Up and Down Peachtree: Photographs of Atlanta by Martin Parr — REVIEW
Martin Parr has long walked a fine line between sympathetic portraits of everyday life and voyeurism. Now he trains his English eye on main-street America.
The Observer, Saturday 21 July 2012
Snacking at the Georgia State Fair – a snapshot of life in Atlanta, through the eyes of Martin Parr. Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
At home and abroad, Martin Parr is one of Britain's most famous photographers. He has chronicled our everyday life since the 1970s, turning his relentlessly curious eye on the eccentricities and vulgarities of every class and every corner of Britain.
When his first book of colour photographs, The Last Resort, was published in 1986, his detractors accused him of exaggeration and patronisation, claiming that he portrayed the New Brighton seaside town as a kind of working-class hell of junk food, ugly people and litter-strewn streets, made all the more nightmarish by Parr's use of close-up and garish colours. Time changes everything and, today, The Last Resort is considered an important document, unflinching in its gaze and heightened in its atmosphere, but neither cynical nor exploitative.
Parr's vision has deepened and widened since 1986, while somehow staying essentially the same. His signature is as recognisable as any in the contemporary art world and his energy – for collecting photographs, photo books and photographic ephemera, as well as for curating festivals and championing the form – seems at times superhuman. In Europe, he is viewed with a mixture of fascination and admiration, as a kind of archetypal Englishman, despite the fact that his Englishness is of the wilfully old-fashioned socks-with-sandals variety. At home, he continues to divide opinion like few other photographers.
Having recently turned his relentlessly curious eye on globalisation (he photographed the vast Beijing car show for theObserver in 2008), Parr now gives us his photographic portrait of Atlanta, Georgia, "the symbolic capital of the American south". Up and Down Peachtree (the title refers to the city's main thoroughfare, Peachtree Street) is an intriguing book, not least because, apart from the odd up close and garish image – mustard- and ketchup-splashed hotdogs on a red plastic plate, a cross-section of a layered, multicoloured cake, grease-stained mouths devouring greasy snacks – it is somewhat restrained in its depiction of everyday American excess. There are several pictures here that are intimate but not intrusive, many of them depicting people deep in quiet or animated conversation at religious or social gatherings. Here and there, Parr nods to the master of the American quotidian sublime, William Eggleston: the open boot and chrome tailfins of a rusting vintage car; the mundane Sunday school noticeboard – "Attendance last Sunday 9".
Several images suggest the various conflicting narratives of American political life as they are played out in a major city: a smiling, middle-aged woman holds a placard that reads "I Heart My Gay Sons", while on the opposite page a man holds a banner protesting against gay marriage – "I now pronounce you pervert and pervert".
Parr photographs in churches, bars, supermarkets and fast-food joints, but it is on the streets that the myriad small dramas he captures seem most alive, even when their meaning remains elusive. Sometimes, the people in these public vignettes seem like actors in a strange, dreamlike drama: a trio of stationary women caught at a bus stop or at a traffic light might be listening to a funeral service, so stern and contemplative are their expressions.
For all that, the Atlanta depicted here is still a version of Parrworld, that now-familiar place that may still put off as many viewers as it intrigues.