(photo: Martin Parr by Sheryl Tait)
It’s been a bad day. By the time I have to leave the house to go to listen to Susie Godsil (eminent psychoanalyst) “in conversation” with Martin Parr (eminent photographer) I have given up on the chances of anything good coming out of Thursday.
I got yelled at by an angry guy called Clive. With his face only inches from mine he insists that I “drop the arrogance”. We have never met before. I’m just trying to unlock an office door… rather than dismiss this as unfortunate, I wonder if Clive has special gifts allowing him to see straight into the dark and bloody hearts of folk… was I arrogant? I knew I was fickle and untrustworthy but did I have to add arrogant now?
Soon after becoming arrogant, I happened to be introduced to a French psychoanalyst. Oui. As is the case with chaque analyst I have ever met, she has the habit of leaving massive gaps in the conversation. When this happens, when the other person doesn’t pick up the ball or follow the rules of polite conversation, I am up shit creek. I overcompensate. Or to put it in layman’s terms, I gabble. I spouted loads of bollocks about Lacan and Existentialism which fell between us into the infertile silent pit. La Cravasse Du Silence. I feel like a right twat. It doesn’t occur to me till now that maybe she’s La Con. Hey see how close that is to Lacan! Did I just do something really brilliant that none else has ever thought of? Hope so….
Anyhow, little did I know I would glimpse La Cravasse several times more before the day was out. After a short time spent lying under my desk, I braved the Holloway Road for the Rowan Arts Event “Connecting Conversations: Photographer Martin Parr in conversation with Susie Godsill”. I knew there was a reason I was writing this shit…
When I get there it’s all locked up. This seems like an appropriate end to the day. Then a man, nay an angel, comes out and says “are you for the talk?” I’m pretty sure there’ll only be one talk happening on the Holloway Road of a Thursday evening. So I say yes and he directs me to another building. It’s open (oh miracle) and even though I’m now slightly late, they haven’t started yet. I slip into the auditorium and lo (okay, enough with the biblical exclamations already) my favourite seat is empty – at the back and on the end – perfect for quick exits (I’ve seen a lot of eye wateringly turgid theatre in my time).
We are introduced to our conversationalists. Susie Godsil is a psychoanalyst who has a track record of linking in with the creative arts through her work with Opera North. Martin Parr is one of Britain’s best known and most popular living photographers. And what are they doing, these two folk? What is the premise behind this series of talks presented by Rowan Arts? Well, you stick an analyst in a room with an artist, put them in front of an audience and listen. This makes a lot of sense. Artists are always plundering the murky depths of their psyches, aren’t they? The unconscious is their currency. And so to have an analyst in discussion with an artist sounds like it could be an illuminating experience.
And it is. We learn that Parr is an obsessive collector of things. Rather odd things. The things that other people don’t want or might not value: bird pellets; Gadaffi watches; Thatcher memorabilia (he quickly admits to hating Thatcher – just as well given the Guardian Weekender feel of the room ). He admits to an obvious connection between his desire to collect and his love of photography, in which he documents and saves moments of our lives. Brief moments. The moments that others might not want or value: the way supermarket interiors change over the years, for instance; two seagulls tearing at a carton of chips.
And so it seems that whilst most of us are concentrating on the Taj Mahal or the Eighth Wonder that is Blackpool Tower, he is looking to capture something else entirely. He has no interest in the false story telling of posed photographs – the happy family, the successful tourist – but a great deal of interest in the real meat of the moment. So he takes pictures of tourists taking pictures. The Propaganda Makers. People who are determinedly lining their family up against the backdrop of Machu Picchu and insisting that they smile. Parr wants to document the moment just before we become “picture ready”. When we are ourselves, caught off guard, captured in thought or sorrow. Being true.
And I am glad to discover from his own mouth that he likes people and enjoys chatting to them. He is a man that connects. And he talks passionately about the quality of the connection between him and the subject being the most interesting and important thing in his work. I think that this connection is evident in his photographs. And the criticism of him as exploitative and patronizing, especially of the working classes, feels untrue. To me, he appears to regard most of his subjects in the same way: with fascination and warmth. But then I’m from the working classes myself, so what the fuck do I know.
What have we learned about Parr tonight, then? Apart from the obvious obsessive collector stuff? Well, on reflection, I think he is a man that is drawn to the edges of things : the seaside; the objects lying just outside of frame, memorabilia with incorrect dates printed on them. Is this because he wants to subvert the order of things or because this is the natural position for an observer, a documenter of life? He certainly agrees to having a political agenda and talks animatedly about Western greed. But I am struck by the language he uses to explain his love of the seaside. He liked Blackpool so much because it was “alive”. He said that he responded to this energy with more energy. So he and his subject are in dialogue. Feeding each other. His reverie brings them eternal life. Their real and coloured lives save him from the deathliness of Surrey. This is just my own vague proposition by the way. Not something anyone reasonable has actually said.
Parr presents as a confident, talkative and open soul who has given a fair amount of consideration to why he does what he does. His bad jokes and tendency to talk over Godsil could not be counted amongst his charms, and I’m not sure his tactic of avoiding talking to Godsil until the night of the talk was a wise one. I understand it in terms of retaining some spontaneity and trying to make the exchange as truthful and unrehearsed as possible, but what it actually meant was that she didn’t have time to respond to him with deeper questioning which is surely the point of being interviewed by an analyst. Otherwise you may as well get someone who’s a little less fond of La Cravasse Du Silence (I did promise you some more). And he’s a tricky one, that Parr. Because despite happily chatting about himself, I do get the feeling that he’s performing for his audience rather than grappling with the mantraps of the unconscious. But the audience is watching. They want something. He knows (and I bloody know) they want to be entertained. And I’m assuming he feels overly responsible for that, the questions not exactly coming in that fast and thick.
Which raises a whole other debate about how to be truthful on stage. Something theatre has wrestled with for years, and a subject for another day. Thank Christ! I hear you cry. (Incidentally, Godsil probably was being truthful but it made for uncomfortable viewing at times – see? No easy answers folks).
Despite my one or two reservations this was an exciting approach to getting know an artist better. I’m intrigued by the format and keen to see who’s up next and whether it is even possible to search for personal truths in a public arena. (Wow. I really went from naught to sixty on the “lets get this thing wrapped up in a short final paragraph” there…..)
Thank you for reading. And don’t bother writing to tell me I’m wrong about everything. I already know. Xx