Time Out Chicago's Lauren Weinberg is afraid to laugh at the Magnum photographer's colorful images of humanity at its most ridiculous.
In the 1990s, it took Martin Parr six years to gain admission to Magnum, the prestigious photo agency, not because his talent was in doubt. Magnum cofounder Henri Cartier-Bresson and some other members thought the English photographer treated his working-class subjects with contempt.
Parr, 57, does appear to relish human beings’ grotesqueries, but he mocks numerous countries and every social stratum—when he’s mocking at all. This exhibition presents more than 40 photos from several series created since 1972, including “The Last Resort” (1983–84), his polarizing portrait of the grim English vacation spot New Brighton.
Seeing the “Last Resort” photos today, it’s hard to believe Parr despises the listless young mother and baby sitting on a cheap amusement-park ride. The vivid, often garish color that became a hallmark of his work makes this image unforgettable: The cheerful orange of the pair’s rocket-shaped car underscores the mother’s glum, detached demeanor. New Brighton’s denizens may not conform to middle-class standards of behavior, but Parr forces viewers to consider the economic hardships limiting them to such a hellish holiday.
His richer subjects make an equally poor impression. Tourism comes off as a disease in Parr’s brilliant series “Small World” (1988–95). Fanny packs infect ancient sites such as the Acropolis. Several people—posing for disparate pictures—pretend to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While “Small World” transcends borders, the lurid nationalist cupcakes (pictured) in “British Food” (1995) expose something unappetizing closer to home. Parr’s photos prove the absurd can reveal a lot about a class or culture—possibly more than Magnum’s serious-minded members would wish.