am

  5. Raabia, I’m all over the place. I’ll probably be moving further south into TN later today. I haven’t see James Baker Hall’s photographs. I’m curious. If you come across any links, please send them to me.

    Rob, no big story on the Parr portrait. It was taken at his studio in London.

    Comment by Alec Soth — December 5, 2006 @ 8:08 am

  6. Martin Parr’s sensibility is very British (indeed, English), without doubt, and irony can be a large component in what he does, but I think you’re right in suggesting that he has created a new visual language: one which builds on Eggleston et al. but goes beyond that slightly aristocratic take on the world into new territory — a kind of visual glee balanced by a civilised dismay at the ill-matched but colourfully-multicoded way the world we live in actually looks, once you stop editing the plastic crap and the banality out of your viewfinder. Martin travels to Venice and *sees* the bizarrely-dressed tourists and the gloriously tacky souvenirs — he doesn’t wait until they’ve gone away to get yet another sensitively-lit shot of San Marco.

    What’s more, he works with a medium format rangefinder equipped with a nuclear-powered flash unit — he’s not sneaky about what he’s up to. And, crucially, he isn’t sneering/mocking, despite the projections of his critics. I think he’s controversial because he calls various hypocritical bluffs that sustain the self-image of the art world. “Healer / photographer, heal / photograph thyself”, perhaps. If you know the sensibility of Brit comics like The Beano, you’re halfway to seeing where he’s coming from, IMHO.

    BTW, if the names Jem Southam and Paul Graham mean anything in the States (they should — great contemporary colour photographers, both of them!) it’s interesting to note that they also spent formative years in Bristol in the early 80s, contemporary with Parr.

    Comment by Mike C. — December 5, 2006 @ 8:46 am

  7. Martin Parr looks like my dad! I was taught by Jem Southam, one of the most underrated photographers of his generation. I adore his series of a pond in Upton Pyne.

    Comment by Owen — December 5, 2006 @ 9:00 am

  8. I think HCB is less ‘useful’, socially, than Parr is. I believe that documenting the reality of things is much more important than the fantasy.

    Comment by Ross — December 5, 2006 @ 9:53 am

  9. We need ALL kinds of photographers. They are all important in one way or another.

    Comment by Velibor Bozovic — December 5, 2006 @ 9:56 am

  10. I have to agree with Mike. Parr’s image world is how “the world we live in actually looks, once you stop editing the plastic crap and the banality out of your viewfinder.” In Small World, there is a portrait of an Arab (I suppose palestinian) man in Bethlehem, Israel, dressed in the traditional way sitting against an old stone wall, and beside a wooden door which bears a Lufthansa sticker. Had Salgado been in the same place taking a picture of the same old man, I’m sure he would have left the Lufthansa sticker out of the frame. Salgado’s pictures tend (and are intended) to look timeless, which can be a weakness. Generalizing, Salgado’s has been the approach of the classic 35mm, b&w, Leica, humanistic, dignifying of the working class, Magnum photographer for many a long time. When Parr emerged, along with other less famous photographers like Paul Reas and the more conceptual Paul Graham, all coming from a documentary background, and influenced (I believe) by American photographers like Eggleston, it was seen as a reaction to the old approach. Of course, Parr took it to the extreme. It seems not only that he didn’t edit modern life and modern crap out of the viewfinder, but he looked for it. An example of this relentless search for what the majority of photojournalists were leaving behind is his series “Bored couples”, unthinkable for an old school Magnum photographer. Most of his pictures I don’t particularly cherish, meaning I wouldn’t want to buy one to put behind my sofa. But I have bought his books. “The Last Resort” is brilliant. And I recognize the weight of his contribution.

    Comment by Federico R. — December 5, 2006 @ 10:08 am

  11. But Ross, I’d rather hung a few of HCBs behind my sofa, whether it is socially useful or not.

    Comment by Federico R. — December 5, 2006 @ 10:18 am

  12. I like Parr’s take on things, and those socks.

    Comment by Chris — December 5, 2006 @ 10:35 am

  13. I would rather make socially relevant work than anything that you would like to hang in your house.

    Comment by Ross — December 5, 2006 @ 10:51 am

  14. Parr has taken the documentary image into the postmodern world. He has crafted a very savvy and smart message about himself and his work that blurs the line between his life and his art. Parr is not only the successor to Erwitt, but he is a successor to Walker Evans and those who were influenced by him. He has benefited from globalism as much as he has critiqued it.

