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'Only Human: Martin Parr' Explores Contemporary British Identity - The National Portrait Gal

7th March - 27th May 2019

Standard Ticket - £18.00

Concessions -£16.50


At first Martin Parr’s portraits can seem simple, depicting people sat and stood in unposed honesty. These bright images originally do not seem to be saying anything revolutionary. Their messages are mundane: a man in a turban holds a shopping bag with the British flag on it: to be British means to be diverse; a pitbull wears an English football shirt: to be British means to be brutish; a portrait of an elderly ballet dancer stands elegant and rigid above a woman twerking into a man’s crotch. At further exploration, however, these contradictory expressions of what it means to be a person, what it means to be British, build on each other to create an overarching impression that is anything but simple, encompassing the inner conflict many of us feel when wondering if we are truly "British".

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture Credit: © Martin Parr, Magnum Photos, Rocket Gallery

Despite clearly approaching portraiture with a particularly political angle, Parr has a very nuanced view of his subjects. His wry sense of humour pervades many of his photographs: a man taking a selfie with a self-conscious thumbs up, a woman covering her face with a hat printed with the phrase ‘SILENTLY JUDGING’. His pictures focusing on alcohol at sporting events, as well as the strikingly ordinary ‘behind the scenes’ of famous private schools and government events, are well observed, without being judgemental. Parr’s beach photography also stands out in this exhibition for this style, as most of the bikini- and boxer-clad Brits managed to avoid the sexualisation. Instead, they suggested the clumsy intimacy experienced by real people.

The power of Parr’s portraits of the general public are particularly emphasised by a room containing his series of celebrity portraits which, unintentionally, highlight the power in Parr’s naturalistic style. There is no way for Parr to make a photo of Cara Delevingne seem unposed and unglamorous. However, these more polished portraits, which could have been cut from any magazine, emphasise the need for portraits of “ordinary people", as Parr describes them, in art galleries. Whilst Parr’s celebrity portraits did not feel particularly original, they provide an excellent contrast to the individualism of his main body of work.

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland 2017. Picture Credit: © Martin Parr, Magnum Photos, Rocket Gallery

As with anything related to British identity in our current political climate, it is impossible not to ruminate on Brexit as you walk around this exhibition. Parr’s work over the past year has been clearly focused on the implications of Brexit, and whilst he claims to be a “classic remoaner”, he still manages to bring a simple, observational curiosity to this issue. Rather than focusing on the rallies and political disputes, Parr has instead chosen to enter the heartlands of leave-voting constituencies, to photograph the ordinary lives of those he disagrees with. The “Brexit room” is striking almost for its lack of Brexit content. Life has gone on and Parr has continued to document it, as he always has, perhaps with a little less hope than before.

Overall, this exhibition is an important exploration of British identity, at a time that sense of identity has, for so many of us, become fractured. It reminds us of the common experiences, shared by those across the political divide and celebrates, as much as it criticises, the way that ordinary British people live their lives.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor