There is perhaps something ingenuous in Martin Parr’s words that “all I do is photograph ordinary things”. While his work is based in ‘the everyday’, he is drawn to the singular and the bizarre, the colourful and the kitsch. Unseen City is no exception. Housed at Guildhall Art Gallery, two large rooms display his output as the City of London’s resident photographer, a post he has held since 2013. In documenting the centuries old traditions of The City of London Corporation he has been granted unprecedented access to a world of private ceremony and public parades. Such is the somewhat alien nature of these practices that a handy Glossary is available to explain the meaning behind practices like “Beating the Bounds”, “Swan Upping” and “The Trial of the Pyx” – phrases that would otherwise leave you scratching your head in confusion.
While his subject-matter tends to be idiosyncratic, his approach elucidates the real and the common. As exhibition curator Katty Pearce states, he is just as interested in “the unguarded […] banal and boring bits” as he is the extraordinary. He is the photographic equivalent of Andy Warhol. Both have a penchant for the trashy and mundane and both are fascinated by people. Showcasing this latter preoccupation, Parr captures his subjects’ unusual behaviour and expressions in incredible detail – employing a ring flash to remove obscuring shadows and a macro lens to highlight every follicle and pore – exposing them for our curious gaze.
In contrast with his earlier work (the rather lurid depiction of British holidaymakers in The Last Resort for example) Unseen City appears positively genteel. You will find no vomit-inducing banquets or Henry the VIII-style debauchery here. And while there is a lot of pomp on display, there is very little pomposity. Instead we have shots of well-presented, smiling school children lunching at Guildhall or an elderly man dozing off during Knollys Rose Ceremony. One endearing image depicts a member of The Company of Watermen focusing hard as he tries to do up the gold buttons on his uniform. There is a vulnerability and humanity in these shots – of real and ruddy faces caught unawares – that shines out above the fancy dress and ornate ephemera.
It is difficult to come to a definitive conclusion as to whether Parr intends to critique or merely document the peculiar rituals of the City. Is he playing the satirist or producing fodder for the historical archive? Unseen City does evidence his signature eye for the absurd; an unoccupied pair of Cavalry Boots in Guildhall Yard or musketeers marching past a Pret a Manger for example. The series also makes it clear that the social makeup of these organisations is, as Parr himself explicitly states, “very white [and] very middle class”. Not only are people of colour under-represented, but women appear somewhat side-lined too. This is directly addressed under the photo of Fiona Wolf when one reads that she is only the second female Lord Mayor of the last 800 years! The curator of Unseen City understands Parr’s approach to be one without “malicious intent or critique” and his work of a “documentary, even anthropological sensibility.” To what extent such neutrality is feasible it is difficult to say. It is clear however that the potency of his work comes from its openness to interpretation and the absence of a definitive reading.
One unifying thread throughout Parr’s work is his examination of a particularly British mentality. Unseen City depicts crowds of modern Britons lining the streets, looking on in amusement through their iPhones as elaborately adorned men execute some historical imperative. In gay apparel they march past grey-faced observers waiting with weary patience in the rain. There is something absurd, very British and incredibly Martin Parr about all of that.
– Daniel Pateman
Martin Parr: Unseen City @ Guildhall Art Gallery. Showing until 31 July 2016
St Matthew’s Day Parade, Mayoral Car, City of London, 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
The Drapers’ Livery 650th Anniversary, TheQueen visiting the Drapers’ LiveryHall 2014. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.