Martin Parr has a reputation for capturing the eccentricities of British life in images that are playful and accessible.
From his early monochrome explorations of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, northern England, to The Last Resort, his breakthrough showcase of seaside destination New Brighton in the north-west, Parr has carved his niche as one of the most incisive commentators on society. When Hull’s Humber Street Gallery were planning their exhibition Hull, Portrait of a City, it is no surprise that Parr was at the top of their list.
The organisers of the Hull City of Culture 2017 programme commissioned Parr to document Hull, taking a closer look at the diverse communities that make up the city’s gastronomic heart. The photographer spent five days visiting independent food sellers, bar owners and supermarkets, chatting with them as they carried out their daily routine and capturing their unique character. The resulting series of rich colour photographs is shown alongside the work of fellow photographer Olivia Arthur, whose black and white prints explore the creativity among the city’s younger generations. The multifaceted exhibition asks questions about urban identity; about what defines Hull and how the city has developed and can be understood through visual culture.
We spoke with Martin Parr about the project, his experience of Hull, and the art of objectifying food.
Why Hull? What interested you about the city?
I like northern cities; I like Hull; and I like the idea of the City of Culture. It was an invitation that was very difficult to decline.
This exhibition is not the first time you have taken food as a theme in your work. What is it that draws you to this as a subject?
I like photographing food – it tells us about who we are. In fact, everyone is photographing food nowadays, but when I started I was on my own, almost. As well as the food itself, I photograph and involve the people who are creating the food, and selling the food, and the shops that house the food.
Your colour palette produces an almost Pop Art aesthetic, resulting in even the simplest food product appearing alluring, yet slightly kitsch. How do you create that style?
I come in close with the ring flash, and the macro lens. It’s a trick I’ve had up my sleeve for a good few years since I’ve been dealing with food. It objectifies the food in a very interesting way.
What do you think it is that defines Hull’s culinary culture?
It’s the same as anywhere – we’re getting some gentrification; the quality of food is better; we have the comfort food as seen in the “greasy spoon”. So you get a bigger variety now; I’m sure when I last came 20 years ago the pop-up restaurants weren’t there, which you can now enjoy.
Shopping is another recurring theme in this exhibition, and draws parallels with Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent and the artists shown in The American Supermarket exhibition in New York in the 1960s. How aware are you of other artists when making your work?
I’m aware of all of those people, of course, and they’ve all looked at shopping – and indeed I’ve looked at shopping over the years: in the 1980s, for example, when I looked at supermarkets for the first time. So this is really just continuing with some of my themes but applying them to Hull. It was a real pleasure to do. People were very friendly. We were there to celebrate the independent shop as well; I didn’t really do supermarkets on this occasion, apart from Stack It High, because I wanted to really make the independent shop – which is pretty present in Hull – a central player in the exhibition.
Money and currency appear a lot in your work. Is this something you are conscious of thematically?
That’s just an accurate reflection of how these things operate. It’s just there when you photograph it. There’s nothing intellectual here; it’s entirely a matter-of-fact, intuitive response.
Is this matter-of-fact approach one that you carry through all of your work?
Yeah, I’m the same photographer whether I’m photographing Hull or Monaco. I look for what’s interesting; I usually have an agenda that I want to fulfil, and off I go and look for it.
So generally the subjects reacted well and were happy to be involved?
A few people said no, but I would say 95% of the people we asked agreed to be photographed. And they all received a portrait, which we delivered to them, and we invited them all to the show. So it was a very community-orientated project. An unmistakable aspect of Hull’s society that comes through in your photographs is its international character.
Is this something you were conscious of when looking at this city through the lens?
That just unfolded as we went around. All cities in Britain have a big immigrant population; in fact, I would say that Hull is, on the scale, quite low down. There isn’t a particularly big Asian community, but there are a lot of Polish people. So I would say that it’s quite a white city, but nonetheless there are lots of immigrants moving in. Britain couldn’t work without the immigrant population we have.
Was there anything about Hull that surprised you during the process of making the works for this exhibition?
Not really – it was exactly as I expected. Sorry about that – it’s a boring answer, isn’t it? But I know Britain very well, so I know what to expect. I’m very well travelled around Britain. What was it you were expecting? Well, exactly what we got, which is a slightly economically run-down city enlivened by the city of culture. And friendly people – it’s the north of England, Yorkshire, so they were friendly.