Martin Parr’s Playas
It amused me to hear that Martin Parr had published a book called Playas, given that he is such an accomplished one himself. A player, that is, straddling le monde photographique with great aplomb and near universal approval, curating exhibitions from Derby to Arles. In some countries martinparr is now a synonym for ubiquitous. This quirky publication has been produced to look like a cheap photo album of holiday snaps from the many and varied beaches – playas – of South America, and I’m half charmed and half puzzled by its purpose.
In some ways the work is a continuation of Parr’s infamous New Brighton series. He is once more looking at flesh on show in the sun (though browner flesh), still snatching moments of intimacy but this time he’s doing it with ‘bad’ photographs (that look like pictures your mum took in the 70s). It suits the subject, which we might call vernacular, (but the term makes me uncomfortable; isn’t vernacular photography ordinary photographs taken by ordinary people that has been in some way sanctified by the cognoscenti?). Parr has snatched moments of beach behaviour exquisitely - the tentative, awkward kiss in Valparaiso, the perfect red nails on the girl from Ipanema, the man and the alabaster mermaid at the water’s edge in Cosquin – and in so doing he walks the line between mockery and observation. Playas is fascinating because the thought of being crammed into a baking hot space, slathered in oil is more appropriate for pilchards than people. The work is compelling in the same way the cake recipes are for a woman on Montevideo beach, or the soft porn for the man lounging on Punta Del Este, whose partner gently fondles his hand as he indulges.
If photo collectors among us happened upon a (genuine) album like this in a thrift store or car boot sale, we’d spend time with it, maybe even buy it if it was cheap enough, as a document to a beach culture we recognise or find anthropologically fascinating. Such a document would never quite exist in this form, as it lacks the family narrative which would be the impetus behind making it into an album as a preserver of memories. We know that Parr himself is an uber-collector. Has his hobby affected his publishing decisions? Has he made this obscure little number in order that it become a collectors’ item?
I suspect he has. And while – if I am right – this shouldn’t affect a discussion of the photographs, it raises a question in terms of audience. If it is aimed at photography book collectors (it is a limited edition only available in selected bookshops), it is immediately removed from the sphere of the majority of its subjects, who, according to the press release that accompanies the book, are held in affection by Parr. Is his true intent all for their delight? Does it matter?
In a sense Parr’s aforementioned ubiquity and, dare I say it, fame, is the thing that tips the balance in how this book is perceived. It has the feel of an in-joke, the only exception to that being Susie Parr’s engaged and engaging textual accompaniment. Martin Parr sure has eyes (to borrow from Kerouac’s compliment to Frank), but these days, they are perhaps most successfully employed when focused in a curatorial direction.
Playas by Martin Parr
Available in the Foto8 shop