Most photographers of any reputation have achieved that reputation through a multiplex of factors. Put another way, rarely do we find a famous photographer made famous by way of their work along. Martin Parr is no exception. This is not to suggest that his work is not good, it is, but it’s not brilliant – at least here, in this collection. Let’s take a closer look.
Mexico was published by Chris Boot in 2006. My edition is hardcover with a reflective laminate, not dissimilar to a children’s copy of the Guinness World Records, for example. Similarly to the Guinness book, Mexico holds much charm on first blush but quickly dissipates with time. Indeed, I do recall my first glance through the book several years ago. The bright colors and up-close images of everyday Mexican items were thrilling and somewhat unique. My most recent flip through was considerably more underwhelming. Like most one-trick-pony photographers, myself included, Parr’s bright colors and point-blank renditions of the mundane quickly become repetitive.
Does this mean that Parr’s work has not made a contribution to the genre? Not at all. Of course, it has done just that. Parr is known for this very “type” of an image. The question becomes, as one contemplates the value of thisA particular collection, whether or not this series (as a whole) adds anything to Parr’s already established reputation for producing this kind of photography. Does Mexico push Parr’s work forward? In my opinion, no, it does not. With notable exceptions, much of the work in Mexico is trite, repetitive, and devoid of any particular personal artistic advancement from Parr. In fact, with notable exceptions, most of the images in the collection excite our vision, momentarily, only because of their “foreign” content. That is, we find the “otherness” of the Mexican landscape to hold a fleeting interest insofar as it is foreign, strange, and different. Such success, however limited, owes little to Parr’s technique. At the same time, we must not diminish the contribution that Parr’s visual curation makes to the overall impact of the series. Artistic vision is not wholly composed of technique, indeed vision – seeing – is quite surely an essential ingredient. In this way, Parr has achieved some measure of success with this book.
Martin Parr has expressed, both publicly and in personal communications, that he prefers not to be labeled a street photographer. So where does this leave us – street photographers – who claim him as one of our own? Is Parr skirting the label not because it does not fit, but because it has taken on a negative connotation in the fine art world? I dare say it is a bit of both. Martin Parr is not an “out-of-the-box” street photographer. Yet, much of his work, particularly in this book, is, in fact, shot on the street or in some other form of public and candid situation. On the other hand, much of Parr’s work is lacking people – a distinct, if narrow, constant in street photography. This debate could proceed nearly indefinitely and, likely, to no valuable end. Therefore, we will not detain ourselves further. The takeaway is that although Parr lingers in the collective minds of street photographers as “one of us”, to judge his work along such narrow aesthetics would be unfair if not unproductive. With this in mind, I have viewed the book, Mexico, as a photographer and art critic, not as a street photographer. This has worked to his advantage. As a street photographer, Parr’s work relies too heavily on the foreign context in this collection. As mere photography, Parr’s work here has value. He has, without a doubt, isolated various aspects of mundane Mexican culture and, in doing so, highlighted their strangeness – their telling aspects of our own human existence. Perhaps Parr is most properly labeled a cultural documentarian. That is if we must label him at all.
Redux book reviews are interesting. Books change over time. That is, what they present and re-present to us changes as we change – us, personally, and our society collectively. In teaching film and television studies, my students always remarked about how Three’s Company was profoundly unfunny for them – millennials. This was not a useful critique of the television show situated it its own time and context, but it was a useful glimpse into the changing landscape of television humor and cultural shifts as related to comedy. Likewise, perhaps we should admire Parr for what Mexico contributed to the time and context in which it was published. Much has changed on the photographic landscape since 2006 – a mere decade ago. Indeed, much of what has detracted from Parr’s signature look over the past decade has been the incessant stream of work produced in his style. Brightly colored up-close flash photography no longer belongs to Parr. Nor is it any longer distinct, xxx, or noteworthy. In this way, Parr, as is the case with many photographers who cling to a narrow signature aesthetic, may be experiencing death by a thousand cuts inflicted by his very own sword.
Photo Book by Martin Parr
Published by Chris Boot Ltd., London
Used Avg. $20