It’s the morning after the US Open, and the sports sections are filled with images of glory and defeat. Emma Raducanu is lying prostrate on the tennis court, ecstatic.
Novak Djokovic, heartbroken, crying into his towel. Martin Parr, a photographer, would have liked to see the finals, but he’s been sick and unable to move, locked on one floor of his house with the TV on the other.
He pondered watching on his laptop, but it seemed like too much trouble. He admits, a bit shyly, that he enjoys tennis tournaments. “This does not imply that I enjoy tennis in general.”
One assumes he is not alone in this. Match Point, Parr’s new book, takes readers on a vibrant globe-trotting tour of the four grand slam events, going from Melbourne to Paris to London to New York and mixing with the fans as they ogle their iPhones, sunbathe on the grass, and sip iced coffee at the refreshment stand (the book was commissioned by the Italian coffee firm Lavazza). Most people go to Wimbledon for the same reason they go to Ascot or the Chelsea Flower Show: it’s a social event and an excuse to dress up, he says.
They may spend the entire day on the grounds of SW19 and not see a single ball being served.
Parr offers that we meet at his foundation’s headquarters in Bristol. He is in poor health and is unable to travel long distances.
The photographer, who is 69 years old, has spent the most of his life on the go, rushing from one social occasion to the next, photographing on the fly, and jaywalking into traffic. But these are trying times for both the globe and him.
Lockdown was inconvenient because it kept everyone indoors. However, he was diagnosed with cancer in May and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. He gives a quick laugh and nods at his walking frame.
He says, “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get rid of this thing in a few months or so.” “However, it’s possible that I’ll require it for the rest of my life.”
We’re sitting on the couch, reading Match Point. It’s as though you’re looking back in time.
These photos were taken in 2017 and 2018, when fans could cram into Flushing Meadows and Roland Garros like sardines and everyone looked to be drinking from the same plastic straw. He claims that each venue has its own particular personality.
“Wimbledon is the most fascinating because of the long lines and the fact that people camp overnight. Melbourne is also a nice place to visit.
There is a lot of social interaction. It’s always hot.
To keep cool, people carry little fans.” When we arrive in Paris, he snorts, “I can’t say Roland Garros is the least interesting, but it probably is.” I’m not a big fan of tennis. There, they take things really seriously.”
Allow the official photographers to crouch on the sidelines and capture the stars. Parr arrived with a different assignment.
Rafael Nadal signs autographs on a double-page spread in his book. The top players, on the other hand, appear in virtual form elsewhere, pixelated on big TV screens or plastered on hoardings near the coffee shop.
It’s a strategy that reduces Andy Murray or Roger Federer to the status of wallpaper or background music. The onlookers are oblivious to what is going on around them.
That’s what piques Parr’s interest: he couldn’t care less about the stars. “I didn’t watch any tennis at all,” she says. It takes an excessive amount of time. You’re in the middle of a match and three hours have gone by.”
Parr has accumulated over 80 photobooks and over 100 exhibitions during his career. But it is 1986’s The Last Town, with its retina-frying vignettes of working-class New Brighton, Merseyside’s seaside resort, that is his most recognized work.
On the seashore, at the arcade, and inside the chippy, Parr built up a hyperreal portrait of Thatcher-era Britain at play that was so bracing, so sour, you could practically smell the vinegar and soiled nappies. It was a ground-breaking collection that cemented his reputation and charted the course of his career.
“Basically, my one big project is to figure out what the wealthy Western world does in their spare time,” he explains. “That is my project, but I am also a part of it; I am not exempt.”
Parr’s photography is fueled by a flaming antipathy toward the United Kingdom. He enjoys it and despises it at the same time, sometimes in the same frame.
“I mean, I’m your stereotypical remoaner, furious that we voted to leave. That is the aspect of Britain that irritates me the most.
But there are many other areas of life that I enjoy, such as Radio 4 and the village fete.” He laughs hysterically. “Which is almost certainly brimming with Brexiteers.”
Parr’s area of interest has remained constant, but he’s had to find new haunts and new targets to chase. He’s drawn to large public settings like crowded beaches, busy streets, and retail malls.
It’s just that there are fewer people about these days, and those who do venture out appear to be camera-shy. He continues, “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to photograph on the street.” “People are becoming more wary.
Many of them believe it is illegal, and I have to constantly remind them that it is not.”
So having your photo taken used to be a fun novelty, but now it’s considered a crime? He bristles and adds, “Well, you can’t make a broad statement like that.” “You journalists do it all the time. However, it has undoubtedly become more difficult over time.
When I began photographing youngsters on the beach in New Brighton in the early 1980s, no one batted an eyelash. I’d be pounced on if I did that right now.
People are becoming increasingly cautious. Suspicion pervades the atmosphere.
That is why, these days, I enjoy photographing events. Tennis competitions, art fairs, and fashion exhibitions are all on the calendar. People have less time to respond if they are immersed in what they are doing.”
He was accused of exploiting his people when The Last Resort was originally released, of holding a circus mirror up to normal British life.
However, he believes that such criticism is not merely religious, but also based on erroneous ideas. Truth is a subjective concept. Photography must be enjoyable.
Anyone who believes differently is merely delusional. “However, there is still an old-fashioned humanism in some quarters. ‘Oh, I picture war in order to end war,’ I thought.
But you’ll never be able to. It isn’t possible. All we’re doing is putting on a show. It should, ideally, have a serious message as well, but this isn’t required. No one will pay attention unless you make an engaging film.”
Match Point is picked up by him. “Does this count as entertainment?” On one level, I suppose it is.
I’m not sure what you’d get out of this book in terms of tennis.”I’m concerned that he’s downplaying his accomplishments, but he insists that he isn’t.
Parr is a firm believer in the power of still images. It is, he claims, the indicator of our life, as well as the art form of our time. “Every day you go out hoping to get one of those magical, iconic photographs. You don’t do it very often. That, however, is what keeps you going.”
How many times does he believe he has done it? “Over the course of my life?” He makes a grimace. “Perhaps 60 or 70. And that’s not too shabby. It isn’t at all.”
He admits that the last 18 months have been particularly difficult. He thrives on crowds and color: the flurry of activity within a shared space.
However, the high streets are faltering, and department stores are shutting, and he is concerned that Covid’s ripple effect may permanently alter the country. As a result, he finds himself at a fork in the road.
He prefers not to photograph ghost towns, but there hasn’t been much else to do. He had various summer plans, but he became ill. “At this point, all I want to do is keep going,” he says.
“Next year, I’d like to get back into some serious photography. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. I spent the bank holiday in St Ives on my mobility scooter, which was a lot of fun.”
That weekend in St Ives, he recalls, was just like old times. It’s like heaven on earth. Totally crammed.
On his scooter, Parr weaved his way through the people, capturing photos with his phone. “All of a sudden, I’m a disabled photographer,” he adds. And there’s no harm in it. It’s probably less dangerous. It’s a refreshing departure from being a middle-aged white man.”