10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Note: Photos used with permission from Martin Parr

As of late, Martin Parr is one of my idols in street photography. I love his never-ending passion for street/documentary photography (Alec Soth recently called him the “Jay-Z” of documentary photography)- and the thought-provoking images that his photos tell. For this article I will share 10 things that I learned from Martin Parr and his work that I hope will help you in your street photography as well!

1. Focus on sets, not individual images

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Recently someone asked Martin Parr in an interview about what his favorite photograph was. He simply responded by saying that it was a ridiculous question, as thinks about his photographs in terms of sets and projects, rather than individual images.

I used to shoot street photography in the “Flickr-mindset” which was all about going out and hunting for those incredible “Flickr-worthy shots”. You know what I’m talking about- those shots which (you hope) will get you hundreds of comments and likes, and the approval of everyone on the internet.

More recently I have switched from working on a single-photograph approach to a more project-focused approach. I feel one of the strenghts of working on projects is that it helps you stay focused, and also have more of a message and statement in your photographs. You can read another article I wrote, “How to Start Your Own Street Photography Project.”

2. Make statements about society through your photographs

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

One of the reasons why I love Martin Parr’s photography so much is that his photographs have strong statements about society – and always has a certain viewpoint or critique. Many of his photographs are funny, interesting, or sometimes downright depressing- but they make statemetns on society. He interjects his own opinion and thought into his photographs and shows how he sees the world – and challenges us to see the world differently as well.

I have recently started to understand that it isn’t enough to take interesting photographs. Rather, we should strive to take meaningful photographs.

When I refer to “interesting” photographs- I mean photographs that make us say “wow” from a visual standpoint. Photos that have strong lines, shadows, a good composition and so-forth.

However photographs that are “meaningful” make us think more about the situation at hand in the photograph. What is the statement that the photographer is trying to say through his/her photograph? Does it have an opinion? Does the photo have emotion or soul?

I feel that a strong image should be both interesting from a visual standpoint and meaningful from a humanistic standpoint. I feel that Martin Parr does this well with his projects.

One project of interest that he finished is a book titled: “Luxury“. In this book he makes the statement that oftentimes we find things like poverty and AIDS in Africa as serious social problems- but forget the problem of excess wealth is in society. Therefore in that book, he uncovers that social issue that we don’t often think about.

More thoughts on this subject on an article I wrote, “Why Street Photographers Need To Take Themselves More Seriously.”

3. Be obsessive

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

I recently shared a quote by Chuck Close on Twitter and Facebook on inspiration. I cut the quote a bit short (thanks to Mattias Leppäniemi and Alex JD Smith for pointing it out). Here it is:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.

All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.

Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

― Chuck Close

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Magnum photographer Alec Soth recently refered to Martin Parr as the “Jay-Z” of documentary photography. Parr is now 60 years old, but he hasn’t slowed down one bit. He is constantly hustling on commercial shoots and his own personal projects while traveling the world and exhibiting at the same time.

If you want to become a great street photographer, it isn’t enough to have talent. Sure it helps to have a good idea, but what I have learned from talking to many people is that it comes down to the hard work you put into it.

As Robert Doisneau once said, “Chance is the one thing you can’t buy. You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, spending a lot of time, you pay for it with time, not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”

If you also look at all the great photographers out there, they are incredibly obsessed with photography and nothing else. It is great to diversify your loves and passions in life- but if you already have half a million hobbies – I suggest cutting down and focusing more on the best hobby out there (street photography).

4. Think outside the box

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr’s photography is incredibly unique- and I best heard in an interview about his work that goes something like: “When looking at Martin Parr’s photographs, the viewer is often unsure whether to laugh or cry”. Even when he was nominated to join Magnum, he was met with considerable controversy.

Regadless I believe he is one of the most creative photographers out there, and has done a ton of books on subjects that people haven’t thought about as much.

Check out his books:

  • Small World” – a look on the absurdity of tourism all around the globe
  • The Last Resort” – an apocalyptic view on middle-class English people vacationing in New Brighton. (One of his best)
  • Luxury” – unwrapping the society of the ultra-wealthy all around the world

Read more on Martin’s blog on photographic cliche’s here.

