Brexit Britain To Celebrity Snaps: Martin Parr Documents Britain's Story At National Portrait Gallery

Martin Parr, National Portrait Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 6 months ago

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Brexit Britain To Celebrity Snaps: Martin Parr Documents Britain's Story At National Portrait Gallery Martin Parr, National Portrait Gallery 4
Bhangra dancers as part of the BBC shorts that were created for the channel. Copyright Martin Parr.

Whether it's capturing Britain at the time of Brexit or celebrities like Pele and Cara Delevingne, photographer Martin Parr gets around. A vast collection of works have been pulled together for his blockbuster exhibition at National Portrait Gallery.

Things kick off with the artist as the subject. A range of photos see Parr in a Victorian setting, fighting alongside Putin and with his head inside a shark's mouth. His head has been hastily edited into all these photos, the most fun of which sees his middle aged pale face on top of a tanned and oiled body clearly belonging to a body builder.

Just an average day at the beach — build your own stories behind each person in the scene. Copyright Martin Parr.

In an age where we're constantly reminded that we have to manage our own personal brand, it's great to see a photographer mocking himself and celebrity culture. We imagine him on I'm a a Celebrity... just sitting there with the same passive expression he has in all these photos. This playful exercise extends to branded cigars and a scarf that exclaims 'Martin Fucking Parr'.

While on the surface these works yell FUN there's a serious point underneath. We're reminded of those entrepreneurs who sell 'tourist tat' making a living from creating crudely mocked up photos and items with our names punters on them. It feels like an industry that can't have long left given the power of Instagram filters and the decreasing price of 3D printers. It's Martin Parr's tribute to what will most likely become a lost art form — some may say good riddance, but Parr has an affinity to those still operating in these diminishing markets.

Getting up close with The Queen. Copyright Martin Parr.

The rest of the exhibition focuses on Parr behind the lens, and in an excellent move each room has a unique theme. The photos of different dance environments delights by placing men in their underwear at Manchester Pride adjacent to couples at a black tie ball — everyone's having a good time no matter their enivronment, as are we thanks to a giant glitter ball hanging from the gallery's ceiling.

This playful approach to installation continues throughout the exhibition with a fully functioning tea shop where you can buy some Battenberg cake or sip Yorkshire tea. The tea room comes complete with Parr's photographs of food, and it's more caff than cafe — you won't get any smashed avocado or espresso macchiatos here.

Pretty sure we know this guy voted leave. Copyright Martin Parr.

Martin Parr is an excellent photographer of everyday life and a particularly illuminating series was taken around the time of the Brexit vote. One man decked the entire exterior of his house with Union Jacks and St. George's Crosses, Muslims celebrate opening their fast during Ramadan in a street party in Bristol and old men in ties queue outside Lord's before a cricket match. Each scene is vastly different to the next and depict the variety of life in Britain. Parr's photos imply that to polarise us between leavers and remainers is a gross oversimplification that ignores our individual nuances.

Littered throughout the show is Parr's brilliance. One standout photo comes from spectating tennis. Except Parr isn't watching the matches, instead his lens snaps others wrapped up in the game. He sits behind a woman wearing a stars and stripes hat and instead of being annoyed by this garish intrusion he focuses in on it, leaving the tennis match happening beyond a blur. Who knows which stars are playing, Parr only has eyes for this anonymous woman and her headgear. It's his ability to focus in on what often gets dismissed as banal that makes him stand out as such an astute observer of humanity.

A man who's had a bit too much to drink at the Magdalene college ball. Copyright Martin Parr.

We've seen lot of Martin Parr's photography in the past, so we came in expecting nothing new. But by keeping the curation of the exhibition broad, light and playful, we ended up thoroughly enjoying a fun and accessible photography exhibition.

Only Human: Martin Parr is on at National Portrait Gallery from 7 March to 27 May. Tickets are £20.

Last Updated 06 March 2019