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?