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Suited and booted: Martin Parr’s chronicles of the Great White Male

Martin Parr’s vision is simultaneously a celebration of the nuances of tribal behaviour and a gimlet-eyed stab at pretension and earnestness.

When I first encountered Martin Parr’s work in the 1980s I felt I had found an artist who articulated something about being British that I had never seen before, at once affectionate and teasing. I adored his cheeky records of dying working-class communities and scabrous portrayals of Thatcherite consumers. His way of looking at the world is now part of my way of looking at the world. He has achieved that Holy Grail of photography, a visual voice so distinctive that it has become an archetype. Parr-esque is now a burgeoning genre. His vision is simultaneously a celebration of the nuances of tribal behaviour and a gimlet-eyed stab at pretension and earnestness. He is an ideal chronicler of the Great White Male partly because he is one. He understands every detail of the code. He can turn the most nondescript character into a rich grotesque. He makes us laugh at the rich and powerful quaffing champagne and feel empathy with the underdog alone in his staffroom. No one can hide from the lens of Martin Parr – especially not Default Man. 

By Grayson Perry

 

Shrewsbury School, Shropshire (2010)
Martin Parr writes: Recently, I’ve been shooting in schools: the pupils’ noise can be briefly escaped from in the staffroom.
 
Karen Country Club, Nairobi (2010)
The British left Kenya more than 50 years ago, but pockets of colonial life are still to be found because, unlike in Zimbabwe, the whites have been allowed to stay and flourish. The Karen club in the capital is a good example of this colonial hangover.
 
Henley, Oxfordshire (2013)
The sanctuary of the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta. This is probably the most genuine part of “the season”, as it hasn’t been taken over by the marketing people. It really is like stepping back to the 1950s – and the bonus for me is that rowing blazers are very photogenic.
 
Cambridge United FC (2005)
This rather lowly football club, in League Two, is more accessible than the Premier League, where photographers are virtually banned.
 
Polo at Sandbanks, Dorset (2013) 
The British have great skill in attending sporting fixtures and not actually seeing the game or match in question.
 
George Osborne, London (2007)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer before he made the top job. This photo shoot for GQ magazine was highly orchestrated – but the PR person did not spot me shooting the last-minute tie preparations.
 
Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh (2011)
Some visitors to this summer fixture in the Scottish capital are, by nature, posh. Here, the crowd watches a parade. In the cattle pens, the atmosphere and personnel are very different: farmers from across Scotland come to this national event.
 
Art Basel, Miami Beach (2008)
This annual Florida art fair, which launched in 2002, is always a terrific place to take photos. There are never-ending possibilities for combining audience and art. Habitués of the art world are always entertaining.
 
Butler School (2001)
In deepest suburban London, a school grooms young men to become butlers. On this educational trip, they venture to Dunhill in the West End to learn the finer details of what makes a good smoke.
 
Salaryman, Tokyo (2000)
Japan’s salarymen are well known for being hard workers and enthusiastic drinkers and socialisers. Here, one takes a well-earned nap in the spring sunshine of the city. The Japanese are skilled at falling asleep anywhere and programming their waking to resume duties.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses