Virtual Photo Is:Rael Festival explore objective reality in photography

Guest of honor Martin Parr's work goes beyond Parr for the visual course

WORKS BY Martin Parr: Bethlehem, 1995, (left) and Auchan hypermarket, Calais, France, 1988. (photo credit: MARTIN PARR COLLECTION/MAGNUM PHOTOS)
WORKS BY Martin Parr: Bethlehem, 1995, (left) and Auchan hypermarket, Calais, France, 1988.
The old adage has it, or had it, that seeing is believing. Then again, in this age of technological wonder gizmos and fake news, to quote the – presumably – outgoing US president, how can we be sure that the visual images we are presented with offer an accurate reflection of actual objective reality? That quandary is among the themes examined in this year’s Photo Is:Rael Festival, currently up and running in Tel Aviv and across the virtual expanse.
The program kicked off on November 9 with an online lecture by guest of honor Martin Parr. The 68-year-old British photographer is on an international roster of A-lister snappers, taking in the likes of 31-year-old Armenian-American documentarist Diana Markosian, Israeli-born, South African-bred British resident portraitist Nadav Kander, 43-year-old Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen and socio-politically minded Polish photographer Rafal Milach. The above have exhibitions on a massive perimeter wall running around Kikar Hamedina, which will be on display there through until the festival, which is supported by the Foreign Ministry, closes on November 21, and there are also a bunch of other shows, talks and social projects lined up for the Photo Is:Rael agenda, with Parr due to give an additional talk on November 28.
Parr has been clicking away merrily, and studiously, for over half a century. The Bristol, UK world-renowned photographer has gained fame and across-the-board plaudits for his wide-ranging oeuvre, which incorporates a broad take on the documentary area of the profession, spiced up with not a little humor, which, in typical British fashion, often tends to the naughty side.
“My work is funny, and it gets funnier and funnier,” Parr declares. “If I am trying to reflect my approach and attitude to the world, through my work, inevitably humor comes into it.” Then again, Parr notes, it’s more a matter of nuancing rather than going straight for the ticklish jugular. “I wouldn’t say that humor is the dominant factor in my work but it is definitely there.”
Cheekiness and an element of the risqué have been a core constituent of British humor for centuries, certainly since Victorian times. That was employed to great effect, among others, by the Monty Python gang and that is a part of Parr’s personal and professional makeup too. “You have to have a sense of mischief, otherwise you end up doing public relations,” he chuckles, although adding more soberly, that he would like people to take his work seriously too. “That is not taken for granted, by any means.” Spoken like the seasoned professional, Parr certainly is after over half a century of venturing ever further toward the boundaries of visual expression, if such exist at all.
While many of us deliberate over career choices, and may not settle on a clear employment path well into adulthood, Parr knew exactly what he wanted to during his working hours from a very young age. He was dead set on becoming a documentary photographer at the tender age of 14. That was largely down to a source of inspiration from close to home. “My grandfather got me excited about photography,” Parr explains. The said antecedent was a certain George Parr who was a keen amateur in the field, and was a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
He not only inspired the youngster, he provided him with the actual means for taking the newfound interest several steps further. “He gave me a camera, a Kodak Retinette, and that got me going very early on and I never really considered doing anything else.”
Naturally, Parr began snapping long before digital equipment hove into view and, although he made the transmission from analog equipment in 2008 – not exactly as soon as digital cameras burst on the commercial scene, at the tail end of last century – he retains the manual and has ingrained it into his professional DNA. “I don’t remember if my first camera had a light meter but I could walk outside, today, and tell you what the exposure is. I guess it’s like riding a bike. If you’ve done it once it’s there for life.”
Parr has always been the inquisitive type, which, of course, is a requisite attribute of any artist. Once he had his tender hand on his precious granddad’s hand-me-down he was up and running. “I didn’t look for a particular theme,” he recalls. “I took portraits and, basically, anything going.”
A burning desire to get to grips with the undercurrents of the human condition, and an ability to observe, think through and then portray, soon found Parr documenting street level life around him. “By the time I was 16 I had already done a photo essay on a fish and chip shop in Yorkshire. I have always been interested in people.”
But, rather than just hanging around on street corners waiting for an interesting subject to matter to come into view, or viewfinder, these days Parr prefers to mingle and discern some character, occurrence or composition of note in large gatherings. “I like to go to events, when you have lots of people together, but they have been very thin on the ground this year, with COVID,” he says. “So I am somewhat frustrated.”
Not that Parr, a longtime member of the prestigious Magnum international photography cooperative, has exactly been twiddling his thumbs in the meantime. He keeps busy with, among other pursuits, tending to the day-to-day needs of the Martin Parr Foundation, which he inaugurated in his hometown of Bristol in 2014. It houses his own archive, his collection of British and Irish photography by other photographers, and a gallery.
He has also made several professional trips to this part of the world, although the last was in 2002, taking in some tourism-leaning perspectives. We are hardly talking about postcard style snaps here. Parr has been quoted as aiming to convey “the difference between the mythology of the place and the reality of it.”
In an image-saturated world that sounds like a challenging goal. “You can go to a tourism destination, and you have an idea of what it looks like, but when you get there you find it is quite different,” he notes. That is partly down to the proliferation of handy photographic devices, and the mass use thereof. “You get somewhere and you find lots of people taking selfies, and you can hardly get to see the things you have come to look at.”
There is, however, plenty to look at across the Photo Is:Rael spread of free exhibitions through November 21.
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