Martin Parr’s ‘Return To Manchester’ @ Manchester Art Gallery

Yates’s Wine Lodges, Ashton-Under-Lyne, England, 1983. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery.

Martin Parr’s photography provides us with a social portrait of Britain, and with this exhibition more importantly, a portrait of Manchester. ‘Return to Manchester’ at Manchester Art Gallery features a selection of photographic series all based in the city, from images taken during his student days at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan) to his most recent commission capturing a very contemporary portrayal of the metropolis. Attending the exhibition before its official opening, Parr himself was there to talk us through some of his key photographs on display.

The exhibition began with Parr’s work from his time as a student; everyday scenes were photographed in black and white, already showing the inklings of his signature documentary style. Parr, who is endlessly curious about how we all live our lives, rebelled against the conventions of the university, opting to find his subjects outside instead of creating photos in studios. Growing up in affluent, suburban Surrey, Parr was enormously affected by Manchester. This can be seen in his early work as initial images depict residential scenes, giving the viewer an insight into the residents of areas such as Rusholme and Moss Side.

Martin Parr’s first published colour photograph. Manchester, England, 1971. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery.

The theme of daily life is continued in his ‘June Street’ series of 1972, a collaborative project with Daniel Meadows, where a snapshot of a long-forgotten Manchester is presented. Taken in a street of terraced houses in Salford, the two photographers sought to encapsulate a community similar to that found in Coronation Street, the television show which has become an integral part of Mancunian pop culture. They photographed families in their living rooms; with each possession and decoration revealing so much, despite the viewer knowing nothing about the characterful subjects. An on-trend sofa suggests a family trying to keep up a modern appearance, while travel paraphernalia hanging on the wall implies a desire to see the world. The street had no cars on it, which would be impossible to find today; the windows aren’t composed of mismatched double glazing and no TV satellites stick out from the walls. This series crystallises a Manchester that no longer exists, yet one which we can still identify with.

Although Parr’s photography has a signature style, each of his series presents something different. Parr’s ‘Point of Sale, Salford 1986’ project captured the role that shopping played in people’s lives, and viewing the photos now reveals how our habits have changed. The series provides a peek into times gone by; Parr photographed visits from the Avon Lady and Tupperware parties, as well as the arrival of supermarkets. What could be a mundane topic is not when seen through Parr’s eyes: the vivid colour of the prints, the perfect composition of the frames, the nostalgia these images evoke, all captivate us as viewers. Using the passing of time to his advantage, Parr explains that, “Simple subjects become more interesting many years after the event.”

Salford, England, 1986. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery.

With this being said, Parr’s work is not restricted to eras gone by, as a new series of his photographs depicting a Manchester of 2018 are also on display at the exhibition. Here he has photographed different aspects of life in the city, from street parties celebrating the royal wedding, to the BBC building at Media City. In one image a man stands proudly wearing a jumper declaring, ‘This is what a vegan looks like’; another photo shows Gay Pride celebrations in full swing. This set of work simultaneously reveals how much has changed yet how much has stayed the same: people still come together for celebrations, do their shopping and live on streets with terraced houses.

The exhibition is a love letter to Manchester as Parr takes us on a visual tour of his beloved city. Capturing everyday people in everyday situations, from the nostalgic to the modern, his blown up images command the gallery space. While his older photographs are familiar and heartwarming, his new photographs provide us with a mirror into our society, as Parr’s gaze seems to project forward, as it did in ‘June Street’, and ‘Point of Sale, Salford 1986’, documenting the present whilst already demanding a revisit of his images in the future. Do his images draw us in because we see ourselves within the frame? Or are we pulled in as observes, like viewers of reality TV, happy to watch others live their lives? The answer is both, and Manchester makes for the most interesting subject as Martin Parr takes our hand pulling us into his world.

Martin Parr: Return to Manchester is showing at Manchester Art Gallery until April 2019