Visitors to Munich’s Haus der Kunst might be surprised at the wide range of objects currently on display, including bland postcards of motorways, kitsch Spice Girls memorabilia, rare photographic books and prime examples of British documentary photography. They are all part of Parrworld, an exhibition celebrating the work of Martin Parr and what he calls his “strong collecting gene”. Before he shipped the highlights of his collections to Germany for the show, Parr interrupted his packing to talk about obsession, collecting and his famed library of photobooks.

Standing with Parr in one of the basement rooms of his restrained and sometimes sombre Bristol home, we are confronted by an intimidating jumble of cases and boxes – some sealed, some labelled – that bar access to the stacked shelves beyond. The contents are the fruit of his labours as a collector. Labours which are currently attracting increased attention and acclaim, to the extent that it has even been suggested that his reputation as a collector might one day eclipse his work as a photographer.

Parrrworld is set to travel to the Netherlands and France (before arriving in the UK in 2009), thereby consolidating an international reputation not just for his photography, but for collecting too. “People think of me as a very English photographer, but most of my work comes from abroad” he explains. After the interview he flew to Sweden for the opening of a retrospective; and besides the current Munich show, he has had recent exhibitions in Tokyo, Madrid and London.

 

parr-moon_medallion.jpg

Though his library of photographic books is unquestionably Parr’s greatest achievement as a collector, it has by no means been the only focus of his attentions. Evidence of rival enthusiasms is on show throughout the house: Yuri Gargarin, Sputnik and space travel memorabilia in one room; a stunning array of plates commemorating the Miners’ Strike in another. An otherwise spartan, ground floor through-room houses a glass cabinet displaying varieties of political ephemera: the famous Saddam Hussein watches, even some Saddam toilet roll (“Wipe your crack with the man from Iraq”), a Margaret Thatcher teapot, and is that a William Hague toby jug?

 

©Martin Parr

Saddam Hussein Watch  © Martin Parr  (from Parrworld)

 

“No Charles and Diana plates?” I enquire. “Ugh no, they’re far too obvious. Too common and just not interesting enough. I’m much more interested in fading dictators…and Margaret Thatcher”, he muses. “It’s noticeable that Tony Blair, despite his popularity, never seemed to provoke the same sort of political ephemera”.

Surveying it all I am reminded of a comment made by Walker Evans when asked about his own activities as a collector and photographer. They were, he replied, “almost the same thing”. Parr concurs,” It’s all about collecting sets of things, putting them together and giving them new meaning. It’s like photography: you assemble sets of photographs and give them new meaning”.

Evans went on to say that the collector, and by extension the photographer, “gets excessively conscious of a certain object and falls in love with it and then pursues it…and it’s compulsive and you can hardly stop.” To which Parr adds,” Oh I would say it’s definitely compulsive…I mean even as a child I was collecting. I’m just a natural collector. I’ve got the collecting gene”

©Martin Parr

Photographic Tray, Collection of Martin Parr ©Martin Parr (from Parrworld)

 

He opens – ambitiously, it turns out – a cupboard to reveal some of his beloved tin trays finely balanced on yet more boxes. He thinks better of it and I watch as Parr wrestles to slam shut the door.

Walking from one spacious bookshelved room to the next it is clear that Parr’s passion, or obsession, for collecting  is, above all, discerning. The framed prints on display around the house are superlative. We casually pass Robert Frank’s Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, the show-stopping opening image from The Americans. Garry Winogrand’s iconic New Mexico, 1957 is on the stairs. Chris Killip’s Watching the Parade, West-End, Newcastle, 1980 presides over the office upstairs.

 

©Chris Killip

Watching the Parade, West-End, Newcastle, 1980 © Chris Killip (from Parrworld)

 

It is, though, his reputation as a collector, historian and author of photobooks that has brought Parr most acclaim. His love affair with the genre began in the 1970’s when he bought a copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans. But it was not until the early 1990’s and his admission to Magnum that his collecting began to accelerate. “Once I joined Magnum it meant that I had more income for collecting books, a greater opportunity to travel and find books overseas, and also better contacts who could recommend more titles to me.” With co-author Gerry Badger he has compiled the authoritative two-volume The Photobook: A History, an unrivalled survey of over four hundred of the genre’s exemplary titles, the vast majority of which can be found on the shelves around him.

The field that Parr and Badger charted in The Photobook, Vols I & II was, to an extent, unexplored terrain for which they had to establish their own criteria. “For a start we had to acknowledge that not all great photographers made great photobooks”, he says. “So there were many famous photographers who we did not include. We also tended to avoid anthologies of photographs and retrospective collections in favour of more interesting examples by photographers who worked on projects”.

“And we found that a lot of books were perfectly good, perfectly adequate in themselves; but they were generic – which means that they looked like similar work done previously by someone else. So again we excluded them. We also tried to make sure that we included books from areas not usually covered in photographic histories – South America, Australia and Japan for example. The Japanese in particular produced some very exciting books in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that had been completely overlooked by historians”.

