Monday, April 16, 2012

Martin Parr Looks at the American South

The folks at the  High Museum of Art in Atlanta have commissioned British photographer Martin Parr to make a portfolio of work in the American South as part of their ongoing series of commissions to bring distinguished contemporary photographers to the South to make work for the High's photography collections.

One can see the kind of work Parr is doing thanks to CNN, which has posted a portfolio of Parr's work in Atlanta, called Up and Down Peachtree, viewable here. 

The premises of this kind of undertaking are very complicated, I think. One runs the risk of getting work that is in the style of the distinguished photographer, for which the subject matter is mostly the occasion to make a piece of work in that particular style.

In other words, the Southern setting -- which is important to us because its home -- is here yet another occasion -- more or less indifferent to the photographer -- for the performance of a style of seeing, a completion of an assignment, a delivery of a product.

If you go to Martin Parr's website, you will see that he does this sort of thing a lot.

He's good at it. And you might want to look at his images made on other assignments and ask yourself if he sets out with a shot list of certain compositions that he is looking for -- images to check off -- that help him perform his style and also let him know when he is done with this assignment and can move on to the next.

There might be, for example, the image of people holding leaves, that one can make in Port Eliot, in Cornwall, and also on Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

Parr actually thinks about this -- you can see his discussion of photographic cliches on his blog, here

One might like to think that the place of working has consequences for the photographer doing the work, and that that aspect of a photographic project might be important to the quality of the outcome of the project.

In other words, the best work in this vein might be a product of an interaction between place, photographer, and performance of the craft, so that there would be tangible consequences visible in the work of the place of its creation, consequences deeper than the play of light over surface of the objects that are photographed.

As a working hypothesis, one might argue that the best work of this kind is made when the photographer is changed in the process of working in a place, and that change is visible in some way in the work itself.

Do we see any of that in Parr's work? Or did he drop out of the sky onto Peachtree Street, do his Parr-thing for a while, and then head off to the next assignment? 

There is also the question of why the High invests money in this kind of project. Is it for the insights the work may bring to our understanding of the American South, or is it about the creation of a certain kind of opportunity to create a show with big names and local interest?

Your thoughts are welcomed.


  1. Well John, I think you are being mighty gentlemanly [in the southern tradition] about the whole thing here. When I saw the short version of this post in my Google Reader, the hairs on the back of my neck started rising, not that I have many of them anymore. So, I was glad to read all your thoughts on this.
    I must say that I am not impressed with the High Museum's approach to southern photography with projects such as this.
    I think there is enough of a problem with visual southern iconography and stereotypical images being produced that significant cultural institutions such as the High do not need to artificially overload us with imports.
    I am confident that I am open minded and not being too parochial if I find fault with this approach. Unfortunately I am not familiar enough with the High's programs to know if they balance this kind of thing with a more regional approach to southern photography.

  2. I do not know the full range of the High's activities, either, so cannot address the matter of balance. I do know the program under which Parr was hired has included Southerners in the past (well, it was Sally Mann one year and Emmet Gowin another), but lately has focused on non-Southerners, including Dawoud Bey, Richard Misrach, Alex Webb, and Alec Soth. This year's shooters are Martin Parr, Kael Alford and Shane Lavalette. Their 3-person show―76 prints in all―will be featured in the upcoming “Picturing the South” exhibition, which will be on view from June 9 to September 2, 2012.

  3. I like your comment here: "As a working hypothesis, one might argue that the best work of this kind is made when the photographer is changed in the process of working in a place, and that change is visible in some way in the work itself."

    Very true!! I am interested to see this work Parr did, not because I'm a fan of Parr really, but because I'm curious to see if he indeed did just drop in, photograph his assignment and then leave.

    If you want another take on the South, and IMHO a real one, take a look at "Down and Out in the South" by Jan Banning.

    I assisted him in this project and I can say we definitely walked away changed... and I think the participants did too.

