Arts, On Campus

Martin Parr’s Photography Tells History of Ireland in New McMullen Exhibit

Walking into the McMullen Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Martin Parr: Time and Place, visitors encounter a photograph of Parr’s head protruding from the mouth of a shark—offering immediate evidence of the artist’s unique perspective.

The exhibit, which opened at the McMullen Museum of Art on Jan. 31, is the most comprehensive show of Parr’s work on display in the U.S. Through the lens of Parr’s camera, the photographs in the exhibit, which will be open through June 5, portray themes of the modernization of Ireland and the impact of tourism.

Parr is an Irish photographer who is renowned in the arts community for his innovative portraits and insightful photographs of changing political and social landscapes, focusing on Ireland. While Parr has displayed his work in the U.S. before, this is his first exhibit to display such a wide variety of his body of work in one exhibition. 

“We find it surprising … that Parr really isn’t very well known here, whereas in the United Kingdom, where he’s from, he is like a superstar documentary photographer,” said Kate Shugert, manager of publications and exhibitions at the McMullen. “So we were very lucky and very honored to be able to host his first big museum exhibition in America.”

Karl Baden, curator of the new exhibit and associate professor of the practice of studio art, said he has admired Parr’s work for a long time. 

Chris Killip, a photographer and Baden’s friend, mentioned that his friend Parr wanted a place in the U.S. to display his work. Baden dedicated the exhibit to Killip, who died in 2020.

Baden submitted a proposal for the exhibit at the McMullen in 2019 and collaborated with the Irish studies, art and art history, and English departments for approximately two years to piece the exhibit together. 

Time and Place begins on the third floor of the McMullen with Parr’s “Autoportraits,” photographs that Parr paid to be taken of himself in souvenir shops for tourists while he traveled around the world. Fascinated by these portrait studios, Parr would go into the studios and commission photographs of himself in front of outlandish backgrounds, including pyramids or flying planes, while staring deadpan into the camera, Baden said.

“Autoportraits” appears to satirize the typical family tourist photo, as do his photos in his “Small World” series on the second floor of the museum. 

In one photo of the Small World series, “Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy,” Parr photographed people pantomiming holding up the famous building–a quintessential tourist pose. But instead of taking the photo so the tourists appear to actually be supporting the tower, Parr angled himself so the viewer could see the absurdity of this pose. The image addresses the impact of global tourism on landmark tourist destinations, Baden said.

The rest of the exhibit showcases photos from other series—including “The Last Resort” and “The Cost of Living”—which contemplate and satirize British society. Other featured photographs are from Parr’s expansive collection of images of Ireland between 1979 and 2019.

Parr’s photos of Ireland address themes of social class and consumption, curiosity and humor, as well as humanity and its predictability, according to the plaques in the exhibit. These themes extend to his later work but are especially prevalent in his 40 years’ worth of photographs of Ireland. 

In their collaboration for the exhibit, faculty from the Irish studies department—Marjorie Howes, Vera Kreilkamp, Joseph Nugent, Robert Savage, James Smith, and Guy Beiner—categorized the photographs in a way that demonstrates the country’s transition from being an isolated society to its modernization, Baden said. 

Parr begins his photography of Ireland in black and white and slowly moves to color. This progression correlates with the modernization and rise of consumerism in Ireland through the years, Baden said. 

In his earlier black-and-white photographs, Parr captures Ireland’s aged views of gender roles with “Rosses Point, County Sligo,” in which the sea swimming spot photographed was segregated by gender. Moving through the years of Parr’s photographs, women gradually appear more in the images, demonstrating social changes as Ireland became modernized.

The breadth of Parr’s work displayed in the exhibit makes it a must-see for everyone, according to Baden and Shugert, 

“We want people to see the photographs and want to learn more about Parr and be excited about his work and excited about photography exhibitions in general,” Shugert said. 

Featured Image by Aneesa Wermers / Heights Staff

February 6, 2022