Martin Parr is a delightful photographer. His bright, sweet shop sense of colour oozes fun, humour, eccentricity and a sense of optimism in being Only Human, the name of this solo exhibition of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. The show is grouped into themes, from capturing members of hobby clubs and communities of association, the joy of dancing, celebrities, sun sea ‘n’ sand holidays, portraiture to the final section of the exhibition Britain in the time of Brexit.
The pleasure in Parr’s work is that he captures a lived diversity, ordinary people who are connected through shared activities, work and leisure pursuits that give them a social sense of worth, whether that be through being part of a local dog-walking group, a junior football club, a voluntary mountain rescue group or an amateur Bhangra dance troupe in Scotland. Parr’s celebratory images shows us coming together through music, the bump’n’grind of Notting Hill Carnival, the mosh-pit slam dance of a Goth weekender or the shiny-oiled bodies of men at a gay nightclub. These tribes of Britain come together through many contemporary modes of sodality.
As we walk through these joyous images we feel the change of mood, the pastel colours of the gallery walls give way to white walls, and unframed photographs, where the images are precariously pin-mounted to the walls. The interpretation panel is bracketed by two arrows pointing left with “LEAVE” and right with “REMAIN”. Having seen so much photography and contemporary art expressing a snobbish, sneering exasperation, fear and despair caused by the seismic 52% democratic majority vote to leave the EU in June 2016, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Parr, but I was pleasantly surprised by most of the photographs in the Brexit room.
Shot in British areas where most people voted to leave the EU, we come across an image of two girls in the foreground with the English flag painted on their faces, and adults in the background with English flags all dressed for the Stone Cross Parade for St George’s Day in the West Midland’s Black Country area of West Bromwich. The girls’ features are soft, pantomimic, friendly and the red stripe of England extends Parr’s love for cotton candy colour.
More images of young people with adults, this time the classic British seaside moment when it rains, and a racially mixed group seeking shelter under beach brollies, shot on Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. Parr perfectly captures other moments from 2017-18, a celebration of the Windrush generation at a Bristol carnival, the teenage boredom of girls hanging out in Belfast at an Ulster Protestant celebration, teenagers from a young farmers’ barn dance in North Somerset hanging out in clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in the London suburbs on a Friday night.
These images go against the grain of the stereotypes that circulate on social media and in the mainstream media of people from Brexit voting regions. Parr reveals the warmth and of people through a humanistic lens, as everyday people expressing patriotism, fun, community, boredom, hanging out with friends and having a drink, ordinary people enjoying the small pleasures of being alive and connected to a sense of place, work, friends and family.
However, ultimately Parr wishes us to consider his warning sign about Brexit, which sadly imposes a rather heavy-handed symbolism to this otherwise warm and uplifting exhibition. A huge photographic image dwarfs the others in this specific gallery space, it’s another seaside image, this time of a group of 10 white people of mixed ages, including a baby, mostly looking out at the choppy sea, with the lifeguard’s red flag prominent in the frame, blown by a strong wind.
The gradation from foamy to blue sea, to metallic grey and a dull grey sky are given an unnecessary authorial meta-narrative with Parr’s somewhat portentous moralising of our fear for being invaded or flooded by migrants. This pathetic fallacy sadly belies the reality that in 2018 only 539 migrants are documented to have tried to reach Britain via sea crossings, compared to 116,647 migrants and refugees who reached European shores.
That said, this exhibition is worth the visit, and the Battenberg slices and cream soda in the purpose made English style caff are delicious.
Only Human by Martin Parr is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019. Tickets available here.
Manick Govinda is a freelance arts consultant, artists mentor, writer and curator. Follow him on Twitter: @Manick62 and Authory: https://authory.com/ManickGovinda