  4. Jennifer, I find doing portrait work one of the most intense and anxiety producing forms of photography; nevertheless I love it. So, I imagine Jan's project was not emotionally painless for either him nor you. Having read Jan statement and looked at the work, I understand and go along with his reasoning, at the same time I must say that I have real problems with photographers doing this kind of work which in the end, it seems to me, only benefit the photographer. Probably not financially so much as professionally.
    While I am extremely hesitant to suggest to photographers what they should and should not photograph, I finally got to the point where I told my students not to photograph homeless people.That's my take on this.

  5. I agree with much of what Christian has said here. (And, yes, you are a true Southern gentleman, John!)

    I'll just be upfront and state that I've always had an issue with non-Southerners swooping in to photograph the South. There. I've said it. To my mind-- the images nearly always translate as stereotypical and look a bit like performance art to me. (Actually, a lot of contemporary photography looks like static performance art to me).

    It's as though the stereotype the photographer has in his head is what he searches for, and then carefully orchestrates things to match his own skewed vision. I almost never feel that these non-Southerners offer anything new or the least bit thoughtful; I also feel there's a certain coldness to the images, as though these photographers don't really want to learn anything new and are definitely keeping their distance.

    Maybe this (the photographer's) approach is deliberate-- but I find the whole exercise offensive. Yes-- harsh and judgmental, I know, but that's how I feel.

    Thanks again, John, for alerting us to what's happening out there and for your always cogent and thoughtful reviews.


  6. Hey I'm a Southerner! :-) I understand what Christian and Diana have said, however I encourage 'y'all' to read the statement by Mr. Banning and try to come at it from another perspective. Because I too, have issues with non-members of any social group doing something such as research or photography in a group where they are not a part of... much like the non-Southerner photographing Southern images.

    Jan was actually greatly persuaded to do a project focusing on South Carolina while he was here in SC in 2010. He was talked into photographing homeless by the folks at 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, SC... most of them are Southerners! The idea which has not happened yet (in Columbia) but is becoming a reality in Taiwan (yes the country Taiwan and in Atlanta in the fall of this year) is that images would be blown up huge and displayed publicly (on Main Street in downtown Columbia SC) to foster dialog and inspire change in the our local population and the local businesses attitudes and perceptions of homeless men and women. Some of our Main Street businesses in Columbia, SC "blame" our homeless population for Main Street's economic decline over the last few decades. Homeless men and women are not the cause of a bad outcome for Main Street, Columbia, SC. All Main Streets took a hit with the advent of suburbia: malls and big box stores taking the city center away from Main Street and outside the cities where the population was moving to.

    So to help change these perceptions, Jan wanted to avoid strotypes and cliches and therefore set up a "portrait" studio and photographed men and women with their permission after talking to them, and after being introduced by one of the homeless case workers. He photographed them just as he would photograph anyone, whether homeless or not. Jan intentionally avoided the cliche black and white sentimental, tug at heartstrings photography we see over and over for the very reasons that Diana and Christian have mentioned to avoid being stereotypical, portraying homeless men and women as all of the negative things some people associate with homelessness.

    I'm a cultural anthropologist as well as a photographer and IMHO, this type of photography has to be beneficial to the participants, NOT to us as photographers. I truly encourage everyone to not judge a book by its cover just like many people judge homelessness! Come out to Georgia State in the Fall of 2012 across from Woodruff Park in Atlanta, GA, to see these images in a moving, large window display. @John Wall I am going to respond to your email asap!! Thanks for this discussion and sorry to take the topic in another direction from Martin Parr, but I think its a worthwhile discussion on both sides.(Apologies in advance for any typos!)

  7. Hi Jennifer, I am truly pleased to see this kind of discussion going on here! So much better than the 'nice capture' stuff one too often now sees. I really don't believe there is only one true answer or one true position on this topic or most other topics that deal with thoughtful photography/art. I think all of us can agree on that.
    I stated my initial reaction to the High's position concerning Martin Parr and to Jan's work. My opinion is not a rant, and not 'cast in stone' – however, it is a true reflection of how I feel about the photos and the issues knowing what I know when I look at the work.

  8. Jennifer, I really like Jan's work. I think work like this is very important in reminding us of our common humanity, a lesson we seem constantly and easily to forget. Has Jan published or exhibited this work?