    Comment by Tom — December 5, 2006 @ 11:15 am

  15. Like most great art, you can look at a work and immediately tell its a Parr! Now if that isn’t a great litmus test for someone who should be paid attention, I don’t know what is?

    Comment by William Greiner — December 5, 2006 @ 11:33 am

  16. I fail to see the blurring of ‘his life and his art’. He has his way of seeing, and he applies that to various projects. At in his lecture at Art Center, however, he made it clear that he doesn’t bother picking up a camera unless he is specifically working on a project.

    Comment by Ross — December 5, 2006 @ 11:39 am

  17. “The Last Resort” has lots of great pictures, but I think that as time went by, Parr’s work went more extreme, and kitsch, if you like. An example of what I mean is one of the first Parr images that appears in the Magnum site: that of a VERY RED sunbather. I don’t want to be monothematic with the sofa question, just wanted to suggest that that kind of Parr photography works more in the printed page, or in book format. And, of course, that’s my personal opinion.

    Comment by Federico R. — December 5, 2006 @ 11:50 am

  18. I think the discomfort some people feel with Parr’ s work has to do with the discomfort of looking in the mirror. His brilliance is in choosing to look with an unflinching eye at at his own culture (and ours, U.S. and England are more alike than we are differnet). That is- western consumerism, the driving force behind globalization. It is very telling that the critisism of him seems to come from the photojournalist/documentary camp that has no problem staring at and “capturing” third-world suffering and poverty, but feel a little uneasy when the lens is turned closer to home. Also, as long as this is a Parr love-fest, it needs to be pointed out that Martin’s equal or greater contribution has come from his generosity in mentoring and providing opportunities for other photographers (including Alec and myself.)

    Comment by Paul Shambroom — December 5, 2006 @ 11:56 am

  19. It´s nice to see, how Parr show us the really bad taste of this world!!!

    Comment by ruben — December 5, 2006 @ 12:08 pm

  20. When I studied photojournalism in South Africa us young photographers were surrounded by the hot shots like Jim Nachtwey, Ian Berry, Kevin Carter and their pictures dictated how the world had to be shown. Things were brutal and violent and black/white and grainy. Returning to Germany, where I was brought up, I was exposed to the irritating pictures by a guy named Martin Parr. And I think the whole way of seeing in German Photography was changed. Life all of sudden was bland, ugly, boring and in colour. The appearance of what it still known as CONTEMPORARY GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHY has separated the whole photo scene over the years. And somehow I still think it must have started with someone like Paar, whose work deeply affected me. In a way he unveiled the photographic romanticism by firing a ring flash into its face.

    Comment by Thomas Dashuber — December 5, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

  21. sorry my link didn’t work.

    Comment by Thomas Dashuber — December 5, 2006 @ 12:31 pm

  22. I wouldn’t want to dispute Parr’s talent, but I’m wondering know how much documentation we can take. Looking at his work doesn’t make me see myself anymore than I see myself every day when I walk out the door, though I fully commend is efforts and talents. There is only so much about ourselves that we can change. HCB images are a visual delight, an exclamation mark. He, generally, doesn’t turn starving (or obese) people into works of art. He captures people’s quirks and eccentricities, and their suffering with empathy and humor. Everyone can understand his images, they are memorable, and anyone who follows his path and succeeds offers that same visual delights (Alex Webb, Josef Koudelka). I think one has to be able to express critisisms about someones work without having to have that view be taken personally (of course I wasn’t there to hear what was said, so I don’t know).

    Comment by Philip — December 5, 2006 @ 1:00 pm

  23. …”he unveiled the photographic romanticism by firing a ring flash into its face” … Absolutely. Hard to underestimate the bafflement and anger 20 years ago in some circles — similar to hearing Hendrix for the first time (but at an opposite end of the “romanticism” spectrum!).

    Another British name to conjure with in this context is Peter Fraser. “Two Blue Buckets” was a milestone publication (and a surprising omission from vol.2 of MP’s “The Photobook: a History”). I believe he may even have been MP’s printer at one point.

    Comment by Mike C. — December 5, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

  24. I agree with WG. Parr has created a body of work with a vision which is uniquely his own. Liking or not liking someone’s work is a personal matter and I can’t see a meaningful outcome from tyring to convince others as to who is better or more significant.

