Martin Parr loves Sports

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Caption © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

CAMERA – The Italian Centre for Photography - in Turin is holding an exhibition curated by Walter Guadagnini with Monica Poggi tracing the protean work of the British photographer: sports (and related fields).

Martin Parr is one of the greatest living photographers, not just because he invented his own language, but also because that language is necessary and militant whilst also highly entertaining. Parr has brought some typically British attitudes into photography – a witty, yet caustic and complicit approach to socio-anthropological portraiture (which has made the fortune of many British pop groups, from the Kinks to Blur) and semantic terrorism, an ontological attack putting the spotlight on the world camouflaged by a shrewd tagline (which made the fortune and the misunderstanding of Oscar Wilde amongst many others). Martin Parr found himself at the right time – with leisure time invented, democratised and imposed as a duty of working to middle class consumers – and discovered the right places for himself: places of consumption and entertainment in the widespread society of wellbeing following the post-War boom. He eschewed the classic doleful photo subjects (war zones, mental hospitals, African villages etc.), seeking out the realism of his own age on the beaches, in theme parks, in the (non) places of mass tourism where he wasn’t interested in the tourist attractions but focused on the crowds. In the wake of American pioneers such as William Egglestone who vindicated non-noble subjects, Martin Parr joined the ranks of  other European pioneers such as Luigi Ghirri, in wanting to demystify the aura around photographic images, and strip them of their pretensions to being pure visions, the first of their kind. Not surprisingly, one of the most of iconic photos in the show is Kleine Scheidegg, taken in 1994, in which the hierarchy between actual reality and representation is turned on its head. In a late-capitalist society, observing the reality of things meant constantly coming up against reproductions and other images. Parr and Ghirri were among the first to grasp the need to incorporate them to create images of alienated and  alienating images transmitting a socio-anthropological message rather than providing detached aesthetic pleasure.

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Caption © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Like Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms, the humorous side of Parr’s photos derives from subverting logical expectations, by incorporating an absurd element that feels completely natural, or a deviant perspective. Martin Parr. We Love Sports, is a one-man show devoted to his photos in fields and on paths with a final excursus towards the beach, Parr’s favourite place (because it was the place where people laid themselves bare most of all, literally and metaphorically), narrowing it down to just one of the interests of the British photographer who, as an amateur anthropologist, follows contemporary man through all the different stages into which his time is apportioned. Thus, as a scientist, he hones a technical style through the use of macro lenses and close-ups at a distance that does not influence the behaviour of a subject / object of study subjected to the extreme proximity of an entomological study. The exhibition is split into themed blocks, including an introductory section featuring Parr’s early Eighties Irish photographs, unusually in black and white; one on sports and leisure activities around the world in which the common thread is absurdity; A Day at the Races in which horseracing provides a rare insight into the British class system and its colonial ramifications; a section devoted entirely to tennis, commissioned by Lavazza, and specific focuses on fans. The bonus at the end of the exhibition, as mentioned, comes in the form of relaxing at the seaside.

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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Camera, Installation View Ph Andrea Guermani

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They are sporting photos, in which the athletes, like the monuments in his tourism series, can be briefly glimpsed, if and when they are to be seen at all. Parr is interested in the ritualistic and social side of sport, and therefore in the spectator rather than the champion, the play time rather than the athletic endeavour, the kitsch rather than the fanfare. If we reorganise the images into chronological order, we can see how Martin Parr’s poetics have evolved: his bold used of colour and choice of subjects remain constants, but a sort of gradual giving into chaos can be evidenced, especially in the shots taken at the US Open, in which the disorderly and hysterical crowds tend towards expressionist distortion. If the early Parr was still seeking a sense of the forms of the world, no matter how oblique, comical or grotesque, his more recent scenes allude to Flemish infernos in a contemporary key, the monstrous faces reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross. In the end, Martin Parr’s greatness also lies in his power to evoke Rafael Nadal, Tom Wolfe and Hieronymus Bosch, all with the same photograph.

8 November 2021