Thinking of England

Photography - Julian Stallabrass on a vulgar life of greasy breakfasts and fox-hunting

Henri Cartier-Bresson has remarked that he liked taking photographs in England because its people played out their social roles with emphasis, as if they were actors on stage. There are many characteristics of Martin Parr's photography that distinguish it from Cartier-Bresson's - vulgar saturated colour versus refined monochrome, the snatching of a typical (even dull) moment from time versus the revelatory decisive moment - yet the English still perform stalwartly before the lens, rarely departing from type.

Parr's work has appeared to keep pace with the large social changes that have transformed England since the early 1980s. At the time of Thatcher's uneven, regional recession, he was photographing the impoverished and demoralised working class, behaving badly or carelessly at a northern seaside resort. While the documentary convention was to make grainy, black-and-white photographs of begrimed but dignified workers against factories or in dilapidated homes, Parr viewed them coldly at high resolution, not labouring but at leisure, and in an environment they appeared to have despoiled themselves. As the middle class grew and blurred, Parr took his tart, anthropological lens to its activities in superstores and social functions, to the decoration of its living rooms and behaviour in cars.

The subdued colours traditionally associated with rural England were buried in a gaudy procession of show homes, interior furnishings and the display of all manner of commodities. As the political establishment decided it would be a good idea to forget about social stratification, he produced Think of England, a book in which the classes merge in displays of colourful vulgarity and social stereotyping. Yet all this work has been united by a fascination with prejudicial cliche: it imparts a vision of a mostly white (or, on the beach, pink) Middle England in which objects and people conspire to confirm received ideas - where breakfasts are always greasy, the upper class (or those who dress as such) haughtily quaff champagne and chase foxes, while the lower orders flaunt their invariably broiled and hairy backs, their heavy gold jewellery and cemented make-up.

In the Barbican exhibition, various spaces are mocked up as living rooms, not the sort in which you find prints by Martin Parr (though they hang there) but the sort that he would photograph. Perhaps, this device suggests, the cliche of the pictures has become so insistent and absurd that it undermines itself. Perhaps the forms of class differentiation have become mere ghosts of their former selves with the falling away of specifically bourgeois mores and values, under the assault of the uncaged market. There is also the feeling that, as England redefines itself against European integration and constitutionally sanctioned Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalisms, it coalesces haplessly around the most cliched and degraded symbols of its identity, as flimsy and illusory as those artificial rooms.

That the people and objects in these photographs seem to exist on equal terms, in a parade of overfamiliar appearances, has led some critics to condemn Parr's view of his subjects. When interviewed, Parr claims that his acidity is tempered with affection. There are characteristics of photographs that imply a relation between the photographer and the photographed: do they seem aware of the camera, and if so how do they react, how close is the photographer to the subject, and what lens has been used? In much of Parr's recent work, the people seem completely unaware of being photographed, being picked out from a distance by a long lens. The fragments that Parr frames are smaller, no longer assemblages of people but portions of them (mouths, breasts, bellies, necks) and their leavings - a register of how marketers divide consumers into sub-personal drives, each of which can be appealed to in a different way. The subjects seem to subsist without reflection or remembrance in the narrow time of the consumer.

The difficulty of knowing whether Parr's photographs confirm or undermine stereotypes is part of a wider difficulty with the reading of photographs, especially when unsupported by text or context. Social stereotype in Parr is often matched with photographic cliche, such as the extreme close-up; the flashlit figures in sunshine standing out with unreal clarity from the background as if in a fashion shoot; the garish colour of the advert; the quasi-surreal focus on the lively commodity and the dead soul.

In the 1940s, the communications theorist Claude Shannon argued that any thoroughly predictable message must be devoid of information. Parr provides an image of the world that is novel only because it appears to more than conform to conservative imaginings of how bad things have become. Yet there are multitudes of actions, major and minor, that Parr's lens cannot encompass, whether it be some gesture of working-class solidarity at the seaside or the wrecking of a McDonald's. Parr's photographs, and their success in galleries and newspapers, do finally convey information, but less about their ostensible subjects than their implied viewers.

"Martin Parr: photographic works 1971-2000" is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020 7588 1166), until 14 April