November 3rd, 2008 admin

I must say that I’ve been totally underwhelmed by Martin Parr’s much heralded photographic portrayal of ten British cities, which have been running as ‘special’ supplements in the Guardian newspaper over the past few months.

This weekend, the Guardian’s Weekend magazine ran a cover story with a twelve page spread showing a selection of Parr’s photographs under the title ‘Urban Splash- Martin Parr captures the essence of Britain’s cities’.

I’ve not seen the full set of photographs, however, if the magazine’s edit is anything to go by then they appear to be little more than an incoherent selection of snapshots hurridely collated, and furnished with uninteresting and often irrelevant captions. Aesthetically they seem very lazy indeed. Maybe he’s been too busy this year peddling Parrworld? (the largest exhibition to date of his work, which opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and is touring the world).

The whole project also appears to be very calculating in terms of its spin-offs, with various box sets (standard and deluxe) and calendars available from the Guardian website here.

I’m not one of those anti-Parr photographers, indeed I’ve long respected him as a practitioner and commentator, however it does seem that he’s missed a real opportunity to produce something interesting and illuminating about Britain, twenty years after the publication of his groundbreaking book, The Last Resort.

Much of his portrayal has certainly been seen as very stereotypical, as illustrated by these comments posted on the Guardian letters page

“I was dismayed and shocked by Martin Parr’s supplement on Newcastle (British cities: Newcastle, October 27). He introduces his piece: “I first visited Newcastle in the mid-70s and I remember being impressed with Byker, a classic working-class suburb with a tight sense of community and steep terraces. I revisited Byker for this project and found the small shops were struggling, despite Aldi and the Gala Bingo doing well.” This shows he came to Newcastle with the notion of finding that quaint, parochial, grim-up-north picture of the Geordie struggle for survival – a dangerous stereotype to uphold.

Newcastle is no longer a bastion of British industrial power, but a multicultural metropolis often billed the London of the north because of the regeneration that has been applied to all areas of the city. Areas such as the Quayside and Jesmond have welcomed this regeneration, and have seen new life breathed into them, attracting young professionals and students alike.

There are many things Parr could have shot to highlight the urban evolution that is happening within this city. He mentions Grey Street and the stunning architecture of the city centre, but does not show it in any of his photographs. Then there are some of the many attractions that bring people to the city that he missed out in favour of outdated sentiments, such as the Laing Art Gallery, the Tyneside cinema, Blackfriars dining hall, the Tynemouth Priory and Castle, the Jazz Cafe, both universities and any one of the many bridges spanning the Tyne – I could go on.”
Nelson Iley, Newcastle upon Tyne

“Martin Parr’s supplement on Newcastle was billed as one of a series “capturing today’s urban Britain”. What he has actually done is lazily capture all the cliches of Newcastle from 30 years ago. In his 29 photographs, he manages to pack in bingo, greyhound racing, homing pigeons, a double dose of the derelict Swan Hunter shipyard, a greasy spoon cafe, two shots of hen nights, two lots of women with cheap drinks at the races, and a tattooed man prodding his barbecue. While all of the above go to make up some of the rich mixture of life in Newcastle, where are the other sides to the city? Where’s the chic city centre pubs and bars? Where are the 50,000 students? Where are the arts venues? Where is the growing multicultural community? Guess they would not suit the stereotypes Parr set out to portray.”
Graeme King, Newcastle upon Tyne

“Martin Parr seems to have arrived in Newcastle with all his stereotypes in tow, and to have regurgitated them for us with stock images of pigeon fanciers etc. Geographically, the photo essay was inaccurate. It was entitled Newcastle, but included Gateshead and North Tyneside – two areas distinct from Newcastle in the eyes of north easterners.”
Alison Grant and Anna Vaernes, Newcastle upon Tyne

You can see a selection of Parr’s images from the project on the Guardian’s website here.

I’d be interested to hear your comments on the work, if you haven’t already done so on the Flickr group Martin Parr We Love You!


  1. After going through the slideshow once, it seemed to be a strictly working class view of GB. (Going through it a second time I see the King’s College students, the golfers, but still a mostly working class view.) No photos that I wish I had taken. (But then I don’t think I understand Parr, whereas I do you or Erwitt.)

    In the Flickr comments Parr says the Guardian specified the cities and made the final selection of images. Perhaps it would look very different if Parr had edited the show himself?

    What surprised me was how flat the photos looked in the slideshow, compared with the rich colours I expected. But the swimmer on the Guardian Weekend cover has the saturation and contrast set to 11. I assume then that Parr shot this project with his 5D instead of his standard film/ringflash kit and he didn’t process the photos. (But the Guardian photo editor cropped and juiced the cover photo.)

    I was just on a brief holiday in a town I’ve never visited before. When I got home I edited my photos and wrote a short article on what I thought of the town. I was struck by how, when taking photos, I kept reinforcing my interpretation. No photos that showed the ugly bits or how the new areas are bringing about drastic changes. To some residents my photos would look like the town they call home. To most others, they would probably not recognise most of the scenes. (Next time I’ll keep a journal as I go to prevent a repeat.)

    How are you tackling this issue in your edit of We English? Or how did you deal with it as you worked? Was it something you were conscious of – how locals would react to your work?

  2. yep, hugely underwhelmed. overhyped and overrated. and you know what? that it turned out this way didn’t surprise me in the slightest.

    there’s plenty of other dissenters on this thread:


  3. For a while now i have started to think that Parr’s images of Britain are becoming more and more like a Carry-On Movie

  4. I think what Luke mentioned about the edit has a serious effect on how we perceive the images. Granted not everyone likes Martin’s work, but I feel this time that the editor (be it the Photo editor, Art editor or whom ever was tasked at editing) might have picked the wrong set of images to use.

    The whole series has a snapshot feel to it. I’m sorry but I do expect more from someone like Parr, especially when it comes to a subject he is pretty well versed in.

  5. Luke/Daniel

    Yes, I think we must give Martin some benefit of the doubt in terms of the edit of photographs that were published, which would have been made by the picture editor and/or art director.

    However, I’d imagine Martin would have done a pre-edit from which the magazine would then have done a further edit for publication – suggesting that he’d have been happy for all these photographs to be published.

    It will be interesting to see what edit of photographs Martin supplies to Magnum, which will no doubt appear on their website shortly.

    Luke, regarding your question about my editing process, this will require a longer post. Watch this space!

  6. Yeah the editing process is something we don’t know much about and could explain loads…

    Now anyone here got any friends at the Guardian who can explain it all? :0)

  7. Daniel
    Along with the Saturday Telegraph Magazine and Sunday Times Magazine, the Guardian’s Weekend Magazine is one of the last remaining weekend supplements to run intelligent and thought-provoking photo stories. The picture editors and art directors on all these magazines are excellent and take great pride in what they do. I’d therefore hazard a guess that it’s more an issue of what the Weekend Magazine had to work with, rather than there necessarily being much else to choose from!

  8. Oh I’m not saying they messed up, I’m with you in thinking they didn’t have much to work with in the first place.

  9. […] Simon Roberts has done a very good job already. Although my thoughts would differ in detail, his UNDERWHELMED BY PARR raises some of the same thoughts that I had, mainly in quotations from letters on the Guardian web […]

  10. In reply to my post, Doug over on Americansuburbx.com writes-

    “One does have to be careful to sift through any “sour grape” syndrome when related to someone as successful as Parr is in his field and criticism thrown his way… but I do have to agree. The series is “sub-Parr” indeed (perhaps “crap” could even be used). There are a few “good one’s” and then it largely goes downhill fast. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the “ugly-tourist-flash-snapshot” aesthetic (if I am to describe the “look/feel” as an aesthetic) but it still needs to be special and very calculated to succeed… even if the “special” is purely in the artful use of “mundane ugliness”. As they say in English Football, “a bit of quality” is needed.

    Oh well, the juggernaut that is Martin Parr is certainly allowed to do crap sometimes.”

  11. Hi SIMON
    Thanks for your comments.
    I always welcome some kind of debate and this project seems to have achieved this.
    I think you have to see the original supplements , where I had control of what happened.
    The weekend edit,and the 40 image slide show would not have been my choice. That is not to say I disapproved, far from it as this was the best commission i have ever had from a UK magazine, its just that you loose control.
    I have had many reactions, many positive, many negative, but in the case of newcastle. The Baltic and the sage were in there, there were middle classes from jesmond, but it is an overwhelmingly working class city, probably the most so in the country. It sounded like the woman was working for Newcastle City council.