5. It is rare that you take a good photo

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Remember when it comes to street photography, not every one of your shots are going to be good. You are going to take a lot of crappy photos in order to make the good ones. Even Martin Parr stated n an interivew that he estimates that he takes “tens upon thousands” of photographs a year and prints out “maybe 15,000 of them” and, he adds, “If there are 10 good ones, it would be a good year.” – Link

I think few photographers are nearly as prolific as Martin Parr, and he (one of the greatest photographers out there right now) only gets 10 good photos in a year.

Of course we may take more than 10 good photos in a year or fewer than 10 good photographs in a year – but use this number as a ballpark figure to remind yourself that making a great street photograph is really really hard.

Takeaway point: Shoot as much as you can, but be ruthless when it comes to editing. Read one of my articles on “15 Tips How You Can Better Edit Your Work“.

During the last 5 years or so I have been shooting street photography, I think I have only taken around 5 photographs that I would feel proud of having people rememember me by after I pass away. However I am currently in the project of shooting for an entire year and only showing my best 20 at the end (in December). Remember, less is more!

6. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

In a recent Google+ hangouts interview, one of the attendees asked if he could give one piece of advice to aspiring photographers. Put simply he said, “Find the extraordinary in the ordinary”.

One of the beautiful things about street photography is that we don’t need to drive 10,000 miles to take a photo of a double-rainbow in the mountains or something like that. Street photography is all about the everyday people, things, and moments. It is often the most common and mundane things which make the most interesting and meaningful images.

Therefore if you live somewhere which you don’t consider to be the most interesting place and isn’t urban like NYC or Paris- don’t become discouraged. Look for the ordinary things in your everyday life, and shoot what is closest to you.

A piece of advice I read from Martin: “Change your approach. Consider yourself to be a documentary photographer and take this duty to record your family seriously.” – Link

Blake Andrews, a street photographer of In-Public, has shot great “street photographs” of his children growing up. See some of his work for inspiration here.

7. Get Close

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

When Martin Parr shoots street photography, he gets extremely close to his subjects and doesn’t ask for permission. The result is that he is able to get the shots for his projects that he envisions, and also gives the viewer a sense of “being there” in the midst of all the action.

Parr gives some advice and insight about shooting close in the two quotes below:

I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly. – Martin Parr – British Journal of Photography interview, 1989

“If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.” – Martin Parr

One of the great things about Parr is that he (like many other street photographers who get really close to people) is great at human interaction. He often talks to his subjects when taking photographs of them and comes off as very unthreatening – due to his charisma and way of speaking. Watch a video of him shooting below:

8. Exaggerate your photographs

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

In one of Martin Parr’s interview, he shared with the readers this quote:

“Part of the role of photography is to exaggerate”… Martin Parr

He elaborates in another interview:

“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”

I don’t believe that photography is ever objective- it is always going to be a subjective. When we decide to take a photograph, we make a judgement call on what focal length to use, how to frame the photograph, and what to photograph. Even more importantly, we decide what not to photograph.

For example I was in Beirut, Lebanon a few years back and did a small project on taking photographs of the old and classic cars there. I only took photographs of the cars with old-school “character” in all differing colors, shapes, and forms. When I shared the photographs with my friends, they told me that they had the impression that everyone in Beirut drove cars like that. I then tried to clarify and told them it wasn’t actually the case- that lots of people drove really nice cars like Ferrari’s, Lambo’s, and Mercedes.

Therefore realize that it is rare that photographs ever tell the “full story” – and are often exaggerated more to make a statement. Think about doing this the same with your photographs- and thinking about what sort of statement you are making with your photos.

9. Don’t get people to smile

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

A simple tip I picked up from Martin Parr is that below:

“Don’t get everyone to smile; otherwise you’ll end up with the same old family propaganda.” – Link

We are so conditioned to see photographs of people smiling in photographs- as that is how we typically get people to pose.

