“I’m creating fiction out of reality.”
Street photographer Martin Parr recently told the camera manufacturer Canon, “I’m creating fiction out of reality.” Parr’s candid photographs typically take ordinary scenarios and, by means of bluntly applied flash and highly saturated colors, crank up reality in a way that seems strangely unreal. He loves to capture his subjects – often unawares – at leisure, and among his favorite places to write his photographic fiction has been by the sea. But his latest collection is a departure from the in-your-face candid portraiture for which he may be best known. Beach Therapy finds Parr experimenting with telephoto lenses that put him at an uncharacteristic remove from his subjects. It’s still recognizably a Parr joint, albeit rolled with a strangely remote touch, and the results take the photographer in new directions while questioning the very nature of street photography.
Parr prefaces his new work with a handy single-page rundown of a “long-established affection for the beach,” categorizing his developing relationship with this sandy subject by timeframe and equipment. For example, from 1982-1986 he favored a medium format using color film, wide angle lenses and straight-ahead flash. This set-up characterizes the work in his breakthrough 1986 monograph The Last Resort, which used dazzling colors to document working-class vacationers at New Brighton beaches. These were not exactly postcard-ready scenes; for instance, one young mother who caught Parr’s eye decided to tan her bare back right in front of a bulldozer.
Such was Parr’s mischievous eye, but that was more than 30 years ago. The photos in Beach Therapy, made in the last several years, are far different animals. The wide-angle lenses used for The Last Resort required Parr to get closer to his subjects to compose. Using a telephoto lens in this recent work, he made images from great distances, engaging not with life-sized personalities but with tiny humans that form ant-like abstractions.
Now, some observers consider street photography something akin to voyeurism – invade a stranger’s space in a sense. But operating at close range, photographers engage with their subject, creating a brief if tangible relationship as they either let the photographer snap away with impunity, throw a dirty look their way or simply ignore them.
On the other hand, Beach Therapy features images in which faraway clusters of people frolic on the shore, framed by out-of-focus flora as if a peeping Tom, camouflaged by plant life, is peering at their prey. These voyeuristic angles perhaps echo surveillance society in a way that conventional street photography doesn’t.
Good sequencing creates a narrative here. If the first several photos are smartly-composed shots of beachgoers who are too far away to be able distinguish what they’re doing, the well-timed inclusion of a group queuing up at an ice cream truck – single file, one might add – adds structure to vacation days and to the book. That narrative is important to a publication formatted in wide pages that suggest Cinemascope. Beach Therapy is organized so that, like the great white shark in Jaws, Parr, who begins the book stalking his prey from afar, gets closer and closer to his subjects – but there’s something missing in the end. This is a new aesthetic for Parr, and it’s not a bad story, but you’ll probably prefer work where he gets in his subjects’ faces.