  12. ‘sub Parr’ is a good term for his Guardian cities project. But it is also a mark of the man, and the expectations of his work, that this series should spark so much debate.
    At least the photos were not as ‘sub-Parr’ as the hugely disappointing Salagado images the Guardian published a while back.

  13. The type of commission Martin received from the Guardian is a true rarity – 8 months, plentiful day rates, free reign to approach the subject matter

    Having said that, perhaps the original concept itself is the problem. Maybe the Guardian didn’t realise the difficulty in assigning one photographer to cover a subject as nebulous and as broad as ‘English Cities’. Of course the work is going to be inconsistent when it rests on the shoulders of a single photographer to look at such a broad array of subjects and issues (even one as experienced and talented as Martin Parr). We all have good days and bad photography days!

    In Martin’s defense he did what was asked of him by the Guardian – he photographed what he was interested in each of the cities. No one can fault him for that.

    But I also must add that I think this thread (and the Flickr one) smack of self-aggrandizement.

  14. I think the main argument on this is that Martin was working so far within his comfort zone that he could have shot this series from an armchair in his house in Clifton whilst having a cup of tea and a pack of digestives.

    Martin has high standards when he looks at work (I’ve been on the end of one of his lacerations), he’s always looking for new perspectives, and he’s a great promoter of new and different work. However, I don’t think he’s applied the same standards to his own work on this occasion – possibly because of overstretching on other commitments as Martin says. It does seem a tad lazy.


  16. I wasn’t hugely impressed with it either, but as David says above: it’s not easy creating a coherent body of work from such a wide project brief,.
    In the slide show there were a few shots that got me excited, but generally it was fairly uninspiring, felt like he was just going through the motions, as opposed to really making the most of the project.

    oh well, we all have our off days (or 8 months) i guess, I’m sure he’ll be producing good work again soon.

    I look forward to seeing your work on a city Simon! at least now you know how not to do it.

  17. Ok, this was plain and simple. lazy photographs, of very un-interesting subject matter. it is indefensibly bad.

    “We all have good days and bad photography days!” – HE HAD SEVEN MONTHS

    there are brilliant photographers who would give up parts of their body for a commission as free as this. Why is the Guardian sucked in by The Parr brand? because they have literally no idea what they are doing. At least they didn’t have any until they got the pictures and were like “oh god we have to run this and look like complete tits”. The biggest mistake was to admit how long it took.

    btw, i’m a picture editor who has run work by Parr before.

  18. also…

    people who think this is a complicated task, or a hard subject.


  19. Here are some more comments from Martin Parr over on his Flickr group regarding the Guardian series-

    “Any criticism should be based on the original edit , that I signed off. There have been many comments on this project, some negative and some critical. Many people have criticised my portraits as they did not fit into their agenda. I remind people that when one is a photographer, you have the right to have an agenda, and thank God that is the case. Without them any documentary work becomes very tedious. Why would i expect this to overlap with mine? However if you look at all 160 pages of my depiction of contemporary Britain , it does make sense.


    “Just to reply to a previous question. The Guardian were keen to make a book, and I steered them away from this, as I thought the idea of a box of the original newspaper supplements was a lot better. I still do, as this project has an identity that is unique.
    The motivation for the Guardian was very simple, they wanted to find a project that helped to boost circulation ( or at least on the day of publication) in their key cities for readership. ( London being the exception) This is why Cambridge had a supplement , and Birmingham did not. They also wanted to demonstrate that they are interested in the key regional cities in the UK.
    That said I believe the boldness of this project has to be applauded as they, have shown real commitment to photography by commissioning this.
    All the images from this project will potentially go towards a new book I am planning about the UK in a few years time.

    and most recently-
    “I did relinquish control for the Weekend spread, but was given the chance to sign off and indeed steer the individual supplements in the direction I wanted. I did also select , with the Guardian picture editor the images for the special prints and the calendar.

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