Martin Parr is renowned globally for his own distinctive documentary photography, which focuses especially on the minutiae of everyday life, often overlooked by others. As both President of Magnum Photos and as a collector, he has also always been a great champion of the work of others.
“I’ve been collecting British [documentary] photography for many years now, and I’ve always felt that it was very underrated and undervalued so I wanted to have a place to highlight this,” says Parr of his decision to open the Bristol space. “I also have my own quite extensive archive, so I thought the idea of putting these two things together and then having a programme of showing work and doing events and everything would make sense.”
The Foundation will open on October 25 and is housed in a purpose-built space in the Paintworks complex, Bristol. Its opening follows the recent acquisition by Tate of Parr’s collection of around 12,000 photobooks, one of the most extensive photobook collections in the world. The collection was part gifted to the Tate by Parr and part-acquired, with assistance from the Luma Foundation and The Art Fund. Some of the proceeds from this acquisition have been invested in The Martin Parr Foundation.
Of his decision to focus especially on British documentary photography, Parr says: “I think British documentary photography is very good quality and I think it’s been underrated. So because it’s relatively underrated, you can buy it actually quite reasonably and over the last 20 years or so I’ve bought a lot of work from my colleagues and peer group. Because I’ve been very lucky in my own photography career, I’ve had some opportunity to invest in some of this, and to support them.
“We’re very good at documentary work, it’s a natural skill that we have,” he continues. “And sadly, I’d say the art establishment in the UK don’t really appreciate how good it is. Many of them now are on-board with photography, but I’d still say the appreciation of British photography, home talent, is still somewhat underrated.”
The Martin Parr Foundation sets out to rectify this, by focusing on work especially from the UK, though occasionally it will show work by overseas photographers too. The opening show at the space will be of Parr’s own work, a series completed in 2015 titled ‘Black Country Stories’. Commissioned by Multistory, it documents life in the Black Country over a four year period. After that, Parr says, “you won’t see my work on the walls for a good few years”. The following exhibitions will be of the series ‘Town to Town’ by Niall McDiarmid in early 2018, and the David Hurn ‘Swaps’ series in Spring 2018.
Despite perceiving it as undervalued, Parr sees British documentary photography as thriving and believes that Brexit may give the medium a particularly renewed focus. “I think it’s doing quite well – you could argue that perhaps it was particularly good in the 80s and 90s but that was due to Mrs Thatcher almost, if you like, because it was an antidote to Thatcherism,” he say. “But now we have the potential of having the antidote to Brexit. It helps to focus the mind. It’s certainly given me, if ever I was lacking in it, a real incentive to carry on shooting, in a new Brexit Britain that we’re about to see confront us.”
Parr admits that the changing nature of publishing has affected the documentary photography world, but sees this as just another part of its ongoing evolution. “The lack of budgets in magazines is a big factor, that doesn’t help,” he says. “But you know, if you want to do the work, you’ll just do it anyway, whether it’s commissioned or not.
“The lack of opportunities and windows for commissioned work is a sad decline but then the art market has come on, so you can sell prints in a way that 20 years ago you couldn’t,” he continues. “So swings and roundabouts…. Photography is constantly evolving and changing, but whatever medium it comes in or is shown in, you still need good stories.”
The Martin Parr Foundation opens in Bristol on October 25; martinparrfoundation.org