Martin Parr: The Non-Conformists – Book

This was Martin Parr’s first book, dating back to 1975 when he had just finished at art school.  Subsequently Parr has become well known for his use of saturated colour and a probing (intrusive?), satirical, and sometimes arguably unsympathetic, if not downright cruel, approach to his subjects.  This book, in stark contrast, is shot entirely in black and white and is much more respectful of and sympathetic to his subjects, the members of various non-conformist chapel congregations in and around Hebden Bridge.

Even then this was a group of communities that was already in decline.  The congregations were ageing, young people were moving away from this largely rural area.  Rather than pointing at, and sometimes poking fun at, his subjects, in this book Parr was effectively acting as an anthropologist.  Over a period of years up until about a decade ago I travelled fairly regularly to an area on the edge of the Pennines near Huddersfield.  I recall that on the way there was an old Methodist chapel perched on unexposed hillside.  For the first few years it still functioned as a chapel.  Then it fell into disuse and latterly was converted into a private home, no doubt for people not native to that particular valley.  Parr had captured a world that had almost already disappeared before I became acquainted with he area.

Poignancy and empathy apart this book has been useful to consider while working on Assignment 3 and the idea of the decisive moment – Parr has clearly observed closely and then seized the opportunity to capture the shot he wanted.  Compared with some of his later work most of these images appear to be much more carefully, and obviously, composed in a still fairly formal, and occasionally one might say almost contrived way.  I also have to say I like the fact that they are in black and white!  I have talked about the cliche of black and white in this sort of photography in the context of the assignment but it is a powerful and even seductive one.  I do feel that there are things that can be ‘said’ in monochrome that cannot be captured in quite the same way in colour.  Indeed the appeal is so strong that I have been tempted to go back to using film cameras again as a side project, using monochrome film (ok, not all romanticism and idealism, it is also partly because these fils are easier to develop and print at home than colour ones!), even taking the big leap of buying an old Leica M3, which is what I understand Parr used at the time of this book.

One last point that this book has got me to think about.  Are there national styles of photography?    It strikes me that the work of American photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and William Stein are quite different from what HCB was doing.  Parr and, before him, Tony Ray-Jones (despite his time in America) seem to be doing something as different again.  National styles or just different preferences and practices of diverse individuals?  Warrants further thought.

Parr, M (2013).  The Non-Conformists.  New York:  Aperture.

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