    That second pair of shoes cracked me up.

    Comment by Eric Perlberg — December 5, 2006 @ 2:34 pm

  25. Liking or disliking MP’s work is not really the point. But he really extended the photographic horizon in a strong way. All photographers, or photojournalists, -if MP can be called a photojournalist-, are delivering their view onto the world, the life that surrounds them. So does HCB, so does Alec, so do I. But whats so special about MP is his sense of humour and his light-heartedness. It may sound strange, but in a way Parrs pictures really comfort me. I don’t know why, but they do.

    Comment by Thomas Dashuber — December 5, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

  26. No big story? You got to shoot someone who changed your whole vision in a Kuhnian manner.

    And a someone, incidentally, who uses his art to show us that the world is just a little bit weirder than we realize. That, I find, to be a highly admirable talent.

    Comment by Clint — December 5, 2006 @ 3:05 pm

  27. i just wish he’d do more photobooks like ‘last resort’, and less cataloging.

    Comment by aizan — December 5, 2006 @ 5:30 pm

  28. Much as I like the “present” Parr, got to agree with aizan. “The Last Resort”
    was on a whole ‘nother level! The compositions were so much richer, so much more complex- pictures within pictures, rather than the radioactive close ups of today. But then, it’s not entirely unusual for photographers with original visions to “minimalize” their frame as they “mature.” In fact, some just plain burn out- at least Parr keeps it interesting, and funny.

    Comment by Stan Banos — December 5, 2006 @ 8:03 pm

  29. ahh! lionel richie, she was great.

    Comment by john kerren — December 5, 2006 @ 10:01 pm

  30. I certainly like Martin Parr more than Lionel Ritchie, however I won’t proselytize over it. I’m too busy scratching my head…

    Comment by Mark S — December 5, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

  31. On the subject of random celebrities bridging religious gaps, a statue of Bruce Lee is being installed in Spanish Square in the center of Mostar, BiH in an attempt to bring together Bosniaks and Croats still seperated by the war.

    Comment by Andy — December 6, 2006 @ 1:27 am

  32. sorry here’s a link.

    Comment by Andy — December 6, 2006 @ 1:28 am

  33. […] Via Stockphototalk und Alec Soth […]

    Pingback by Interview mit Henri Cartier-Bresson — December 6, 2006 @ 10:34 am

  34. I would rather make socially relevant work than anything that you would like to hang in your house.

    I am not questioning your sense of vocation, but I do find the air of this sort of declaration to be a bit off-putting.

    Parr’s irony is a fickle solution that often enriches his images with a self-conflict, between marvelous composition and a half-expressed valuation, but also frequently seems to thin them out too much – especially when the image isn’t as strong – into a brittle, shared chortle between photographer and viewer. I don’t mean to go on and on about Stephen Shore, but one can certainly say he did the same sort of exaggerated particularity but married it to a kind of steely inscrutability (equally capable of poignancy and wit) with that betrayed him less often.

    Comparing Parr to Cartier-Bresosn is pretty unfair to both. Henri was an invincible Modernist, his pictures have a sublimity that seems to spring out of his head, fully-formed … The times when he was most comparable, as with the America collection (monkeys in labs or whatever), was him at his weakest: bald expanses of fluorescent white.

    Comment by zbs — December 6, 2006 @ 10:49 am

  35. This post is great! To start in an all you can eat Chinese buffet in rural KY thinking of Shiite and Sunnis and Lionel Richie and that points to Parr sums it up! Cultures are infused and flattened. I heard that story about HCB before and I would imagine Parr upset(s) a few others of the old guard/new guard/rear guard as well. There was an article in the NY Times recently about Sasha Cohen Baron and the release of Borat that discussed the moment of the movie’s arrival and success. It suggested that with Borat other contemporary comedy seemed stalled and stale. Suddenly guys like Will Ferrel, Jack Black etc,seemed…dated. If you go from Parr’s early Bad Weather work and get to something like Common Sense, you see the influences where he came from and how far he decided to explore and push what had become a formal process. Eventually his new work evolved a visual soltuion and as it recognized where it came from it also dated its influences. Which leads me to wonder are too many young photographers are coming out of art schools fully formed with their issues, concerns and carreer plans fully intact, their work already fixed? But for younger artists does a flattened, globalized, homoginzed culture produce flattened, globalized homoginizd artists and artwork? Are we experimenting or jumping on the band wagon? My work has had to look backward to now move forward but why does it worry so much of what I now see that is being shown all looks the same?

