Martin Parr in Malaga
by Michelle Chaplow
In 2022, Magnum photographer Martin Parr, the renowned (or infamous, depending on your point of view) British documentary photographer, known for his anthropological-satirical vision of everyday British life, received a commission from the Diputación Provincial de Malaga, via La Térmica cultural centre, to document Malaga through his unique lens. "It was an easy yes, as I really enjoy working in Spain,” he says.
One of 71-year-old Parr's trademarks is his ability to inject droll humour into his photographs. He has a knack for capturing the absurdities of modern life, thereby offering a visual commentary on societal norms and behaviours.
Coincidentally at the same time, his acclaimed career and contribution to the field of photography were recognised with the Premio Internacional de Fotografía Alcobendas, endowed with 10,000 euros. This prestigious award acknowledged his mocking and mordant gaze, capturing the lives of ordinary people in Great Britain.
Alcobendas is a small town outside Madrid that few have heard of. However, it's also the hometown of actress Penelope Cruz. When she won an Oscar, Penelope introduced her pueblo to the world by famously saying, "I grew up in a place called Alcobendas where this [acting] was not a very realistic dream”.
Malaga Express Exhibition at the Palacio de Adana’s in Malaga
In September 2022, Martin Parr embarked on an eight-day journey. The photographer worked from first to last light every day, capturing images of some of his favourite topics: people, food, and tourism, for a forthcoming exhibition.
The resulting show, MalagaEXPRESS, is at the Museo de Málaga until 30 December 2023. Opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday 09:00 to 21:00, and Sunday and holidays 09:00 to 15:00; Monday closed.
Martin Parr's style is characterised by its bold visual language, humorous take, and keen interest in exploring the intricacies of contemporary society through the lens of everyday life.
Guided tour by Martin Parr of the MalagaEXPRESS exhibition
On 14 November Parr returned to Malaga, and provided a wonderful opportunity for 100 people to hear, at first hand, his own rationale of the exhibition.
Parr pointed out a close-up photo of anchovies for sale in the market, saying he could not believe that you could buy a kilo of these fresh fish for 4€. He joked that he wished he could take them home in his suitcase!
It was interesting that Martin knew every detail of his works so intimately, and yet - understandably - from his whirlwind guided tour of the area, he had no idea about the exact location where his images were taken, or who or what their subjects were. The assembled group was able to identify the locations, and many also knew the names of the subjects portrayed in the photos.
In one corner was a “group of photos that I was obliged to take”, including the Mayor of Malaga, Parr captured the Major in with his face partly obscured behind a net curtain.
The British photographer commented on a number of topics: the huge amount of cruise ships docking in Malaga; how we buy cheap souvenirs on holiday; the art of eating fish, and messy tables after fish feasts; his surprise that the “flat white” had arrived in Spain; and photos of “three nuns looking really rather serious”; a single traffic cone lying on its side; processed meats in a tourist buffet; and all-day English breakfasts.
The photographs primarily featured Malaga city, with a few from Torremolinos, Mijas, Fuengirola, and Puerto Banus. Martin Parr engaged with the audience, pointing out various significant details of his works during the tour.
A lecture in the Salon de Actos
Afterwards, a lecture in the Salon de Actos was followed by a Q&A session with Parr.
The photographer explained that his job is to show the “pressure points in society”. We have the dream of travel, and then the reality. The myth of the idyllic holiday, contrasted with the queues and the quirks.
When asked about his impression of Malaga, the British photographer described it as a laid-back place, ideal for work, and expressed his overall liking for the city. He highlighted the multiple photo opportunities in Malaga and other Spanish cities that he loves. "Stopping people from smiling is one of my biggest challenges," said Martin, smiling himself as he made the observation.
Regarding his street photography technique, Martin emphasised the importance of capturing a moment, noting that when one stands still and waits, a photo opportunity might improve, or might disappear. "If it disappears, then move on," advised Martin.
The photographer stayed in two hotels during his eight-day shoot last year, The Hotel Pez Espada in Torremolinos, and the Comfort in Malaga, both of which featured in his reportage.
Martin addressed the question of artificial intelligence, stating that he is not threatened by it and believes it won't be a concern within his lifetime. “It will not replicate the quirks of a photographer,” he confirmed.
The discussion covered various topics, including the end of the selfie-stick trend, the challenges of photography, and Parr’s ongoing book project. He reflected on his subjects, and emphasised the commitment to making interesting pictures, if not conventionally beautiful ones. A notable incident he mentioned was a controversial photo of a lady standing in front of a religious poster. This had been withdrawn from the exhibition, due to objections by the woman pictured in the photograph. Martin removed immediately it when requested, showing his awareness of sensitive issues.
The Martin Parr photographic style and philosophy
In a very humble, unassuming way, Parr stated, "I have photographed many things that are very ordinary." Regarding his work philosophy, the photographer commented that, "My first commitment is to make an entertaining photo, and hopefully people will see more, but I don't want to shove it down their throats." Parr reflected that being a photographer is complicated; you have to be obsessive, which is very demanding.
Parr highlighted his foundation in Bristol, which promotes other photographers, and lamented the lack of recognition for British documentary photographers. He encouraged his audience to visit the foundation’s web page to view their works.
What Parr loves to see in photography is “unwavering motivation, rising to a challenge, and the satisfaction that you obtain when creating new images. This is what gives you enthusiasm and passion as a photographer. You have to take a lot of bad images to get one good one.”
Two Exhibitions by Martin Parr in Andalucia
Anyone visiting Andalucia between now and the end of December has not one but two opportunities to see Parr’s work. Two Martin Parr exhibitions are currently showing in the region as part of the "PARR por PARR" initiative organized by the new Instituto Andaluz del Cine y la Fotografía. One is MálagaEXPRESS at Malaga Museum, and the other is AlmeriPARR at the Andalusian Centre of Photography (CAF) in Almería city. Both exhibitions run from June to 30 December 2023.