parrinterview_280Martin Parr is on ebullient form. As he conducted a guided tour last Thursday of the shows he has curated for this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial, he paused to enthuse about the sheer volume of compelling new photography he has found. “There’s been plenty – I’m overwhelmed. But what I wanted to do is make sure it’s very fresh, in order that people see something new. So we’ve commissioned work by better-known, mid-career people; but also we’re showing pictures from parts of the world which haven’t featured in exhibitions before.”

For the next six weeks many of the city’s prime exhibition spaces will be given over to the UK’s largest festival of photography; while over 100 attendant fringe exhibitions occupy further venues across the south-east from Hastings to Chichester.

But it is the five, often ambitious, group exhibitions curated by Parr that form the Biennial’s centrepiece. As might be expected from the photographer whose subjects have ranged from downpours in Yorkshire to beach life in Brazil – via Sputnik memorabilia and home furnishings – his tastes remain engagingly diverse. Amongst this weekend’s openings, for example, are shows focusing on street life in Colombia, African dictators’ private jets, GI’s back from Iraq, South American slaughterhouses, and Cape Town clubbers.

© Nick Gleis

Nearer to home, several bodies of work were commissioned to explore Brighton itself. As the result of an apparent dearth of local talent, acclaimed American photographers Molly Landreth and Zoe Strauss were hired to visit the city during this year’s Pride week. Parr explained,” The gay community in Brighton is very famous, but to our knowledge no one had really done any substantial work about it, so this was the ideal opportunity to address that. We had to commission two photographers; and we had to make sure that we didn’t employ two straight ones. So we then went on this global search to try and find lesbian and gay candidates, because  – though we found many who were wearing their gayness on their sleeves – they weren’t very good photographers.”

© Zoe Strauss, Vanessa

© Molly Landreth, Ronni and Jo, Seattle, WA. 2005 “Brighton Picture Hunt”, 2010.
Photoworks Commission

Elsewhere, ‘Three Views of Brighton’ features locally shot work by established Parr favourites – Stephen Gill, Rinko Kawauchi and Alec Soth. The latter fell foul of Heathrow immigration officials and was forbidden to work, a ruling Soth outflanked by recruiting his young daughter to take the pictures. “I think its a delightful solution, a unique collaboration,” laughs Parr. “That’s why the room is pink, by the way. She loves pink.”

© Carmen & Alec Soth, Untitled. From the series “Brighton Picture Hunt”, 2010.
Photoworks Commission

Gill has furthered his idiosyncratic exploration of the effects of montage by scooping up bits of beachfront waste and dropping them inside the camera body. Each picture combines a photogram of the object superimposed on the landscape beyond. And Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi has produced a body of work – ‘Murmuration’ – inspired by the thousands of starlings that flock in formation around the beach and West Pier during winter sunsets. Her pictures are paired with decidedly less spectacular scenes of Brighton shoppers. “It’s a two pronged show,” says Parr, “Rinko was fascinated by murmuration, the movement of the starlings; then she returned in spring to do the murmuration of people.”

© Stephen Gill, Untitled. Extract from “Outside In”, 2010
In association with the Archive of Modern Conflict

© Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled. From the series “Murmuration”, 2010.
Courtesy of Rinko Kawauchi and FOIL GALLERY, Tokyo. Photoworks Commission

Yet despite the variety and unpredictability of the projects on display, identifiable Parr-ish tendencies emerge. In the ‘House of Vernacular’  for instance, he indulges a long-held fascination with the conventions and peculiarities of such onetime ‘low’ forms of photography as anonymous, commercial and amateur practice.

“The big shift in the last 10 years”, he begins, “is that people take vernacular photography a lot more seriously – that has been quite a revelation. Slowly but surely curators have drawn it into the mainstream. It’s a bit like the difference between colour photography and black and white: 30 years ago it was a big issue whether you exhibited colour; now, people don’t even think about it.”

“But what is good about this particular exhibition is that it is a celebration of vernacular photography because the pictures are so brilliant. They are often much better than authored photographs – they have an innocence and a directness.”

Photo Paintings from North East Brazil
© Collection Titus Riedl. Courtesy of Nazraeli Press

Perhaps the most obscure of the anonymous collections on display is that of traditional hand-coloured photo-paintings from north eastern Brazil. “It’s not often you get something as amazing as this – I was completely taken aback,” Parr confessed. In fact, he was so impressed that he tracked down one of the trade’s last practitioners and posed for his own retrato pintado. It is of course still him, but now he looks younger, unblemished, more colourful and endowed with something of a sheen. In its own way the portrait upholds one of his closing comments, as our tour nears its conclusion – “You transform the world when you photograph it – even though it’s all based in reality. That’s the magic isn’t it?”
Guy Lane


Brighton Photo Biennial 2010
New Documents – curated by Martin Parr
02/10/2010 – 14/11/2010