Martin Parr, the ironic observer of British taste and culture, is known for a particular brand of lurid colour. Before he became famous for his vividly coloured shots documenting intricacies of the British system class, Parr worked in black and white. Colour was not the favoured form of those who took a serious interest in photography in the 1970s.
Parr travelled to Manchester to attend university in 1970, training both his technical abilities and photographic eye to source signs of change within the transient and the ordinary. Turning his lens on the characters of this new city, he developed skills that would come to define his practice, such as class, cultural peculiarities and British identity.
Parr’s first colour photograph, Manchester 1971, was taken during an assignment given to the students to go out and experiment by taking a colour picture. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the striking use of red and accents of black, blending the woman in the foreground with her surroundings to create a unified, if flattened, composition. The vivid red is repeated throughout the composition in the subject’s trouser suit, the post box, the parked car and the signage on the shop behind; a clever colour rhyme. Recalling the nature of Genre painting, our focus remains with the naturalistic figure who has been caught in her everyday activities but placed in an artistic context. This work, alongside many of Parr’s early works, shows the rawness of post-war industrialism in Manchester, poised between the dwindling optimism of the 60s and the forthcoming Thatcher era.
Parr stated, ‘What Manchester Polytechnic taught me is to fight my own corner,’ and it is the vital nature of these student images he produced that continued to resonate throughout his career. The image shows his early flair for colour, quick reactions and instinct for humour. This first colour photo shows an innate skill budding within a young photographer, reminding us of how renowned works are a result of the artist’s unique experiences