    Comment by stewart — December 6, 2006 @ 1:25 pm

  36. I would really like to shout out Boring Postcards, the English and the US versions. Boring Postcards (UK), which was edited by Martin Parr, was my introduction to his sensibility and made me love him before I ever saw one of his photos.


    Comment by Zoe Strauss — December 6, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

  37. $@#%!! I do it everytime! Post without correcting mistakes! I really have to learn not show work without editing. Anway what I meant to ask was…

    Are too many young photographers are coming out of art schools fully formed with their issues, concerns and carreer plans fully intact? Is their work already fixed? For younger artists does a flattened, globalized, homoginzed culture produce flattened, globalized homoginizd artists and artwork? Are we experimenting or just jumping on the band wagon? My work has had to look backward to now move forward but why does it worry so me much that most of what I see that is being exhibited all looks the same??

    Comment by stewart — December 6, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

  38. Unfortunately or fortunately for Parr, One can not shoot in his style here in the USA. Our culture is profound while his in your face style is shunned upon here (A shame). This makes his style so British (Culturally speaking).

    Comment by David Wilson Burnham — December 6, 2006 @ 2:32 pm

  39. Zoe! Nail hammer thwack!

    People forget that the whole Boring Postcard thing was born of an absolute LOVE of them, not an ironic sneering.

    I often think Parr’s critics project their own class insecurities onto him.

    Comment by guybatey — December 6, 2006 @ 5:16 pm

  40. Never mind all this talk about parr -yes we all know how good he is- what’s shocking is Charlie Rose! Terrible interview.

    Comment by Paul — December 6, 2006 @ 6:01 pm

  41. Boring Postcards is great. Very funny! (The English language is supposedly my first language but apparently not so when I type on blogs. i.e my above post and subsequent attempt at cutting and pasting a correction….hmm…)

    Autoportraits anyone??

    Gotta wonder about two groups that fight each other coming togther cause of Lionel Richie…just gotta wonder…

    Comment by stewart — December 6, 2006 @ 7:07 pm

  42. Someone told me that there was a mention of me in Alec’s now famous blog and am amazed at the length and diversity of the responses.
    One thing that motivates me is to try and produce images that talk about the modern world, the zeitgist if you like. This has been a big factor in going towards shooting the close ups, food etc. trying if you like to illustrate our globalisation. Someone laments the type of imagery that was in the Last Resort. I do think it important that photographers grow , rather than repeat the known and trusted. That is why I have tried to keep fresh, but acknowledge there has to be a degree of repetition, this is also known as a personal style. Of course I am fascinated buy my own gradual demise as I am now mid 50’s and am not as energetic as 30 years ago.This was another reason why I diversified into editing and curating. Keep fresh by doing other things.
    ps yes indeed Peter Fraser still does print for me. I will pass on your comment about Buckets, he will be delighted.

    Comment by Martin Parr — December 7, 2006 @ 3:47 am

  43. Wow, this is like that moment in Annie Hall when Woody Allen hauls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster to clinch an argument … You could even extend the Woody Allen comparison by noting some folks’ preference for Martin’s “earlier, funny books” (shame!) …

    For what it’s worth, I would put “Two Blue Buckets” alongside Jem Southam’s “Raft of Carrots” and Raymond Moore’s “Murmurs at Every Turn” as undervalued British photobook treasures.

    Comment by Mike C. — December 7, 2006 @ 6:47 am

  44. neat! ‘the photobook: a history, volume i’ is outstanding, and volume ii is on my christmas wishlist.

    i tend to like the early work from anybody who has multiple phases, but some are like bookends. do you have any thoughts of a new direction, mr. parr?

    Comment by aizan — December 7, 2006 @ 2:58 pm

  45. Aizan
    This summer I was shooting in the UK on a digital camera.
    I like the speed of this compact , but the problem is the images do not feel parr enough for me.
    I also was shooting in scotland for a show there in 2009 and these were done on film and felt more like my images.
    So here is the question, is it more difficult to appear with a stronger voice on film when a photographer has developed a distinct style?
    I have a couple of projects shot that will emerge as books in the next year.

