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Martin Parr, in borrowed snowmobile suit and boots, photographed last month.

Alec Soth,

A photographer's-eye view of Martin Parr

  • Article by: ALEC SOTH
  • February 25, 2012 - 6:25 PM

Martin Parr is the Jay-Z of documentary photography. Parr's presence can be felt everywhere in the medium. He is, hands down, the hardest working photographer I know. At 60, Martin continues to crisscross the globe, snapping away like a 20-year-old.

Along the way he's published dozens of books and participated in hundreds of exhibitions. But this relentless enthusiasm stretches well beyond his own lens. Martin is also one of documentary photography's pre-eminent collectors and curators. His two-volume history of photo books has profoundly changed the way these books are valued culturally. Parr has also curated numerous photography exhibitions and has been instrumental in launching the careers of countless artists around the globe, mine included.

I first met Martin Parr when I applied for membership to Magnum Photos, the international photographic cooperative founded in 1947 by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was an odd fit for Magnum, but Parr saw potential and became a strong advocate for my work. Parr himself is considered a peculiar fit for the cooperative. Magnum made its name documenting wars and unrest in black-and-white. Parr's brightly lit color photographs of middle-class consumers have constantly challenged the idea of what is worthy of documentation.

This subject of class is key to understanding Parr's work and success. Where Jay-Z's universe brings together poverty and superstar bling, Parrworld (as one of his retrospectives was called) is a more ordinary place. Parr holds up a mirror to the fluorescent-lit shopping mall the world has become. But the British Parr doesn't hide from his own reflection. Dressed in a T-shirt and sandals (or in this case a snowmobile suit and boots), Parr allows himself to be seen as a ravenous consumer just like everyone else.

As both a photographer and as a Minnesotan, I was thrilled when I heard that Martin was coming here this winter. Beyond getting a kick out of the idea of him tromping around out in the cold, I was excited by the idea of him showing us ourselves in all of our ordinary glory.

Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth, whose work was featured in a retrospective at Walker Art Center a year ago, recently opened a show in New York City, "Broken Manual," at Sean Kelly Gallery.

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