Categories: Photographers, Photography

Martin Parr

This photograph by Martin Parr was one of the first that made me stop to think and appreciate the picture. I wasn’t even that into photography at the time. I must have been about 16 or 17 when it caught my eye in the newspaper. So much so that I cut it out and placed it on my noticeboard dead centre in between giant posters of mountain bikes. A small three-inch tall black and white photo evoking calm and solitude amongst the garish saturated noise of action sports.

At that age I had no idea the photo was by Martin Parr. Not that I would have really cared if I had known. I saw the photograph on it’s own merits, free from any knowledge or understanding of photography and its practitioners. It was an aesthetically pleasing photo and I liked it. Something about the photograph had made me notice it on the kitchen table. I can’t recall precisely what it was, but the composition struck a resonance with me, deeming it worthy of being cut it out and displayed. There it stayed for years until it was lost during a redecoration, but I never forgot that image. It was indelibly marked in my conscious. I can even remember the caption under the image in the paper: Non-conformist, Hebden Bridge.

Non-Conformist, Hebden Bridge by Martin Parr.

Time went on and I discovered the wonders of photography. First it was taking photos of mountain bikes, then landscapes, then everything. That image may have been lost, but it found a new home in the recesses of my memory. I learned of Martin Parr and his work as I became more interested in photography and looked at other photographers. His work is colourful, playful, with narrative showing a humour as well as holding up a mirror to society, making you think and consider the picture and not only what it shows, but also what it represents. After university I decided to re-work my photographic style to be more considered. I decided to photograph things more square-on. While not a new idea, perhaps it was this image being recalled in my subconscious that made me think that way.

Years passed and one day around late 2016 I was browsing on the web and an image popped up in Google Image search that took my eye. The image was by Martin Parr, and being one I’d not seen before, I clicked. Inside was a gallery and down the page was the image. It was taken by Parr when he was living in Hebdon Bridge in the late 1970’s and forms part of a project entitled ‘The Non-Conformists’. A feeling of satisfaction that after nearly two decades I had put an author to my lost image came over me. Closely followed by mild annoyance that the image was by one of my favourite photographers and I really should have found out sooner.

As for the picture, I now feel that I am able to appreciate it more. The subject is a man standing on one leg, atop a small ladder, cleaning the window frame above a door. For an image that’s so calm, there is a lot going on, but it doesn’t appear overwhelming. Parr has composed this shot perfectly.

There are a couple of courses of undulating cobbled road in the foreground, leading to an uneven pavement made of hewn stone, the lines between them leading the eye further into the image. Between courses of well-laid stone stands a strong, thick doorway. The top of which gives way to the most minimalist of carved decoration.

A picture within a picture, the doorway frames the man and ladder. The well-dressed man is wearing shiny black shoes, jacket and hat. Both his gaze and the leg of the ladder lead the eye to his hand, clasping a rag, dusting or cleaning. We can glimpse inside somewhat, a white door gives some separation to the man from the darkness within.

There is strength in the image, yet also an air of frailty. The building, pavement and road are made from strong Yorkshire stone connoting a feeling of longevity. The worn doorstep is the only hint of time having passed. This longevity is echoed in the man, who is in his later years, and may also be a little worn by time. Who was he? Hebdon Bridge had a thriving textile industry, so perhaps maybe he was in the textile trade, especially giving his sartorial look. The ladder mirrors his frailty. It’s delicate wooden legs contrasting against the strong stone door frame, yet it’s strong enough to do the job required.

The picture has a timeless quality too it, the shapes of rectangles and triangles that lead the eye make the image, to my mind, compositionally perfect. We yearn to know more about the man. The seeming incongruity of him wearing a hat and jacket to clean a window offset with his joyful yet precarious pose. His blank expression while he goes about his work. Did he know Parr was photographing him? Where does the door inside the building lead? There are so many questions in this simple photograph, that I always come back to look at it and find new things each time.

As mentioned, I enjoy looking at Parr’s work. His early projects such as ‘The Non-Conformists’ show his eye for finding the playful and humorous subjects that would later go on to be his defining style, such as in ‘Home and Abroad‘, ‘Think of England’ and ‘The Last Resort’. I have a Martin Parr print from the Magnum print sale that I find myself looking at again and again. There is just something about his work that continues to draw you in, and I find it fascinating. I would even go as far as to say that Parr is one of the masters of composition, alongside such greats as Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Eggleston, Adams et al (too many to list!).

This image may have subconsciously started me on my photographic journey. It’s a beautiful image, I’m just holding out for a print of it!