Q&A: Martin Parr

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Chinese smart phone manufacturer Vivo have launched the 2021 Vision+ Mobile Photo Awards, sporting a diverse lineup of judges including British street photographer and long-time Magnum member, Martin Parr. 

As the title of the awards hint, Vivo’s competition has been created to celebrate smartphone photography, highlighting the impressive capabilities of the company's own flagship smartphone, the Vivo X60, in the process. 

As one of the most widely celebrated street photographers of all time, many know Parr as the straight-laced but friendly photographer whose clunky DSLR, zoom lens and sandals do much to disarm his subjects - fellow Britons, most of whom are on holiday, by the beach or enjoying quaint British festivities.

Rising to fame partly through the sheer number of books that he has produced, Parr was a pioneer of the serious use of colour in street photography and in his most noted works – The Last Resort (1986), Signs of the Times (1992) and Think of England (2000) – were primarily produced using medium format film.

So, has Parr really ditched his 6x7 or the clunky DSLR for a smart phone? In a recent interview, AP sat down with Parr who shed some light on his thoughts about serious photographers’ embrace of smart phone technology and whether the smart phone camera is indeed already a tool that professionals can consider an essential part of their kit bag.

Hi Martin, what's your take on smart phone photography today? 

Martin Parr: To me, what's happened in the last in the last few years is that the cameras on these phones has become so amazingly good that you can actually say these are potentially going to be something you as a professional could use. I remember when the iPhone was originally introduced with the camera, it was a real novelty and people would almost string along with it being a novelty.

But now that you've got this new generation of phones, I say that the game has really changed. I like to photograph people, and over the last weekend it was a bank holiday here in Saint Ives, which is one of the busiest places in Cornwall. It was very, very busy, but I was able to shoot with this camera and no one knew I was shooting them because everyone's got a phone.

Martin Parr. Image: Vivo
Martin Parr. Image: Vivo

I think we're turning a corner whereby the phones, and the cameras that come with them, are such better quality now that you can take them quite seriously. No longer is it a novelty, we know now that the quality is outstanding.

That said, I could always dump all my Canons and just use a smartphone for the work that I'm doing, but I don’t think I'll do that yet because I still want to have a print that will go to a meter by meter and a half and, and although you can shoot in raw and have a very good file, it wouldn't probably take the same color treatment that I would get with an ordinary DSLR.

But I think we're in a new territory, and that's what's exciting.

The world is obsessed with social media. Do you worry about the fast pace of consuming photography where people see it very quickly, as they scroll through their algorithm? Do you think that has any sort of negative impact on photography as an artistic pursuit? When did you join instagram?

MP: I wasn't an early user of Instagram, and I did resist it at first. When Instagram was first introduced, I got the impression that the motive was to change the way the pictures look by putting different filters on, and that put me off, because I like to see a 'pure' photo, I don't want to have any filters, or any Starburst things coming over it, I want just to see the pure photo.

And then when we moved down to Bristol from London, and we started the foundation, that's when we really got going with the Instagram thread. And since then, I have someone who part of his job is to supply the pictures and to write up the pictures, and to talk to me about what we're going to put up next, because we have a story every week.

And slowly but surely, I think we're on 620,000 viewers now, we've built up a very good audience and it's incredibly good for us, because when we want to advertise something I'm doing or a new book, we use this as a great launch platform.

And of course, people wouldn't say that they like you unless they’re interested in your work. So you immediately get this very refined audience that are interested in, say what Martin Parr is doing.

That's the second part of your question. On the first part, the thing about the large number of pictures that we're seeing is that most of them are very bad. That gives you a great opportunity if you've got good pictures, because good pictures have a life of their own, and they should live on their own.

Image: Martin Parr
Image: Martin Parr

Most of the pictures on the internet are rubbish, you've got to remember that. Even most of the pictures I take are rubbish! Because you have to take bad pictures in order to get good ones. Likewise with Instagram, you have to look through a lot of indifferent portfolios or indifferent people first.

And then when you see something good, you'll really notice it, and it'll have an emotional impact on you.  You need all this rubbish in order to understand the good, see the good, and get excited.

My understanding is that most of the time you shoot with a large DSLR, a zoom lens and a flash.

MP: Yup, yeah, exactly yeah. 

I presume your subject can react to this equipment and it might disarm them because they perceive you as a “professional with lots of equipment”. Does this change when you shoot with a smart phone?

MP: Well, I've been doing a lot of shooting on the telephoto recently. I did a book called ‘Beach Therapy’ which looked at the beach. I've always used the beach as an experimental space to try out new cameras, new lenses, new ideas. But absolutely, when you go to lenses 10, 20 centimeters long, you know, you're a bit of a giveaway, really.

So it’s very good if you're using that in close quarters, people really get worried because it's quite a threatening thing, having a telephoto lens. The great thing about these smartphones is that you don't feel like a threat at all. This is what I would choose if you're going into a situation where there is a bit of tension, where it’s difficult.

