Martin Parr: Life’s a Beach @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 53 large scale color photographs, unframed and pinned directly to the wall, and hung against white walls in the entry area and the large single room gallery space. All of the works are pigment prints, made from negatives taken between 1985 and 2012. The prints are shown in two sizes: a smaller size (either 20×24 or 20×30 or reverse, in editions of 10) and a larger size (40×50 or 40×60 or reverse, in editions of 5). A monograph of this body was recently published by Aperture (here and here) and is available in the bookshop for $25/$300. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: While there might be an expanse of sand, a clump of palm trees, or some lapping waves in a Martin Parr beach photograph, the beach itself isn’t really the subject. For Parr, the beach isn’t inherently interesting for its natural beauty or its majestic grandeur; on the contrary, it’s a nearly universal setting for studying human behavior. From his native Britain to far flung locales all over the globe, he has quietly documented what people do at the beach: how we dress ourselves, how families and lovers interact, what we read and eat, and how we relax. With his sharp eye for subtle absurdity, his pictures capture a broad spectrum of diverse cultures and quirky activities, all laid bare to catch the warmth of the sun.

Many of Parr’s beach pictures get right up close and blast your senses with eye popping color, turning a striped beach hat, a pink bathing suit, or a sandy foot into a striking, off-kilter still life. In these images, the color takes over, exaggerating the visual volume of blue eye protectors and a matching blue towel or a bold American flag bathing suit. Parr’s framing forces us look closely, often pointing out the brightly ridiculous.

These one liners are balanced by more complex compositions that use multiple planes of distance (front/back or front/middle/back) to create unlikely beach crowd juxtapositions. A couple in Goa is joined by a sacred white cow, while the paper trunks of fake palm trees at an indoor beach in Japan frame a father and child. Patterns knit stories together, from clashing floral beach umbrellas that surround a woman in a purple bathing suit to striped folding chairs that provide a jumbled set of angles and lines for a sleeping family. Whether it’s eating crab legs and lounging in rubber tire tubes in China, headscarved picture taking in Thailand, musclebound posing in Rio, or tabloid reading in the UK, Parr tracks down geographical peculiarities and builds them into larger scenes using nearby props and contrasts. A flimsy blue plastic raincoat, an oversized ice cream cone, a perfect book title (“Summer Surrender”), a dolphin boogie board, a muddy backhoe, the head of a white swan, a yellow and black soccer ball, they all become focal points for overlooked regional oddity, collapsed into single frame stories.

This show is brimming with casual summer fun and Parr’s discerning comic timing is in fine form. Every seemingly random snapshot reveals itself to be something more, a deceivingly complex compendium of bodies, cultures, and seaside pastimes.

Collector’s POV: While prints on view at Aperture are not always overtly for sale, there was an actual price list for this show. The smaller prints range from $4500 to $6000, while the larger prints are $11000. Parr’s prints are intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $12000.

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