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
Signs of the Times exhibition and book release
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?