In street photography, the photographs taken shouldn’t be posed. However that doesn’t mean that every once in a while (when appropriate) we can ask our subjects to pose for us.

However if we ask our subjects to pose for us, a simple tip is to tell them not to smile. A nice line I got from Charlie Kirk is telling your subject, “Pretend like you’re getting your passport taken”.

Photographs of people on the street not smiling often shows them more in their natural state- and doesn’t feel so forced or calculated.

10. Experiment

Don’t feel that you have to be pigeonholed into only shooting street photography one way. Martin Parr has experimented much during his photography career- shooting with 35mm black and white film on a Leica, medium-format color film, 35mm color film with a Macro lens, and now shoots with a DSLR camera.

He has also shot “street photography” by using a videocamera for the BBC in a program titled: “Think of England“. He essentially captured moments from British life (and inteviewed people) into clips – to give the viewer a better sense of a scene by hearing the sounds, more of the situation, and having more interaction.

See it below:

Don’t let your creativity be stifled by doing the same thing over and over again. Although I do advocate the concept of using “one camera and one lens” – still feel free to experiment using other types of equipment and shooting different styles. My suggestion is to do this for different projects.

For example, shoot for a year on a medium-format camera of environmental portraiture. Another year you can shoot street photography with black and white on a Leica of street scenes. Another year you can try out large-format of landscapes. I believe that working in terms of projects, it will help you keep your creativity alive- while staying consistent at the same time.

More Photographs by Martin Parr

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

 

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

1x1.trans 10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr Documentary

Below is one of my favorite documentaries on Martin Parr. It gives you great insight about Martin Parr’s photography, his life, and everything in-between!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about Martin Parr or check out some of his links interviews, check out the links below!

Follow Martin

More interviews

Huge thanks to Martin Parr for supporting the blog by letting me use his images.

What is your thoughts about Martin Parr’s philosophy on photography and approach in street photography? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!

Upcoming Street Photography Workshops

If you want to conquer your fears and meet new peers, join me in Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, Stockholm, London, Portland, Chicago, Toronto, and New York City:

See My Upcoming Street Photography Workshops

  • Pookiepookieca

    And not a single “attack” shot in the group, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there.

    Well written Eric.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Huge thanks Kim!

  • http://www.mrkhan.co/ Barry Khan

    Went to one of his talks last year great photographer. When you hear of the number of images the great pro’s take and the keeper ratio really makes you think how expensive it would be to develop all that film.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Photography definitely isn’t cheap- but I believe Parr is now shooting digital!

  • Verdoux

    I don’t think that it’s such a good idea for you to just show your best images at the end of the year. An established photographer or a hobbyist can do that, but if you’re trying to promote yourself and get paying gigs then you need to show what you have been doing recently.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Definitely! This practice is if you are working on personal street photography projects, not gigs!

  • Lorenzo van Galen

    Nice Dutch produced documentary even with Dutch subtitels! After watching for like 30 minutes I mentioned the Dutch subtitels lol. Nice information and inspiration and what a shitload of negatives, wow!

    - Lorenzo van Galen -
    Flickr.com/photos/lorenzovangalen

  • Mike Avina

    It is interesting that you admire both Gilden and Parr–each in their different way have found a new visual language that gets at how the modern landscape feels. I saw a long video on Vimeo about Magnum and one of the old guard said he feels Parr is innovative in that his work shows the vulgarity of the modern world. Too much of the visual language of documentary photography is totally exhausted–Parr is one of the few documentary photographers that successfully provides a new way of seeing.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Definitely agree Mike – really been liking Parr’s imagery and (even more) his philosophy

      • Dacoit

        Yeah, but “rich people are greedy” and “excess is vulgar” and “tourists can be tacky” are hardly radical or ignored perspectives in art or philosophy. As Parr says in the second half of the Dutch documentary video, the ideas are obvious to him. Well, they are obvious to anyone who reflects for a few moments. I’d submit “tacky tourists” as an entry to his photo cliche list. He already shoots one of his listed cliches, “the new rich.”

