Martin Parr, Fashion Faux Parr @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2004 and 2023. Physical sizes are 20×24, 20×30, or 40×65 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 10 (smaller sizes) and 5 (larger sizes). (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of Parr’s fashion work (titled Fashion Faux Parr) has recently been published by Phaidon Press (here). Hardcover, 280 x 200 mm, 304 pages, with 250 color reproductions. Includes essays by Patrick Grant and Tabitha Simmons. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Katz’s Deli, on the corner of Houston and Ludlow streets in the Lower East Side of New York City, doesn’t seem like an obvious place for a Vogue fashion shoot. It’s a classic New York landmark (open since the early 1900s), where you can still wait at the counter to order an overstuffed pastrami sandwich on rye and sit at one of the crowded tables under the fluorescent lights. Today, Katz’s Deli is overrun by tourists and visitors, who wait outside on the street to get their chance at a piece of New York history. But as a place you might catch a glimpse of a fashion model or two, or that someone cool from New York might actually be seen, it seems like an altogether unlikely venue.

And yet, Martin Parr staged a fashion shoot at Katz’s in 2018, posing a handful of leggy female models in eye catching head-to-toe looks in among the usual throngs of everyday people, with one actually eyeing a menu and another holding a sandwich, waiting in line and eating pickles just like everyone else. The guys that work behind the counter seem busy as usual, and the line doesn’t seem to be moving any faster than it does on any random lunchtime Tuesday. Parr’s photograph captures this incongruous scene with a deadpan documentary eye, asking us to wonder about whether these models might actually have been at Katz’s and Parr just happened to catch them on their lunch break. It is this plausible but entirely implausible friction that gives Parr’s work in fashion its seductive edge – he’s knowingly breaking every rule we might imagine for how a fashion photograph is supposed to function and yet still delivering something that feels strangely glamorous and “authentic”.

As a backdrop to his otherwise reliably busy fine art career, Parr has been doing commissioned work for fashion magazines and designers large and small for the better part of nearly three decades now, bringing his unique Martin Parr eye to everything from staged scenes with full fashion looks and celebrity models to tighter views of sparkly accessories like shoes, bags, sunglasses, and jewelry. This small show, and the much more comprehensive monograph recently published by Phaidon, takes us on a whirlwind tour of this surprisingly robust photographic side gig, where Parr has consistently played with how fashion can interact with the otherwise quirky realities of everyday life.

Over his long career, part of what has made a Martin Parr photograph so recognizable is his ability to consistently find the ridiculous, the awkward, the humorous, and the colorfully odd hiding in plain view, almost wherever he may find himself. In a world of fashion photography that largely takes itself seriously, this kind of subtly wry irreverence cuts against the prevailing grain, which makes for some unexpected visual possibilities. One classic trope of fashion photography is the setup at some glamorous globe-trotting location, where the beautiful people in astonishingly stylish clothes languorously cavort in ways that we normal folks can only dream of. In Parr’s images, he deliberately undermines this expectation with glimpses of banal reality, haltingly upending what would have otherwise been predictably controlled scenes.

So in a Gucci shoot on the beach in Cannes, an androgynously pale male model sits on a yellow beach chair in the full sun, wearing a glittery top, some heavy jewelry, and what looks like leather pants – not exactly a typical (or functional) beach outfit. Parr pairs this lounging man with various other tanned men in swimsuits nearby, a volleyball in a netted beach bag, and some pecking pigeons in the background, making this stylishly chic sunbather look all the more out of place. On another shoot in Paris for Balenciaga, Parr chooses a grey misty dull day at the Trocadéro (which is partially boarded up), and arranges his setup mixing striding models with random umbrella-toting and stroller-pushing tourists, with one man placed at the center taking a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background; it’s an image that both features the clothes but also mixes them into a scene that is plausibly mundane, making it somewhat difficult to identify who is a model and who isn’t, which is of course, part of the visual joke that Parr has crafted.

This kind of clever wrong-footing happens again and again in these images. In a picture staged at Versailles for Jacquemus, the guys in dark suits look like exhausted college students passed out after an all night party. In an image for Mavi Jeans set in the sun blasted costal town of Essaouira in Morocco, Parr does get the jeans in the photograph, but arranges half a dozen other bodies at different distances, with one local man seen through the v-shaped opening in the standing legs. Perhaps the most incomprehensible Parr fashion setup comes in a 2004 commission for children’s clothes, where he has placed his young model in a dentist’s chair having his or her teeth cleaned. There are even a couple of indirect self-portraits included, with Parr reflected in a hotel bedroom mirror (above a model on the bed) and pictured on a heart shaped throw pillow on a couch near two posing subjects with a baby, making his tongue-in-cheek presence all the more visible.

Several other images in the show narrow down to photographs of various accessories, but Parr still finds a way to layer his own signature aesthetic across what are essentially staged product shots. He documents a dog trying to catch a ball printed on the side of a Paul Smith bag, captures a woman holding a fluffy white cat (while wearing a range of fancy jewels), and notices a woman wearing elaborate shoes with shells on them while standing on a mosaic tile floor. There’s also a fun anecdote in the monograph, as retold by Vogue contributing editor Tabitha Simmons, where Parr stages a selection of the season’s fanciest high jewelry at a car boot sale in Somerset, England, placing an eye-catchingly valuable Dolce & Gabbana necklace on top of a kitchy pink feathered lamp on offer for £18.

While this gallery show only scratches the surface of the hundreds of fashion photographs Parr has made across his career, it does provide a serviceable introduction to how Parr has applied himself to these commissions. In essence, he has stayed true to his vision, and used a documentary photographic approach, which is of course the last thing that most fashion photographers might think to do. His images have a “staged within real life” complexity that generally fails to entirely resolve, leaving us with slightly awkward juxtapositions and contrasts that are both glamorous and not. In the end, he both mocks and celebrates the aspirational mystique of fashion, in a way that nearly everyone can appreciate, poking fun at the tropes and eccentricities of fashion photography from the inside.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at £4750 or £10000, based on size. In recent years, Parr’s prints have become more consistently available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $27000.

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Read more about: Martin Parr, Janet Borden Inc., Phaidon Press

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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