    Comment by Martin Parr — December 7, 2006 @ 6:04 pm

  46. Sorry I just realised I meant is it easier?

    Comment by Martin Parr — December 7, 2006 @ 6:05 pm

  47. In a tightly edited 10 minute audio interview for Lens Culture, Martin Parr talked with me about irony, searching for vulnerability, British humor, photo books, the secret history of photography, and more. Enjoy! My only regret is that I did not photograph his entire comfy outfit that day in Arles: plaid shirt, plaid shorts, bulky book bag and floppy sandals. A true gentleman.

    Comment by Jim Casper — December 7, 2006 @ 9:00 pm

  48. Martin,

    First, I appreciate your response. It brings Alec’s “smokey loft” even closer to reality.

    I’d like to respond to your question about easiness, style, and film.

    As the debate about digital and film ensues, I can’t help but realize the huge backlash against digital and the even bigger embrace. I like the immediacy of digital, but I have always shot film. I am more comfortable with the results, whereas I still struggle with how I feel about digitally captured images. I think that it is easier for an artist to use a medium that is comfortable and familiar, which could be a root of such a backlash.

    It is hard for me to change the way I edit work. Photography is moving into a largely digital age, where film will be rendered antique and as a rarer “specialty” item. It doesn’t mean that we need to change, but it does mean that a lot will change around us. If I continue with film, the need to adapt to my surroundings is very important. Change is hard. I think this is a root of the backlash.

    What was uncomfortable about shooting digital for you?

    Comment by Ryan — December 8, 2006 @ 7:22 pm

  49. Ryan
    Shooting it could not be easier, you point and shoot.
    However all contemporary photography has the danger of looking too familiar, and similar and digital even pushes this along further, even more than film.
    In the end everyones images will look the same.
    That is why, when somone really fresh like Rinko Kawachi Or , dare I say it Alec Soth, comes along we all notice.

    Comment by martin parr — December 9, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

  50. parr could be important…..if his work was not just a distant sneer. the problem is that parr is not opening our eyes as much as he is helping us look down our noses at the ugliness that is modern life. he has said as much himself! in a recent interview on magnum in motion he reveals that he has made a lot of money from these pictures and is in fact living well above this stuff. how nice! but isn’t this merely elitism masquerading as social commentary? isn’t this just one snob laughing at the poor slobs who have to make do with processed cheese, or formica table tops all the while sipping fine wine and enjoying the fruits of this rather caustic, condescending, snobbish and franky insulting view? that in this debri, this mass produced hell that is capitalism’s gift to the middle and underclass, his eye fails to see the families that love each other, the fathers who work dead end jobs to give their children the best they can, the children who find joy in the simple things they can afford when they can, the simple pleasure of a cheap fish and chips on paper plates with a girl you love? when i see parr’s images i feel for those who were trapped in his caustic eye. i think that parr achieved a lot of success too soon. there is a maturity his work still needs, the next step, which is how human beings learn to love, live, smile, find joy, pleasure, security, safety and companionship even when faced with the plastic hell that is their material life. if he had not blinded himself in the spotlight that fell on him i think that he would have found this next step. i think alec that he would have found what you found at Niagara; that what makes our world is not its plastic cups or velor bed sheets, but the passions that inflame the lives and loves between human beings. the rest is just background. parr’s work is of the background, and it will in time retreat there too.

    Comment by asim rafiqui — December 9, 2006 @ 4:22 pm

  51. if my p&s digicam was an animal, it would be a mule.

    Comment by aizan — December 9, 2006 @ 6:18 pm

  52. There is so much self-importance prevalent; Although a true giant in photography/art, was anyone else struck by how modest, humble and simple a man Henri Cartier-Bresson is? Beautiful, brilliant & refreshing. Thanks for the link !

    Comment by Frank — December 10, 2006 @ 4:27 pm

  53. I’ve always thought that all of histroy is one large continum. To that end all the photography we do has some significance. The decision to actively make a photograph is historic. I find myself going through old negs and commenting” boy that place is different”. Or sometimes just thinking about how a photograph I made reflects the vogue.

    I think sometimes as photographers we spend a get deal of time fretting over what may or may not be a significant project or series to work on. Sometimes what is hapening right now is the most imortant thing to make a photograph of.

    Chris Faust

    Comment by Chris Faust — December 18, 2006 @ 12:55 pm

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