        That said, Parr definitely has an eye and things to say artistically. His “commentary” means nothing to any of us if the images aren’t aesthetically interesting as well. I shudder to think of a new generation of photos of fat people stuffing their faces in order to make a statement about how terrible it is that people are richer than they were a century ago ….

  • Rob LaRosa

    Thanks for including the videos. They are very interesting.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Glad to hear you liked em Rob- btw missing you and Vegas. Been shooting a lot?

  • Andy

    Just a little correction Eric; Last Resort is New Brighton which is near Liverpool, not Brighton (you’ve been here, I met you ;-) Don’t think the book / project would have worked in Brighton as it is essentially about the working class in the North West enjoying themselves despite the surroundings, not us Southern middle class softies!

  • http://twitter.com/jack070 Jacek Smoter

    Really great read.

  • AlexCoghe

    I don’t have idols and nor models, only photographers that i admire. But Martin Parr is surely one of my favourites. Parr shows that street photography can also be fully credible reportage and protest photography. The research of surreal and irony is fantastic in his aesthetics. Thanks for this read.

  • Dacoit

    Two other points raised by this excellent blog entry that relate to other blog posts and comments

    1. There’s no absolutes in technique. You quote Parr saying he does not often look at people after he photographs them and approaches pretending he is looking at someone else. But the video of him at Ascot shows him doing quite the opposite. He is not pretending to focus elsewhere, and interacts with virtually every person he shoots. In a sense, he is practicing a different sort of deception on the subjects, since his aim is to portray the Ascot revelers as greedy slobs, but he’s not going to tell them that. He’s smiling and joking with them, and they mistakenly believe his photos are not to cast them in a bad light.

    2. Parr’s Ascot video shows you don’t need to go out and buy a small, “stealth camera” to get good photos. He’s shooting with an enormous rig, ring flash, wires and all.

    • George Sable

      Parr is not embarrassed about contradicting himself. He does it all the time and brags about it.
      It’s his defense against criticism.
      I have more to write, but I’ll post it at the top.

  • http://handcarryonly.com/ Adrian Seah

    Thank you for posting this Eric, I watched all 4 parts through. I love Martin Parr, his work is so irreverent. I have to admit though, when I first saw his work many years ago knowing it came from a ‘famous photographer’, I could not for the life of me, figure out what was so ‘great’ about his photos. It was technically impressive or glossy in anyway, and just seemed like everyday snapshots.

    I guess it was only through photographic maturity that I could begin to really appreciate his work, his unique social commentary, and his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around him.

    Lots to learn from the master.

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanvdk jonathan vdk

    Each to their own, but the thing for me with Parr is that he has not evolved as a photographer. Which I find extremely boring.
    Seeing him and his exhibition last week in Fremantle, it is obvious that he is a little lazy (maybe apprehensive??!!!) about experimentation with his chosen media.
    He has a very specific style and a lot can be learnt from that, but his recent work is just plain boring, save for one or two minor exceptions.
    Plus, he doesn’t wash his hands after taking a piss.

  • George Sable

    Parr admits to contradicting himself and also being somewhat of a hypocrite in his lifestyle and attitude. He also says one video: “I’m not going to sacrifice my wealth for the sake of the planet.” He spends lots of money on kitschy trinkets — collecting is an obsession. So what. However, he earns his living photographing people who are taking a brief break from their usual family and working lives — showing them on holiday or special activities; and in these circumstances, it’s easy to capture them in awkward moments, postures and gestures, and dressed differently than they do at work or at home. And then he claims that these pictures show something very significant about society and the way it is changing — even though these circumstances are not typical of the people’s normal lives, and their leisure activities might not have very much importance to them. They might not even care how they look or act on holiday.

    I get the feeling he enjoys sniggering (or snickering) at his success in capturing people in ridiculous postures in ridiculous places and being able to sell these pictures as fine art. I think this is juvenile photography. Superficial, immature, and perhaps self-congratulatory. Anyway, these photos can deflate the spirits in the end.