One not-necessarily-unforeseen effect of this reassessment of the photobook has been an invigorated marketplace for a now widening circle of dealers, collectors, auctioneers and photographers. At an auction at Christie’s New York earlier this year nearly $2.5m changed hands: August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit fetched $16,000; Weegee’s Naked City realised $30,000; and a set of Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books was knocked down for $100,000. The escalation in prices paid has lead to a certain amount of hand-wringing and professed dismay in some quarters. Parr, bookcases bulging, is considerably more serene: “I accept that it is something that has happened – it is undeniably one of the consequences, but it’s certainly not why I did The Photobook”.

 

Given the prevailing hothouse nature of the photobook market I start to wonder whether I ought perhaps to be wearing white cotton gloves before thumbing through of the volumes on the shelves. “Please don’t ask me what the collection’s worth, or how many books there are in it”, Parr protests, ”I’ve no way of calculating that any more”. The incoming “daily offerings”, as he calls them, include his own purchases and unsolicited work sent in by photographers and publishers. By way of a rough estimate, three years ago he guessed that he owned around 7,000 titles collectively worth “somewhere in the region of a million and a half”.

He does remember, though, the most expensive purchase to date “It was £40,000 for Hans Bellmer’s Les Jeux de la Poupee…no, it was £30,000 and its value has since gone up to about £40,000.” Not a bad return then. Bellmer’s downright spooky book of unnerving doll photos was published in Paris in 1949 in an edition of 150 and included fifteen hand–coloured photographs. It is, according to The Photobook, a “major achievement of the pornographic imagination”.

Though he is loathe to single out a jewel in the crown from the library – “Oh I can’t name a favourite; it changes from day to day”- he has in the past nominated Kikuji Kawada’s extraordinary Chizu -The Map as an example of a book that is “a beautiful, tactile object”.

Parr’s recent book of his own photographs – Parking Spaces – is further evidence of the general rise in stock of the photobook. It is available only from a select number of specialist photographic book outlets and at £65 it’s not cheap. But for your money you get one of a limited edition of 1000 copies, immaculately bound in white suedette, bearing a title embossed in gold lettering. The whole is encased in a correspondingly immaculate, white suedette box. Inside, the book is carefully wrapped in protective tissue and accompanied by a signed and numbered gilt-edged card. The presentation, deliberately reminiscent of a wedding album, is intended as an ironic comment on the desirability and preciousness of parking paces in a car-choked world. But at another level the bravura and panache of its execution is testimony to the elevated prestige and cachet of the photobook as a genre.

Bearing in mind that he has only been collecting books in earnest for a comparatively short period – since the early 1990’s – it is indicative of his commitment and focus that all, bar one, of the titles in Volume II of The Photobook (covering the 1970’s onwards) came from Parr’s own collection. However, a hazard of such intense accumulation appears to be a certain difficulty keeping track of purchases: “Yes I do sometimes buy something, only to realise that I already own it. But,” he brightens, logic surely askew, “I suppose that confirms it really was worth buying in the first place”.

By now Parr has led me into a fourth room shelved floor-to-ceiling with books, and there are more, he says, in his London office. I enquire, dubiously, whether he can find a title at will. Incredibly, he maintains he is “pretty sure” where everything is. By way of a demonstration he promises to unearth Peter Mitchell’s rather obscure collection of 1970’s colour documentary photography, Memento Mori, and his own study of a down-at-heel seaside town, West Bay. And – fair play to him – he succeeds…eventually. The Mitchell is produced fairly rapidly once he establishes which side of the room to search; but his own title proves somewhat elusive at first because it is not on the “Parr shelf”. “I’m looking for a deluxe edition so it will be in a different section”, he explains.

 

©John Hinde

 

Given Parr’s energy and interests, a certain inevitability attaches to the publication of two new compendiums of his collections – Postcards and Objects. The former is a comprehesive historical survey of almost one hundred years in the development of the picture postcard from the end of the nineteenth century  – an account that encompasses the adoption of early techniques of photomontage; the use of postcards to record militarization and heroism during wartime; the popularity of the posed studio portrait; and the more familiar, touristic incarnation – the holiday postcard (exemplified by the colour work of John Hinde). Whilst the book is an invaluable source of information about its subject it also revelas something of its author and his fascination with the mundanities and trivialities of the photographic vernacular.

 

Objects meanwhile bears witness to Parr’s apparently insatiable appetite for photography in its applied forms – mugs, vases, plates, crisp packets and even the mud flap of a truck all merit inclusion because they bear the image of a world leader, an international terrorist, or -somewhat bathetically – a Spice Girl. Though the initial impression might be of random and unchecked accumulation, there is a method in his madness: in the book’s introduction Parr writes:

“You may wonder what exactly it is that fuses all these items together…It all seems very obvious and logical to me. These are the items that are left behind after momentous and not-so momentous events…They are shadows of human foible.”

 

© Guy Lane, 2008

 

An earlier draft of this interview first published in Art World magazine

 

Parrworld is at Haus der Kunst, Munich until August 17, 2008.

Postcards by Martin Parr (publ Chris Boot) £29.95

Objects by Martin Parr (publ Chris Boot) £19.95
Parking Spaces by Martin Parr (publ Chris Boot) £65.00