Martin Parr is firmly established as one of the world's most famous and successful documentary photographers. His instantly recognisable work has examined everything from global consumerism and mass tourism to the lifestyles of the super-rich. Brightly-lit and colour-saturated, it highlights the quirks and foibles of individuals and societies with images that are often wryly humorous and sometimes acerbic.
He recently opened the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, England, with the aim of showcasing British documentary photography and housing his own photography collection and archive. When we meet him there on a bright, sunny morning, he's wearing his trademark footwear: sandals with socks. He's looking energised and cheerful, while retaining the combative, headmasterly manner for which he is known. He shows us around the Foundation's offices and points out one characteristically kitsch feature: his collection of Soviet space-dog memorabilia, which decorates the kitchen walls.
Martin made his reputation with a steady flow of photobooks including The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (1986), Small World (1995) and Common Sense (1999); to date, he has published over 100 books. He has been a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency since 1994 and was its president from 2013 to 2017. He's now in his 60s, but his photographic output is still prolific; a new book called Beach Therapy is published in February 2019, and a major exhibition of his work called Only Human opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London in March 2019.
Here, Martin talks about how he developed his distinctive personal style, the kit he uses, the importance of getting a good file, and why, no matter how technically advanced cameras become, it will always be difficult to take really great photographs.
You started out by shooting in black-and-white, using natural daylight, but in the early 1980s you switched to shooting in saturated colour with daylight flash. What brought about this radical change in style?
"I think the two styles are more connected than you're potentially saying. Spatial awareness is working in both. That's something I learned from American photographers including Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
"Then I discovered Tony Ray-Jones while I was at Manchester Polytechnic in the early '70s, who was probably the most influential person on my career. His ability to tap into that spatial awareness, which he learned in America and applied to the UK, was really exciting for me.
"You could say my black-and-white work was a celebration of society, and the colour by nature – especially starting with New Brighton, which is a very run-down seaside resort [near Liverpool, UK] – was more of a critique. But nonetheless, that spatial awareness I'd say does run through all my work in some shape or form."
Were other photographers using daylight flash at the time you started using it?
"I saw hints of it. Chris Killip was using flash at the beginning of his career. Andy Earl, another British photographer, also used flash and colour very early on. I remember seeing his pictures from places like Ascot and being very interested in that technique. So yes, it was around, but it wasn't as popular as it is now.
"I also took the language of commercial photography, where the subject was brightly lit and colours were saturated. It was about picking up on this language we're surrounded by in advertising and fashion and applying it in a documentary sense. This was new, but I'm not going to claim any exclusivity on it. Many other people were experimenting in this territory. I just particularly made it part of my mantra and it worked out very well."
Did other people use ring flash for documentary work, like you later did?
"There were a few examples of ring flash being around in the 1990s, but it wasn't at all dominant. When I discovered the combination of using a macro lens with ring flash, it was very exciting to see what it could offer. It enabled me to think about clichés like food as a subject matter and demonstrate that subjects like that can say as much about the world as anything else."
What were the benefits of using ring flash?
"The real benefit was that flash gave things a surreal look and feel, which I very much enjoyed. When I was using slow ISO50 colour negative film, the ring flash gave intense colours. At the time I really liked that sort of ultra-saturated palette. I'm creating fiction out of reality, so in a sense it helps to distance the reality from the photos. Even now I still often use the combination of a wide-angle lens and a ring flash. For me, it's not so much a technical thing, it's more an aesthetic thing."
What's the main camera you currently use?
"My current camera is the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV [the newer version of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which Martin used to take the images seen in this article]. I've had all the Canon EOS 5D cameras. I have an EOS 5DS R as well, which I use for advertising shoots. But I find the EOS 5D Mark IV is a good camera to use for documentary work and the file size is right for me. My main income comes from selling prints. I also do commissioned work, but selling prints is an integral part of that. So I want to have a big file to make a good print.
"I'm not a great technophile, but I like the look and feel of Canon DSLRs; they're very intuitive. I keep picking up other cameras, but nothing feels better in the hand. I also use a Canon Speedlite 580EX II flashgun with a diffuser to help balance the ambient light with the flash. And my team and I love the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 printer."
You started using digital cameras in 2006. Have they changed your working methods?
"Yes, they've made life a lot easier. The first advantage is of course that I don't have to change film every 10 shots, which I had to do with my medium format film cameras. I'm getting comparable quality and I can get 520 images on a card. I can no longer blame the fact that I missed a great shot on changing the film. And it's amazing you can go up to ISO6000 and the quality still stands up. You do get a bit of noise, but it's remarkable. By combining these high ISOs with flash and different techniques, you can control how your pictures look so much more.
And of course you're seeing your image on the back of the camera so you know what you're getting. That to me has been a revelation."
It's often said that technical developments are making this a golden age for photography. Do you think that's true?
"Yes and no. You could argue it's easier to be a photographer now, technically, because no longer do you have to work out exposures and so on – the cameras do it all for you. But what's more difficult is to find a unique story, your unique relationship to the world. That never changes. So although technically it's easier, and there are more platforms for photography than we ever had before, getting good photographs and having a personal vision is never going to be easy. Thank God, in a sense, because that's how you can distinguish the good photographers from the excellent ones."
How important is technical skill for a photographer?
"Well, in order for me to sell a 50x76cm print for a sum like £4,000 (over €4,500), you need to have a good print. Therefore, my prime motivation is to get the technique sorted so that the print looks beautiful when you see it on the wall – it's sharp, the colours are right, the palette is good, it's balanced. Everything about it works. And it looks beautiful enough for someone to want to buy it. So yes, you have to have the technique to back up what you're saying and that's why I take having a good file and a good quality resolution very seriously. It's like a language: the more verbs and nouns you understand, the better your chance of articulating exactly what you want to say."
What post-processing work do you do?
"I've never processed a file in my life. I just know that when I look at the pictures they look right. Louis, who does that work for me, knows my palette inside out. He knows what I like, how I want them printed, so it's very rare that I say, 'I don't think that print's quite right'. If I do, we tweak it."
Do you have any post-processing ground rules?
"Not really, but I don't push the colours, I don't take things out, apart from hotspots from flash, reflections in eyes, things like that. We're not going to start putting together two pictures to make a better one. I believe in the integrity of the image."
Do you interact with your subjects?
"Every situation is different. Sometimes you interact with people and sometimes you just slyly get on with it. You can't really say there are rules of engagement, because every situation is different. I do a lot more portraits now than I did before, so in that instance clearly I'm getting consent because I'm asking them. There are many different ways of photographing people and I use them all."
Does having a distinctive photographic style have its downsides?
"You could argue that some of it is formulaic, which is why I continue to use different techniques. So, for example, I'm just about to release a book using a telephoto lens, called Beach Therapy. For many years, when I got a new camera or lens, I've used the beach as my first experimenting lab. So I've recently been using the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM and been shooting around beaches. Over the last four years I've built up a nice folio of work."
You've always been fascinated by the British. What interests you so much about British identity?
"I suppose because it's so diverse and so interesting and I'm British myself. The question for me is, how do you capture this crazy nation that we are in a series of photographs? That's the constant challenge."
What drives your work? Curiosity?
"Oh I think so. I'm fascinated by the world we live in, and how I can interpret it and turn it into images. It's not an easy task, but I'm as excited by that process now as I was 50 years ago. I can't help myself."