    I can get an easy chuckle at some of his images. Some are very good. But I’m never left with a nice taste in my mouth after viewing them. (In comparison, I feel better after viewing Joel-Peter Witkin’s photos.) He’s basically making fun of these people, no matter how much he denies it and claims to be simply recording them as they present themselves. If I momentarily pick my nose or scratch myself in public, am I “presenting myself” this way for his camera? His consistent use of on-camera flash and jacking up the color saturation does not necessarily make fine art, though he has probably adopted this style with the art market firmly in mind.

    Although I like a few of his photos a lot, I think most of them are nothing special, and many are mediocre. And I increasingly agree with one former president of Magnum that his pictures are “meaningless”. The more I see interviews of him and articles about him, the less I respect his outlook and his talent.

    But he successfully markets his photos. And he’s “prolific”. I guess it increases prolificity to include the same photos in different books, as I’ve noticed he’s done in two books I’ve seen (but not bought): out of the 50-some pictures in each book, 10 are the same photos. And each book has a different theme.

    Anyway, there are many detractors of Parr’s work. I add these comments to bring a less glowing opinion into this pool of laudatory remarks.

    • Andy

      I appreciate your point of view George but those arguments are not new and I think were the main objections to The Last Resort. Looking at that book now Parr is clearly not making fun of the people photographed. I feel it simply shows, brilliantly in my opinion, a slice of life. People enjoying themselves in a run down British resort at a time and in a place that was suffering from mass unemployment. Despite this in fact. People can laugh at them if they like but maybe this shows more about their own prejudices.

      I’m confused about your constant references to ‘fine art’ though. I don’t see Parr as ‘fine art’, does he? Do you have any evidence for this? I don’t really see any street photography as fine art and I think this is a good thing. I’m not sure I would like to have Parr’s photos on my wall. They are much more suited to books.

      • Andy

        furthermore in my ignorance I hadn’t heard of Joel-Peter Witkin. Just looked him up and not sure where you are coming from with the comparison. His photography is what I would think of as ‘art photography’, not Parr’s. Wouldn’t it be better to compare with a street / documentary photographer? Are you saying that Parr’s work ‘makes fun of’ where Witkin’s doesn’t?

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  • Joanna Casey

    That was a good post Eric, and the comments made interesting reading too. You chose a good variety of images to illustrate it. I was never quite sure what I thought of Martin Parr’s work when I first started to look at it, I probably thought it was too snapshot-y and I couldn’t quite get why he was so famous, BUT since I have been doing street photography and studying photography more seriously for 18 months now, I realise how hard it is to get really good shots, so now I admire his work a lot more. I think he is a good documenter of everyday life, whether it’s having a wry laugh at some people, or just noticing details. In time, he will have provided a very good record for posterity of how people lived.

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  • Michael

    Great interview to Martin Parr from Photographic Museum blog. RECOMMENDED!

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  • Akshay Chauhan

    You left his one really good quote – ‘There are two parts to the process: taking the picture and finding ways of using it.’ – Martin Parr

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  • http://www.aquashieldroofingcorp.com Lindsey Rojek

    This was helpful for me and it really gave me allot to think about. Thanks for this!

  • http://www.aquashieldroofingcorp.com Christopher Steinruck

    This was helpful for me and it really gave me allot to think about. Thanks for this!

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  • http://thedoityourselflady.com/?page_id=318 Mary Bister

    I am sure many people will agree with this piece of work. I would say it is a very good work on this subject.

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  • Eloïse

    I love his work ! I love “Don’t get people to smile”! That’s true! Most of people say “smile” and to my mind, this is not natural. So, that I love in the street photography. This is now”, very spontaneous, and not “smile, cheese”… :) thank again for this interesting article!

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  • Lukas

    What’s forgotten to mention, I believe, is that photographer must feel comfortable during photo shoot! Just because I had an experience, when I wanted to take a photo, but I couldn’t sit normally or to rely, so equipment for photographer is one of the most important things. For example I bought everything what i need for good photo here- Laisvalaikio
    prekes
    and now I am the most influential prhotographer in Lithuania!

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  • jasminevphoto

    Martin Parr’s a genius. Thanks for the great article, keep it up!

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