Picture this; you’ve gone to see one of your favourite bands perform at a concert. The band come on stage and then ask you, the audience, which type of show you want to see. Do you want to hear:
a) the bands back catalogue of old favourites (um, obviously),
b) only their most recent work without any favourites, or
c) a set of them covering obscure songs recorded by other less well known artists?
Then they ask for a show of hands.
This is what Martin Parr, a celebrated British photographer did to his audience on this evening. He said he had never done this before and now let me tell you why he will probably never do it again.
When I go to see a performance of whatever art form, I expect to see what I have been ’sold’ via the publicity (I should mention that this was a free event). If the publicity doesn’t specify exactly what the content will be, I expect the performer to give me their best shot, not their second (or third) best shot. I also don’t expect to have to start making last minute choices about which show I want to see when I am not familiar with the content of the other choices, especially in these enervating times of option fatigue.
The reason for this debacle was clearly highlighted in the phrasing of one of the choices that Mr Parr offered the audience. He asked if we wanted to hear his usual, boring story about how he got here, or…etc.
This is the age old curse of the populist performer; he is bored with doing the same old thing time after time but his loyal and/or novice audience expect to hear the stuff that made him popular in the first place. Mr Parr forgot that this was his problem, not ours, but he chose to foist it upon us that evening anyway.
What followed was akin to a deleted scene from a Mr Bean film. Steve Smith, the loquacious host of the event, attempted to impose some kind of structure to this process of selection. A show of hands was asked for and the usual, boring, option got the least votes (ironically Mr Parr later went on to talk about propaganda and he clearly understands the power of emotive words to influence an outcome or opinion). I voted for the boring option.
The other two options were evenly split and couldn’t be differentiated in a swift glance and so we had the ludicrous moment of Steve Smith asking for another show of hands and him carefully counting them (this in a packed lecture theatre of over two hundred people). Eventually, a tiny majority was decided upon and the choice was made – a satisfactory outcome for a less bored Mr Parr and for one third of the audience, but immediately you had two thirds of the losing voters feeling aggrieved that they are not going to get what they came for. Not a good start.
So, the winning option – a selection of other peoples work that he had in his collection – was duly commenced (why do we still have to see a computer desktop and hovering mouse on the screen before the show starts when surely, the technology exists to make a seamless transition?). Thus, we had slides of tea trays with photographs on them and also a lot of old postcards illustrating news events.
For an experienced photographer, Mr Parr seems to make some fundamental errors. He showed a picture of an American party bag of snacks housed in a glass cabinet. What he found so surreal about this image was that the bag was over a metre tall in reality. Unfortunately, there was nothing else in the picture that could give it a sense of scale and so we had to imagine what an ordinary looking snack packet would look like one metre tall. If I have to imagine, I don’t really need a photograph.
He also showed pictures of clocks he had collected from around the world which had photographs of famous people on the clock faces. He showed one that had Saddam Hussein smiling warmly from behind the arms of the clock. This raised a huge laugh from the audience. I’m afraid I cannot explain why this was, unless it was the desired effect of the West’s own powerful propaganda, conditioning people to laugh at and deride the vanquished evil ogre that once threatened our happy land. It could have been a private ironic prank by Mr Parr however, as he also showed Russian photography books from the Stalinist era that their owners were legally obliged to ‘amend’ as the famous people they depicted were liquidated and erased from history. This did not get a laugh.
Eventually we got to see some of Mr Parr’s own work, a series of images which depicted the idle rich enjoying themselves at parties and race meetings all over the world. These unflattering images evoked the work of Diane Arbus, the American photographer who is famous for depicting societies misfits with a dispassionate eye.
Mr Parr then explained some of his philosophical musings about photography and how it was being used to tell lies and to spread propaganda. For example, why do we only photograph our children in formal, happy poses, he asked, and not when they are crying or angry? I once asked this myself about comedy clubs; why don’t we have similar clubs who’s specific intention is to get the audience weeping instead (insert the name of whichever football club is on a losing streak here and claim that we do indeed have them already)?
And actually, I do video my kids having tantrums. I use the footage as ammunition when I want to counter their assertions that they are always well behaved and they ask, can we now have that expensive present please?
The presentation came alive for me at this point because he was asking some serious and revealing questions about society and ourselves. It was such a pity that he restricted them to the last five minutes of his presentation. Given a choice, I would have voted to have the entire presentation devoted to them, but then, that wasn’t one of his offered options.