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Martin Parr describes in an interview how he picks up on clichés and consumerism

Multiple common sense courtesy of Xerox

This must be the biggest multiple launch of a work of art ever: Magnum photographer, Martin Parr’s, new series “Common sense” is being presented in forty galleries both commercial and uncommercial, worldwide, between now and the end of May: in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Cambridge (Mass.), Milwaukee, Montreal, Ottawa; London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Dublin; Paddington (Australia), Auckland, Singapore, Moscow, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bologna, Cologne, Copenhagen, Florence, Graz, Naples, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Poprad (Slovakia), Rome, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Turin, Zurich; Livingstone and Lusaka (Zambia), plus five Japanese venues.

Sponsoring this mega-presentation of some 350 of his slightly sinister, hyper-coloured photographs. are the British Council and Xerox. The latter’s involvement is explained by the shows’ special gimmick: signed unlimited edition, colour-laser prints, at £25 a throw, will literally paper the walls, while a selection of limited edition, handmade C-prints sell at £950 to £2,800.

London’s Rocket Gallery leads off on 4 March (until 10 April) and his new book, Common sense, published by Dewi Lewis is also being launched there. Images from all over the world highlight details of contemporary life, zero in on anything from fast food, clothing and souvenirs to flowers, animals and currency and depict the reality of modern consumerism.

During a pause in the editing of his latest TV film, “Think of England”, for BBC2’s series, “Modern times” (to be broadcast in April), Martin Parr was interviewed by The Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper: In what way is “Common sense” an entirely new approach on your part?

Martin Parr: After 1995 when I’d finished “Small world”, the last project I did in medium format, I changed to a 35mm camera with a ring-flash and macro lens, and started exploring what was possible. First I did a series about British food, and I’ve done various other projects looking round the world, but this is really the first opportunity I’ve had to bring all the fruits of that exploration into one volume.

I’m trying to address the real world with a new language. It’s different because I changed format, changed approach, changed view. For the first time I’ve put all those ideas together into a book and a global project. It’s not so much the format, but the fact that it’s coming in very close, very tight and looking at details of life; rather than my previous take, trying to show the whole scene. The big difference is using a series of details to try and create a bigger picture.

TAN: The images are all fragments. Though one can see the point you’re making, it risks only touching the surface.

MP: Photography is about photographing surfaces and so in one sense you’re right, it risks that. But the cumulative effect of these images is that other things start to happen, something else comes through. It’s not my job to spell out what they are; I very much believe that photography has lots of ambiguity built into it. While I don’t want to ram a message down people’s throat, I do want to give people lots of options. So, I pick up on things like prejudice, I pick up on clichés, I pick up on images that seem very familiar but are also very unfamiliar. If you put these pictures together, you get an idea about the world.

TAN: Did your global sample start with a specific concept, or was it something more gradual, that grew from day to day?

MP: I started out doing one or two different projects and then realized that, over the years, I was building up pictures which had a commonality. I was able to focus on that, expand it and try and resolve a whole way of looking and thinking. So it evolved.

TAN: Is the project entitled “Common sense” for common sense reasons?

MP: Yes. There are images taken in Japan, in Europe, in America, images taken on every Continent. I like the idea of it being shot and seen everywhere. There’s also a unifying force that starts to tease it’s way out. When I look at these pictures together, what comes through is a mixture of goodness and bad, ying and yang, like many of my projects, both beautiful and ugly.

TAN: Are you more interested in places and things than people?

MP: Both, I mean people are in the book, but not always; it’s usually just a detail of that person, like the neck or the hand. There are also many pictures, probably about two thirds, which have no people.

TAN: There are many human artefacts.

MP: Yes exactly. Whether it’s food or whether it’s arrangements or whether it’s a shoe, whatever it is, a bird or a dog, they’re also about people. It’s about the world that we live in and what’s happening to it.

TAN: While not exactly a theme, do these photographs illustrate what one might consider your visual signature, the attention to the kitsch surfaces of life, its detritus?

MP: Yes. But this style and technique is relatively new to me. Aside from the West bay book, which is about one place, and my British food catalogue, this will be the first time I’ve used this type of work to make a statement. I feel I’m really on to something and I’ve used this project to try it out.

TAN: After your essentially English work, your take on tourism in “Small world” or a specifically European series, like “Oh, là, là!” for “Continental drift” during UK Photo 98, plus other projects in the US and Japan, “Common sense” may perhaps be seen as the ultimate creative gasp of still photography by trying to deal, exhaustively, in definitively fragmented global terms, with mass visual communication.

MP: I think that is one way of looking at it.

TAN: Is there a message?

MP: Yes, I think there is, I’m not entirely certain what. You may say that’s a weakness. Years into this project, I have yet to see how it looks, altogether. Having done the book and spent a long time selecting and sequencing, I think it’s quite a sinister body of work .

TAN: “Sinister”—is this something of which you are very much aware, not just the images, but the reality behind them?

MP: Absolutely, yes. Some of these images, they’re so garish and so over the top, they hurt slightly. The pictures when they’re printed will be quite vibrant, I assure you. The exhibition which will be laser prints, will also be vibrant; that’s part of the idea. It’s also the more sinister side of consumerism which is very well represented in my work.

TAN: Is “Common sense” visual sociology?

MP: Not particularly, though I think it can be read like that. One reason why there’s not a word of text in this book is to give absolutely no clues whatsoever as to really what it’s about.

TAN: Are the pictures about the medium of colour photography, or is it art for art’s sake?

MP: It’s colour photography. My motivation is to be part of the mainstream, being part of the art world is a bonus. I like the cross-over, cross-fertilization between art and commerce. I like to produce images which can sit, both, in an art gallery or a magazine.

TAN: Where have you recently held exhibitions?

MP: I have a show called “Home and abroad”, which the British Council are touring. That’s been on the road for four or five years; once in a while I go and join the show. This year it’s in Argentina, and it’s going to Prague in March.

TAN: What is your reaction to the fuss within and outside Magnum over using your editorial pictures to advertise?

MP: Many things that I do appear to be quite controversial, including the recontextualisation of those images into advertising. I look at all the propositions I have, study them and decide whether they’re OK or not. Maybe I’ve fine tuned my sensibilities over the years, but I do not shy away from controversy; neither is it something that I court. Because it’s part of my own conscience in terms of use and I think advertising’s a very interesting medium, I do some advertising photography, I’m all for cross-over between one genre of photography or one medium and another.

TAN: Is this television programme about photography?

MP: No, it’s about England. The one I’m just finishing is called “Think of England”. My personal voyage around England, talking to people about what defines Englishness; the difference between being English and British. It’s funny bizarre, a film version of what I’ve done in photography, although not quite, because it’s television.

TAN: One’s reaction could well be that the 350 or so images are really one man’s tongue in cheek reaction, an amiable expression of the notoriously clear-sighted, yet conventionally understated, British sense of humour.

MP: Indeed, even these pictures, albeit sometimes quite depressing, still have an underlying humour. That’s what saves them from being heavy. I’m a firm believer in the use of humour as a way, basically, to get access to people’s sensibilities, but also as a way of saying quite serious things. I think it’s very important; humour and the vulnerability that lies within that are absolutely essential to my work. There’s humour and irony, it’s simultaneously both sad and light.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Multiple common sense courtesy of Xerox'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 90 March 1999