Unseen City: Martin Parr

Election of the new Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow, Guildhall, City of London, 2014 (c) Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

There’s a fashion going round art galleries at the moment. I call it the ‘teenage bedroom’ look. Gigantic photographic prints are presented ‘pinned’ to walls like pop star posters, presumably to give the work immediacy, cutting-edge rawness and youthful hipness.

I’m not convinced. Especially when that work already has those qualities.

Magnum photographer Martin Parr’s work has a freshness, frankness and immediacy that conveys the unsaid in exquisite photographic shorthand.

Pinning it to a fabric wall like a 8 year old’s drawing to a fridge door denies it the gravity it needs to make that shorthand work. It becomes throwaway, snapshot-y, inviting the viewer to glance, then move on. Even more than other exhibitions employing this display method I’ve seen recently, Parr’s seemingly casual approach cries out for good, old-fashioned mounting and framing. Something solid, formal and tough for that sly, subversive trigger finger to rail against.

GB. England. London. City of London. The Drapers’ Livery 650th Anniversary. The Queen visiting the Drapers’ Livery Hall. 2014.

Martin Parr has enjoyed rare access to the inner workings of the City of London’s cloistered world since 2013. As photographer in residence, he has documented little-known events, often including the flip-side of the pomp we associate with the Corporation.

The images curated for Unseen City do not give much away in the line of true secrets. Little is shown of the events themselves, more the faces and figures around those events. We see people waiting, preparing, entering…then leaving, winding down and relaxing. What goes on between those moments remains veiled.

The images are, generally, relaxed and quirky, prickling with Parr’s trademark sense of humour. A pair of cavalry boots, left on a pavement, framed for the viewer to fill in the gap with their own imaginary human. Two blonde-haired ladies at a luncheon, angled so they appear to be one woman staring in a mirror. A chap in a dripping anorak, waiting for the Lord Mayor’s procession with a blend of resignation, patriotism and frustration.

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. (c) Martin Parr/ Magnum Photos

Three rooms of Parr’s excellent, candid (and not so candid; one profile image of Fiona Woolf, Lord Mayor of London 2013 is remarkable in its stark formality) photographs will always give much to enjoy, but there’s something missing in Unseen London.

The unseen bit. The more ‘unguarded’ images of people around the City’s many private events there are, the more enigmatic, exclusive and guarded the events themselves become.

Perhaps that is Martin Parr’s ultimate coup. Even the best ‘secret events’ can never live up to the happenings we conjure in our minds. Like those cavalry boots with no wearer, by showing ‘behind the scenes’ moments around the City’s closed doors is Parr inviting us to attend our own imaginary versions?


Lord Mayor’s Show, Guildhall, City of London, 2014 (c) Martin Parr/ Magnum Photos

Unseen City is at the Guildhall until 31st July 2016, Admission £5

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