The following observations are made after going through Martin Parr’s book “The Non-Conformists” (1), containing some of his early work black and white photographs. I had previously reviewed Martin Parr’s later colour work in a previous OCA course (Expressing Your Vision) and my observation from that were recorded in my learning log, the relevant entry which can be found here.
The book contains a series of photographs documenting life in Yorkshire market towns, Hebden Bridge / Calderdale and surrounding areas. The photographs cover various aspects of life in the towns, from work (there are pictures about mines, mineral water works, textile plants, and farms), to culture (including pictures about the local cinema and street parties) and religion (with an extensive coverage of church activities and congregation gatherings). The pictures feel close and there is a clear connection between the photographer and his subjects (in the Wikipedia entry for Hebden Bridge – link, it is claimed that Martin Parr lived in the town for five years, which would explain his familiarity with the place and his inhabitants). This is felt not only through his respectful treatment of the subjects (while still somehow retaining an element of spontaneity in many of the frames), but also by his identification of the subjects by name in the relevant captions (other than for crowd shots). There is a clear contrast between these photographs, which feel to a certain extent as warm and personal, and some of Parr later work such as the series “The Last Resort” and “Life is a beach” where the point of view is definitely that of an outsider and some of the images feel, to an extent, as slightly voyeuristic (see for example here and here for some examples of that).
It does help, if indeed that was the case for Martin Parr in this series, to live in the area to be able to know what to look for in terms of action and people, but it often takes an outsider to be able to spot the oddities of common life and in this series, Martin Parr (who is not originally from Yorkshire but was rather born in the South East of England) shows some of this outsiderness when he captures moments that may seem unusual to those unfamiliar with life in small towns. His picture (2) (link) of a row of men, perfectly aligned and standing side by side on a grassy slope is hard to decipher until we read from the caption that this is actually the local football ground (and the men were probably standing on what would be one of the ground’s “terraces”). We are equally puzzled by some of his photographs documenting the shooting of grouse. In “Gamekeeper, Frank Ideson, Hebden Bridge” (3) (link), the title being the only caption available in the book, we are not sure why the subject’s head is under the snow (the explanation in the Magnum website linked gives additional clues not present in the book), whereas the picture “Lord Savile (centre), Hebden Bridge” (4) (link) contains a woman in sunglasses either playing dead or sleeping, seemingly at odds with what the other two characters in the frame are doing. These pictures may add a bit of humour to the series, but they also make the more serious point that life is not always what we expect and that others may choose to live it differently.
Parr makes a lot of emphasis on the religious aspect of life in these towns, and pictures covering this represent an important chunk of the book (about 40% of the total). The title of the book also derives from this (5). Pictures here are a mixture of lonely, intimate portraits of people praying and shots of congregations during services and in social functions. Parr impeccable timing and observational skills are at its best in these pictures. The juxtaposition of a painting of the Last Supper with a lady adding sugar to her tea, framed by the backs of two co-diners (6) (link), has a powerful feeling of life imitating art, whereas the image of two group of churchgoers, separated across two floors, in “Steep Lane Baptist Chapel” (7) (link), sets the tone on the seriousness and formality of some of these proceedings. But not all is taken too seriously, for church life is more than just service and sermon in these places where there is not much else to do. Parr does well in capturing these moments, ranging from the typical tea parties to the more exotic vegetables auctions, in a way that focuses less in the action and more on the arrangement of players at the precise moment to emphasize a mood. Some of these pictures, such as “Pecket Well Methodist Chapel Anniversary service” (8) (link) or “Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel” (9) (link) are not, in formal terms, much dissimilar to the images captured by Joel Meyerowitz in the early 1970s in New York City (see for instance “Gold Corner, New York City” here), where you have people looking in all sort of different directions within the frame. But while Meyerowitz’s images convey a sense of purpose and individual determination (in a way dictated by the context), Parr’s subjects seem to be united in their distraction, in as much as it captures a moment (eg the socialization that follows a religious service) that may be familiar to enough viewers to make the right connection in their minds.
(1) Parr, M. and Parr, S. (2013). The non-conformists Martin Parr. New York: Aperture.
(2) Idem, p 71
(3) Idem, p. 22
(4) Idem, p. 27
(5) The dusk jacket blurb of the book mentions that the title The Non-Conformists “…refers to the Methodists and Baptists chapels that characterize this area of Yorkshire”
(6) Idem, p. 101
(7) Idem p. 93
(8) Idem p. 159
(9) Idem p. 163