The British photographer Martin Parr is a self-confessed ‘nosy person’, a quality that has, over the last forty years, led to some of the most candid and inquisitive portraits of human interactions within contemporary photography. ‘The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories’, an exhibition of works old and new by Parr, has just opened at the Hepworth Wakefield. Taking as its starting point the nearby countryside between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, which is famous for producing early-forced rhubarb, this commission forms the nexus out of which a retrospective gesture emerges throughout the galleries.
From Parr’s early series ‘The Non-Conformists’ to the seminal images of the Liverpool suburb of New Brighton struggling to keep its Riviera aspirations alive, the exhibition swiftly shifts through four decades of labour and leisure. Parr’s images are both playful and generous; his ostensible cynicism is belied by at times quiet, and other times glaring, sets of observations. What is consistent, however, is the diplomacy with which Parr chooses his subjects; he may select, frame, and expose, however this exhibition demonstrates the sheer breadth of his subject matter.
This focus on the meta-narratives of labour, class, leisure and pleasure evidence the lasting ubiquity of such categories. In ‘Steep Lane Baptist Chapel Lunch’ (1977) a woman adds sugar to her tea whilst a reproduction of the Last Supper sits above her head. In ‘Sugden’s Flour Mill’ (1979) a series of industrial pipes spread across the composition, whilst in ‘Strawberry Tea’ (1988) parents and their children circle around prepared strawberries and foliage. The directness with which Parr captures such subjects draws attention to the individuals behind each image. Their fixity within a particular socio-political moment allows for a set of connecting behaviours, rituals and engagements to emerge, which transcend this time-space specificity. Many of Parr’s subjects will have now grown old, some will have died, and the majority will have changed. However in spite of this transience it is the image that speaks, even if it may be a lie.
Parr has said that fundamentally his photography explores ‘the difference between the mythology of the place and its reality’. The boundary between fiction and reality, however, is often not such an easy distinction, something that is embedded within the exhibition’s final installation. Displayed on the back wall is Parr’s series, ‘Common Sense’: a portfolio of 350 colour laser copies of photographs taken between 1995 and 1999. Like a series of miniature screens these fleeting images capture global consumerism at its most rampant: rows of lollipops, fried breakfasts, the mouth of a blow-up sex doll; Parr’s images anticipate a ‘selfie’ culture gone awry. Cleverly partnered within the installation is a screen-screen encounter between the wall of images and a domestic set-up – sofa and television – displaying a candid-camera-style film by Parr. The overwhelming sense is that the world is both watching but also participating. We are now ‘prosumers’ – simultaneously creating and consuming in relentless moments of ‘presentness’. This final room also illustrates Parr’s own expansion from middle England to the global image stream; it is no longer just a British affair.