The (in)decisive moment: Photographers research – Martin Parr

01st May 2021

Introduction

I am quite a fan of Martin Parr and especially have a fondness for his well known work which I have accessed through his book called, ‘The Last Resort’. For me,Parr is a master of the decisive moment, capturing people at that moment in time where they speak to you in visual images of great interest.

Parr’s photographs of new Brighton, self-published as The Last Resort in 1986, were in bright colour, and documented the fading, scruffy resort and its visitors in a way that was new to British photography. The Last Resort sparks with life and vitality as crowds of women gather around a baby, children sunbath on concrete and a young women serving in a chip shop stares at the photographer in disbelief.

Williams and Shepherdson (2019:128)
Fig. 1 New Brighton (1983-1985)

It is very interesting reading how Parr perceived the views that he witnessed in the 80’s, of New Brighton and it’s holidaying families and day trippers, ‘if the seaside was tatty, and more than a little run-down, it was also vibrant’ (Badger 2018:6)

When Parr’s work from his series The Last Resort was shown at an exhibition in 1986 at the Serpentine gallery, London, it was met with mixed reviews some of them quite harsh. These negative reviews have not lasted time, because this series of work in the book has been ‘chosen as one of ‘1000’ Artworks to See Before You Die’ by the Guardian newspaper.

Images

I love Parr’s images in this book because they are brassy and well composed. He is not faint hearted, he fills his picture plane with information, taking close up shots as though he has intimate relationships with his subjects.

This is the style of street photography that I aim to produce. Most of my images of people are taken quite close to the subjects, but they could be closer still. I use a standard lens for my shots so I have to be in close proximity to the people that I shoot, but I could however be that little more daring.

One of the biggest differences between Parr’s work in the 80’s and the images I am able to take, is the change in society’s behaviour towards being photographed in public. On the one hand, with the popular hand camera on our mobile phones and the ‘selfie’ trend, taking photographs in public places of unknown people and the environment is acceptable and most of the time not even noticed. However, using a camera which is highly visible gives the general public feelings of intrusion and sometimes of threat. People in society today are regarded as strangers and we are brought up to believe that most people do more harm than good, and with that comes paranoia, especially if there are any children near a camera.

Parr has shot many a naked child, a sight we do not see anymore because of the more widely acknowledged paedophile disorder within our societies. The brilliant shot below demonstrates the difference in modesty, as here the naked child literally takes centre spot.

Fig. 2 Analysis of an image, New Brighton (1983-1985)

Composition

As we can see from the image above, Parr is a master of the decisive moment. The composition is lively and the interaction between the subjects has been caught at just the precise moment, therefore gaining many leading lines, arms reaching around the frame, hand gestures, interesting body positioning and body language as well as the feeling of a family unit.

The close composition of the subjects and the leading lines are made stronger by capturing the eyes of the subjects looking at other subjects within the image. The sweeping arms which give specific angles, entices the viewers eye to look around the picture plane and take in the complete image as though we are just out of the shot and part of the intimate group.

The image below shows how Parr uses sections within some of his shots. Here the interest in his subjects are not just those that are close to the camera and fill the frame, but those subjects that appear within the mid-ground and background as well.

This image does exactly that, the composition shows groups of people within the foreground, mid-ground and background. These shots are harder to produce especially trying to get each group of people and each section to show details of interest.

In this image we have three figures in isolation but they make a group, to show this I have outlined the foreground grouping in pink. From here our gaze is taken upwards from the young lady in the bottom left hand corner to the boy who is focusing on his ice lolly. The viewers eyes are then taken into the mid-ground.

In the mid-ground we have two groupings of people and the perspective within the image is now very evident. On the right of the frame we have a mother and a father who are focusing on one of their children, the other with the ice lolly is in the foreground composition, so our eyes dart from the family group to their isolated son. Behind them is a father and a young child playing at the edge of the sea.

The interesting information within the compositiondoes not end here, but it does however take a keen viewer to look beyond the focus subject matter to the horizon in the background which shows buildings, a light house and in the far left corner, many people on a brick wall and path by the sea.

This composition is very complicated and very detailed and couldn’t be planned, to capture such a natural image where the decisive moment is present in the foreground, mid-ground and background does in deed rely on a little ‘luck’. Henri Cartier-Bresson said (L’amour de court:2001) ‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.’ 

Fig. 3 Analysis of an image, New Brighton (1983-1985)

Looking at Parr’s composition and subject matter has informed my planning for my idea connected with the assignment, The (in)decisive moment.

I hope to create images of people walking along the promenade which have some detail and interesting characteristics. I am also going to work on a different perspective, which Parr also has in some of his shots. These perspectives will be low, laying and sitting while I take the photographs therefore obtaining a young child’s eye view of the promenade. This may distort figures and crop out parts of the body so that the whole figure isn’t within the composition.

The last challenge for me, and one that will need a certain amount of ‘chance’ or as Cartier-Bresson’s declared ‘luck’, is to produce an image where groups and/or individual people with interesting details or form etc, are present within the foreground, mid-ground or background.

Illustrations

Fig. 1 Parr, M. (1983-1985) New Brighton. [Photograph] In: Badger, G (Intro) Martin Parr: The Last Resort (2018) Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Fig. 2 Tomlin, D. (2021) Analysis of an image, New Brighton. (1983-1985) [Analytical diagram] with insert, Parr, M. (1983-1985) New Brighton. [Photograph] In: Badger, G. (2018) Martin Parr: The Last Resort. (6th Ed.) Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Fig. 3 Tomlin, D. (2021) Analysis of an image, New Brighton. (1983-1985) [Analytical diagram] with insert, Parr, M. (1983-1985) New Brighton. [Photograph] In: Badger, G. (2018) Martin Parr: The Last Resort. (6th Ed.) Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Bibliography

Book Chapters

Badger, G (2018) Martin Parr: The Last Resort. (6th Ed.) Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Williams and Shepherdson (2019) Seaside Photographed. (1st Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Websites

Online video

L’amour de court’ (2001) [Documentary] At: https://vimeo.com/106009378 available on (Accessed 05.05.2021)


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