Say you're photographing police arresting people, I would definitely then say that's the time to use the smartphone because they are by nature, un-threatening, because everyone's got one, you’re just fiddling around having a look at it because it doesn't make a noise, it’s very quiet. It's almost like a spy camera.

Personally, I'm interested in what ordinary people are doing and what they're saying. Last weekend for example, when I was shooting with the Vivo, I found it very good because no one knew I was taking pictures at all. And that's a great relief. It's getting more difficult to take photographs because people say it's illegal to take pictures without permission, which of course is not the case. So, you know this idea of getting the ability to photograph in public places is very useful. 

Is your editing process the same when you are shooting on a smart phone?

MP: I've got a studio where people load things for me. So I load up the pictures, whether it's a DSLR, or smartphone, look at them on screen, make an edit, and get those printed to 20x30. And then I have a look at the prints that will make the final edit.

Are you ever tempted to skip this process and just post straight to Instagram, for example?

MP: No, because I want to have an archive. My studio is an archive of these 20x30 prints starting with my black and white images when I was a young photographer in the 70s, going right the way through to the analog prints and in the 80s and 90s and now digital.

I like the fact that I've got that 20x30 print of all the pictures I've ever been interested in. It must be three quarters of million images now. It's a huge archive which I treasure and I can find images that I might have overlooked, as well as looking through contact prints. For me, it's good to have a physical archive.

You've mentioned the idea that mobile phone photography can facilitate the democratisation of photography and reporting.

MP: Very much so. As I have explained, especially in situations where you have something like a disaster happening, there will always be someone with either film footage or stills footage of that disaster. The quality may be rubbish. But there's always someone there to cover it now.

Often on the news, you'll see the vertical shot that they show in the middle with a sort of muted colour thing going on outside the frame. That's likely a smartphone film someone shot and gave to the news distributors.

In a sense, you could argue that the role of the photojournalist is doomed because there's always going to be someone there photographing before them, and of course, many photojournalists don't know what's gonna happen until after the event. 

Do you have any word of advice for people who are interested in documentary photography, but only have access to a smartphone, and perhaps don't see themselves as true photographers because of it?

MP: Well, they are true photographers, because they’ve got a phone, and the phone’s got a camera, and they want to go out there and shoot their own pictures. So I don't believe that they're not a true photographer. The amazing thing is with photography now, all these smartphones are automatic, you don't have to worry about the settings - it's all very simple and straightforward.

An entry in the 2021 Vivo Vision Mobile Photoawards. Image: Vivo.
An entry in the 2021 Vivo Vision Mobile Photoawards. Image: Vivo.

In analog photography, 30, 40 years ago, you had to really learn how to make the right exposure, get the light meter out, set it to the correct everything. The only thing that's going to hold you back now is the content of your pictures. Are they engaging, do they have personality, have they got a vision? All the things that people get worried about and intimidated by technically have gone.

The only thing that counts now is the quality of the story and the quality of the images that you're taking. The technical thing is taken care of and that's exciting.

What does photography offer, that video doesn't? Do you have any advice for photographers about why they should potentially stick to taking photos rather than getting caught up with the latest platforms or trends (that prioritise video)?

MP: I think the power of an iconic  image still has more meaning than video. When we think back on anything, whether it's the Vietnam war, or say 9/11, the images that we always remember are going to be still pictures. 

How we see the world is through iconic pictures. The greatest challenge is how you can tell that one story with one picture. To me, that's really important. What makes photos so intriguing, and what makes photography so important still, is that we think in terms of still pictures, rather than moving pictures. 

What is your go to camera in your day to day routine at the moment? And if you're not carrying one, which phone do you prefer, besides the Vivo X60?

MP: Well, I have a small Fuji camera, I have a Canon setup. And I have a smartphone. You know, I have the Vivo and I have an iPhone. So I've got a quite a wide variety of things I can use.

You have said that you try to think in series rather than individual photos. When you put together a series, is it because you stopped to notice a pattern in certain photos that you're taking? Or do you set out with a series in mind and then target photos along that theme?

MP: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I get sent to a place with a cultural commission, which is when a gallery or institution will ask me to come and take pictures in a particular country or a particular town or something like that.

Or, for example, I did a book on selfies. I've always been interested in photographing people doing selfies. And then when you realize you've got a few, you work out how to get more.

As you build up your archive, and its keyworded, you have this opportunity to make bodies of work from what you shoot. 

Do you have any advice for photographers who are considering taking part in the competition?

MP: Well, obviously, they've got to have a picture that stands out and doesn't look like one of the other boring ones. If you find the right stuff, and you get involved in that subject, and you find a way to show that subject through your smartphone, then that's when good work is likely to happen. If you go out and say, I'm just gonna go outside now and take a really good picture, then we’ll go into the competition and win a prize, you're probably not going to win anything!

You’ve got to remember that good photography comes from a passion and obsession, and you've got to find the right subject matter, one that you can connect to. And then if you make that connection,  good photography will often follow. My advice is to go out and find something that you feel strongly about. That's the skill, and that's the root of good photography.

You can find out more about the 2021 Vision+ Mobile Photo Awards here. 

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