Martin Parr’s Best Photo Books of the Decade

Posted July 20, 2011 in Arts & Culture Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

If there’s a man who knows a thing or two about scuzzy seaside resorts it’s Martin Parr. His omniscient lens rose to fame (or perhaps infamy) back in the eighties, when he papped sunburned visitors to the New Brighton beach resort in Merseyside for his collection ‘The Last Resort’ – controversially capturing them in all their chip-gorging and inebriated glory. Since then he has not only gained recognition as one of the world’s leading documentary photographers, he’s also become somewhat a collector. Alongside such random kitsch as Margaret Thatcher memorabilia, Osama Bin Laden toilet roll and Obama trainers, Parr has amassed an enviable library of photographic books, which he has sourced from far flung corners of the globe. In one of the stand-out exhibitions from this year’s PhotoIreland Festival, Parr will be presenting his ten best photography books from the past decade at the National Photographic Archive.

So your exhibition for PhotoIreland this year is about photo books – something you’re an avid collector of. What it is about the book specifically as photographic medium that you’re so passionate about?

Well the good thing about the book is that it’s been the learning curve for generations of photographers: it inspires the world of photography… And the thing is as well, the book works so well as a vehicle for photography – you can travel with books, and though we’re in the days of the Internet, it’s still enjoying a little renaissance. People are starting to understand how important the photographic book is to the history of living culture. This exhibition is very much a part of that revival – of understanding the book, and seeing how it can work. We’re showing the very best examples of the past ten years – of how photography has changed via books.

Do you think the Internet has made the photography book stronger in a way?

In a sense, yes – it’s been a coincidence that this last decade has also coincided with a revival of interest in the book – there have been many books about photographic books published. And it’s because of the internet that we can have print-on-demand books, so that any photographer can get their book published, even if they just publish it literally for themselves and for their friends. The whole renaissance of photography continues – there’s now more photographers round the world than ever before – and the internet has just helped that grow, rather than slow it down.

As well as the emergence of self-publishing sites like Blurb making the photo book much more accessible to photographers, the internet must also be an aid to collectors also. Do you source books for your collection online, or do you only do it the old fashioned way?

Of course – you can buy online, you can buy on Amazon, you can buy without going out of the house, which of course has been a big problem for all the bookshops, but nevertheless, it has been good for the collector… I mean, the good thing about many of the books that we’ll be showing at the festival is that they’re still in print – and in years to come, they’ll be very collectable. So it’s become a new form of collecting as well as a vehicle for ideas for photographers.

I hear you travel quite a bit though as well, is that to source books?

I do – I’ve just literally come back from Albania, so I’ve come back with a big case of Albanian propaganda books – doesn’t sound much, but you know, it’s very exciting. The best place to ever get the book is to be in the town or the country where it is actually produced. So the collecting goes on and on.

I hear you collect a lot of other things as well…like, err, Saddam Hussein watches?

I do, yeah – I’ve done exhibitions before of my collections. I collect prints, posters, anything – I think I’ve just got a collecting gene. But the thing I’m most passionate about above all is the photo book.

What compels you to do that?

I suppose it’s like an addiction, it’s almost like an illness. But it’s there, and luckily I’ve got the money to invest in this stuff… so I’m trying to build up one of the biggest collections of photo books in the country, which will eventually go to the state. So I feel there’s a purpose behind it as well as actually indulging my obsession and habit.

I find it very funny actually because so much of your work deals with excess and over-consumption – and in a way, surely, collecting is kind of the ultimate form of consumption?

Yeah – you’re absolutely right, there’s a hypocrisy here – but my photography is also a form of collecting. It’s a way of collecting what’s actually going on in the real world, putting it together, coming up with ideas and projects and trying to make sense of it all. So I see the collecting of objects very much in parallel to the collecting of my photographs as a photographer.

Seeing as though this is the At Sea issue of Totally Dublin, I thought I’d also ask you a couple of questions about the seaside. You’ve previously compared them to frays around the edges of the country. Is the sordidness and seediness that attracts you to the coast?

I like the seaside. Especially the Irish and the British seaside – they’re very compelling because people go there, they’re relaxed, and you have direct access to people – though it’s much more difficult to photograph kids nowadays. But I love the tackiness and gaudiness of the seaside. I’m like a magpie – I’m attracted to bright colours, I’m attracted to people, and this is where, on a sunny day, you’ll find them. So I love the imagery of the seaside really.

I was actually in Ireland during a heatwave once, and the photographs I took were published in a book [Ireland: The Heatwave of 2003]. In a rare heatwave in Ireland people just turn red, they’re almost like lobsters, so really it’s quite something. It was over thirty degrees, so it was quite an extraordinary event.

Have you been over to Ireland recently?

I come every year. I lived in Ireland for two years, on the west coast, which was beautiful as you can imagine… But I’ve been coming over consistently for over thirty years, and I’ll be over for the PhotoIreland Festival this year.

The theme of this year’s PhotoIreland is collaborative change. You’ve been part of the Magnum Photos co-operative for many years – how important do you feel it is for aspiring photographers to get involved with collectives and co-operatives?

Well Magnum is a co-operative, and we’re probably the largest artistic co-operative in the world. It’s been running for sixtyfour years now – most co-operatives come and go, they kind of dissipate, but we have a very strong majority rule that is a by-law. And I feel very happy being part of this ongoing collective.

Any other advice for would-be photographers?

Yeah – be more passionate, get in closer, get more involved.

Martin Parr’s Best Photo Books of the Decade will run at the National Photographic Archive from July 15th until the 31st.

Words: Rosa Abbott



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