Martin Parr ‘Signs of the Times’ Exhibition and Book

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Photographer Ashley Jouhar

Photographer Ashley Jouhar

Whether timeless or timely, Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times project tuned into the odd equilibrium of domestic life, teasing out the public expressions  of private emotions

Title

Signs of the Times exhibition and book release

Who?

Martin Parr is one of the most celebrated photographers working in Britain and indeed the world today. Prolific, not only in his photographic output but as a collector of photo books and cultural ephemera, he is also the current President of Magnum, the international photographic cooperative.  Magnum’s founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson called this co-operative “a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually” – a thumbnail sketch of Martin Parr.

What?

An exhibition and book release at The Beetles + Huxley Gallery, 3-5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE. Signs of the Times was a photographic project about the British home. In 1990, 2000 people responded to an ad for volunteers to be photographed and filmed in their homes, discussing all aspects of their personal taste. 50 households were chosen to take part.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. "To come home in the evenings to find the kids have carried out their own form of anarchy is just about the last thing I can face." 1991.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. From Signs of the Times.”To come home in the evenings to find the kids have carried out their own form of anarchy is just about the last thing I can face.” 1991.

Decisive moment?

I first saw the original book, published to coincide with the TV documentary, not long after its first release. I was looking for ‘real’ imagery for a Nescafe press campaign I was working on at McCann Erickson and had come upon a Parr image of a flask and a packet of half eaten digestives resting on luggage in the boot of a car. It struck a chord because it showed how people actually drink coffee when they’re out and about. It showed the imperfections of life rather than the high gloss adland version. My Creative Director boss was responsible for the Gold Blend ‘couple’ TV ads at that time, so wanting to go in the opposite, non-glossy direction to show coffee consumption was a struggle. Of course, nowadays, these ‘raw nerve’ or ‘human truth’ moments in ads are very desirable, as advertisers seek to connect with their audience on an emotional ‘I’m just like you’ level.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. From 'Signs of the times'. "We thought we could make it look sort of bistro-y looking in the kitchen and then carry it through to the lounge". 1991.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. From Signs of the Times. “We thought we could make it look sort of bistro-y looking in the kitchen and then carry it through to the lounge”. 1991.

Trend?

The original Nicholas Barker documentary was shot in a fresh, honest style. It was very calm to view as he used a locked off camera for long periods of time, alternating between showing the homeowners and their carefully cropped and selected homes and furnishings.

This approach was very much like the stills that Martin Parr took in the accompanying book, showing people’s personalities, flaws and imperfections.  An early version of Reality TV perhaps, encompassing shows ranging from say, Big Brother to the more recent Gogglebox.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. "I don't think it's anything particularly forced on Deborah. We've just always enjoyed the same sort of things." From 'Signs of the Times'. 1991.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. “I don’t think it’s anything particularly forced on Deborah. We’ve just always enjoyed the same sort of things.” From Signs of the Times. 1991.

Art meets Commerce?

The Nescafe campaign I had in mind needed a cracking line to work with the images and so it is with the photographs in Signs of the Times. Each picture in the exhibition has a quote from the person in whose home the image was taken. The juxtaposition of the picture and the line is a powerful insight into people’s aspirations and tastes – and not without humour! The quotes, like the headline in an ad, are essential to the power of the pictures and work very much like an ad does.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. "We keep buying things thinking 'that'll look better' and it just doesn't." From the book 'Signs Of The Times' 1991.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. “We keep buying things thinking ‘that’ll look better’ and it just doesn’t.” From the book Signs Of The Times. 1991.

One question for the image maker?

Was this collection of images the turning point that changed your approach to your image making? Prior to the Signs of the Times book, you were shooting in a more documentary style; wider shots of people and their environments. It seems to me that this was the point where you introduced more isolated close-ups of inanimate objects and details too, to add light and shade to the Martin Parr view of the world?

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. From Signs of the Times'. "We wanted a cottagey stately home kind of feel." 1991.

Copyright © Martin Parr/Magnum, courtesy Rocket Gallery. From Signs of the Times. “We wanted a cottagey stately home kind of feel.” 1991.

 

 

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About Author

Ashley Jouhar is the Creative Director of Image Source. He has worked as a senior creative in the photography industry for over 12 years, previously as Deputy Director of Photography at Getty Images. He is also a photographer in his own right, shooting lifestyle, documentary and portraiture for a wide range of clients. Before turning to photography full time, Ashley worked as a senior Art Director and Group Head at McCann Erickson, London, creating award winning advertising for Bacardi, Shredded Wheat, Black & Decker, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Birds Eye, amongst others.

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