A couple of Tuesdays ago, I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to hear the world-famous Martin Parr speak during a “Masterclass” (conference) at one of the cinema complexes located along the Villette canal in the 19th arrondissment. Parr was there to present his new collection, Real Food – or in French, Des Goûts.
Surreal and ironic
With over 80 books to his name, Parr has become the social commentator par(r !) excellence, documenting the world in lurid color as a critique of the absurdity and superficiality of consumer society. And even though Parr was born in England, he’s no stranger to Paris.
His work was featured at the Jeu de Paume in 2009 during the exhibit Planète Parr, and at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2014. Whether he’s photographing a crowded artificial beach in Japan, or horserace spectators in his 2009 book Luxury, Parr’s trained eye seeks out both the surreal and the ironic.
Fiction out of reality
During the hour-long Q and A session held by two French journalists, Parr fielded some basic questions, and he navigated a few very strange ones. To begin, one of the journalists asked about Parr’s use of the flash to transform objects into “plastic.”
With his characteristic sense of humor, Parr responded by saying he’s addicted to his flash like an alcoholic to his drink ! Parr’s role as a photographer, he explained, is to provide entertainment, and the flash allows him to create fiction out of reality.
Of course, his photos aren’t just entertaining. As he says, there’s a more serious message behind the raw, sometimes kitchsy images, but he doesn’t force it down the viewer’s throat (so to speak) – you have to look to find it.
The journalist also asked him about the use of the term “food porn” since Parr creates photos that are diametrically opposed to what we see in food magazines, where dishes look mouthwateringly delicious. According to Parr – and we all know this – the food we eat in real life doesn’t look like what’s in most photos, whether they’re in food magazines or on a box at the supermarket.
Parr acknowledges that “Junk food looks more interesting in photos than posh food.” But, he added, “I’m democratic ! I like junk food, but there’s some organic food too – if it’s colorful.” As long as there’s a contradiction – Parr looks for the clichés around different nationalities’ foods, for example, because they’re a great starting point for his work.
Unfortunately, the other journalist couldn’t seem to contain himself once the word “porn” was pronounced. The editor of a well-known French restaurant guide, he asked Parr if he became sexually aroused (excité) by the food he shoots. And just in case there was any ambiguity in the term excité for the translator, the journalist used the word érection to rephrase his question !
Parr laughed – such a bizarre question – and answered that he’d “never had a hard while looking at my own pictures !” The journalist, maybe thinking he’d end up on the intellectual newsmakers’ list by taking the issue even further, asked Parr if there wasn’t a suggestion in his work of “digestion, what comes after we eat, like a child who turns around on his potty and looks at what he made.”
The audience groaned – who WAS this horrible human being ? – and I’m pretty sure if we’d had in our hands some of the food Parr photographs, we’d have all bombed that so-called journalist with it. Of course Martin Parr ignored the persistent perversion, and handled the situation with aplomb and his affable sense of humor – the journalist clearly had none whatsoever.
And when the conversation turned to real food – not his book, but what Parr eats on weekends – he said, without hesitation, “I’m a self-confessed foodie. I like the traditional Sunday joint of beef or roast chicken.” He doesn’t use recipes, but loves foods that demand a high level of precision and timing to get right.
The best part of the evening ? After fending off the heckling of the faux-journalist who quite clearly needs some real food for thought – and perhaps some therapy – Mr. Parr invited each of us to climb inside an adorable caravan, to sit opposite him on a gingham-cushioned seat, and have a real conversation while he signed our books. Delightful !