Would you invite Martin Parr to photograph your wedding? No, nor would I. So why invite him to photograph your city?
Manchester Art Gallery’s reasoning seems to have been that he has done several photoseries on Manchester since his days as a student at the city’s polytechnic and it was about time for another. That’s doubtless interesting for Mancunians – but is it interesting for anyone else? Perhaps to forestall that question there are copies of appreciative press reviews at the door of the exhibition. He’s a controversial photographer so it’s almost as if the gallery were trying to get its retaliation in first. And it’s true, there is plenty of interest here – though perhaps not always in the way that the gallery intended.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically from Parr’s early black and white mounted and framed prints through to apparently randomly assorted sizes of 1980s colour film prints up to about 4 feet by 5 feet (judged by eye). All of these are in one room and then the next space has the 2018 digital prints again from the very large to smaller than A4, unframed unmounted and pinned to the wall. There are about 450 in all – so a minute’s study of each would have you in there for nearly 8 hours.
In concept then the exhibition is definitely a game of two halves as the photographs above and below show. The work from the 20th century is social documentary. There is a series on Yates’ Wine Lodges, on The Osmonds fans, a very humane one on Prestwich Mental Hospital, one about a street about to be demolished, and a bit of an iffy one on the weather. All those are black and white and are all good examples of Parr’s ability to choose an apparently mundane subject and get under its skin. In the 1980s he turned to colour and you can see his signature style emerging in a series he was commissioned to do about retail activities in Salford, Point Of Sale. Some see that style as wry, witty and observant and others see it as mocking, class-based and voyeuristic. But so far, so interesting.
When we move into the rooms dedicated to the Manchester 2018 part of the exhibition things change. The photographer roved endlessly over Greater Manchester this summer, taking thousands of photographs in about 20 days. In the face of this deluge the curators seem – understandably - to have struggled. There are around 300 images chosen for display and some 240 of those are in a giant grid on two walls. It is difficult to get a good view of many of these because they are so high up or low down. It is almost as though the decision was taken simply to impress with the sheer quantity of imagery rather than its quality.
The result is photographic only in the technical sense: it’s more a digital carpet bombing of the city; or perhaps a replaying of the Borges short story On Exactitude In Science where cartographers made a map the same size as the territory itself depicted. After all, if my maths is right, the full 10,000 images printed at A3 would cover about 1.25 square kilometres – which is a sizeable part of central Manchester.
In contrast, I recently went to a retrospective exhibition of quite a well-known press photographer. He had worked for 50 years and that lifetime of images had been edited down to 97 photographs. Here we have 300 from just a few weeks. That is doubtless interesting for Mancunians wanting to spot faces and places but, unlike the older images, it does not really qualify as social documentary. A documentarian uses distillation to produce a rounded picture of their subject. In the age of digital reproduction that judicious process gives way to a stream of images in danger of bursting its banks.
More striking, perhaps, is what does not appear. Modern Manchester, on the evidence of this exhibition, functions without any public services. I looked hard but failed to find any images of: the NHS, ambulance crews, police, fire and rescue, refuse collection or disposal, public transport, classrooms, libraries or museums. Maybe they were left on the cutting-room floor; maybe they were never taken. Either way, it’s important. We all know the daily reality now – but in 50 years’ time these photos will be historical evidence.
All of these snapshots show a city that may have changed on the surface but remains much the same underneath. There are yoga sessions and sporting events, textile workshops and barbers’ shops, street parties and Irish festivals. Either you take to the snapshot style or you don’t. It’s not really an art which hides an art and so perhaps it is better seen as anthropology with a camera, a kind of one-man Mass Observation for the 21st century.
A more authentically modern exercise have might have been to ask Mancunians to take their own photos and then to have displayed those. Would that not have reflected more accurately the true developments in photography over the last twenty years or so? The results would surely have reproduced Martin Parr’s off-the-cuff style well, after all, and virtually any photograph will have an impact if it is blown up to double or treble poster size and pinned to a gallery wall. Why not let the people speak on the walls of their own city’s gallery?
In the round, the exhibition seems to be part of the repackaging of Manchester. Out with the black and white Yates’ Wine Lodges and mullets and in with Graphene and Salford Quays. In that sense, the photographs are part of the very process that they purport to portray. Ostensibly, they show a city confident enough to turn a famously candid photographer’s camera on itself and no holds barred. Yet the result is oddly fudged – not affectionate but not acid either- maybe because the sharp edge that Parr has displayed elsewhere would not have worked here.
A day or two after I visited the exhibition a nagging connection surfaced more clearly in my brain and I realised that these images put me in mind of Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards: more cartoon, then, than portrait.
(Martin Parr: Return To Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery until 22 April.
All images © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery)