It happened by chance, as I was walking around the library when my eyes met the bright cover.
“Life’s a beach”, it read.
“I’ve always known this, deep down. So, who is Martin Parr?”, I wondered.
I grabbed the amaranth pink book. I noticed the palm tree leaves and the friendly hibiscus flower starring back at me. There was something both tacky and avant-garde about that cover, so I checked out the book and went home.
I quickly learned about Parr’s microscopic lenses, saturated tones and playfulness, but what I did not know at first were the secrets hidden in between the layers of his photos. My initial comprehension of his work was narrow and I was left alone without knowing how I really felt when I looked at the photos. I read somewhere one of his famous statements: “The fundamental thing I’m exploring constantly is the difference between the mythology of the place and the reality of it”. That was the moment I understood his language better and completely fell in love with his art.
I was very attracted to Parr’s eyes. His intimate viewpoints. I must say, being from a tropical place, I grew up spending long periods of time at our family’s beach apartment. We would go every summer and every winter, as in Brazil the winters are gentle and we still get weeks of warm weather. I was used to the sand, to the crashing waves and the coconut water. I was a water baby, always pretending I was a fish, a mermaid or leaving it to my imagination all the mystery that the ocean holds. The sea seduced me and the beach life was second nature. My parents, also beach creatures, would take their time lounging on their beach chairs and we would stay there until sundown. We moved slowly, like good Brazilians, never in a rush. The fastest we would go was when we raced to the ocean, stomping on the compact grey-brownish sand. Those were glorious days. Driving back to the city and leaving the seaside was never fun. My skin would get burnt first, a soft baby pink and turn into a dark tan. The hairs on my arm looked like shimmering glitter and it was a proud reminder of my endless summer vacation.
I could say that my instant attraction to Parr’s work is directly related to my sunny childhood, but the more I study his photos the more I find intimate pieces of myself in them. I think back to the title of the book: LIFE’S A BEACH. This message has always resonated with me, but only after seeing Parr’s photographs did I understand what they meant. At the beach, everyone is welcome to be themselves. We undress ourselves by the ocean, showing our respect to nature’s force. A force that will always be stronger than mankind. We respect its imperative presence and undress emotionally, in an attempt to shed our past fears and grow a second skin. We dance by the waves. We stuff our bodies with food, water and alcohol. The sunscreen sticks to our legs and the sand sticks to the bottom of our feet. We try to protect from the sun, covering our heads with hats or umbrellas and as soon as it gets unbearably hot, we run to the water. As hunters and gathers, we practice physical activity, we nourish our bodies and look beyond the horizon. We know when the tide is too high so we alert the children building sand castles. We learn to appreciate the cycle. We will do it all over again the next day.
At first, Parr’s photographs feel grotesque, highly critical and not easy to digest. The reflective nature of his photographs allows forgotten memories to surface. It’s almost as if you personally knew each and every one of those individuals. Perhaps we all met them when we were kids or during a special trip to the beach with your best friends when you were seventeen. But the further you look, your eyes begin to see past these embellished creatures and find utter reality.
In this day and age, when everything is exposed and fed to the world for consumption, it’s difficult to keep things under the radar. Hidden. A few things still live in that grey area, not controlled by simulation or external opinions. A place where nothing is over analyzed or carefully edited, instead, it’s where things are safe to be who they are. To become nothing but themselves. Not for consumption, not for spectacle, not for others. This seemingly lost grey area is called reality and that’s where I believe Parr’s view of the world truly lives. Even though his medium is photography, his ability to freeze a small segment of time is translated to the viewer in the same way a film or a choreography is. There’s movement behind it. There are voices, smells and body language in each one of his photographs. A tangibility that I miss when I think of my long summers at the beach. A desire to bring my hand into my mind and softly touch my memories.
Photography, a vital organ of our current society, responsible for countless dreams and horrors. A paramount presence in our lives and the ultimate tool for contemporary expression. I find a safe shelter in Martin Parr’s work. I can escape whenever I want and feel the ocean breeze against my skin even during the harshest winters.
I invite you to contemplate his photographs with me. Wherever you might be reading this right now, I would like to challenge you to escape from your physical location by only using your imagination. Parr’s photographs might take you to the beaches around the globe, to Japan, Mexico or England. Regardless to where they might lead, simply dive into his colors and meet these strangers. They represent something that belongs to you and me. The human condition, both fragile and pulsing. Egocentric and freakish. Self-important, theatrical, sensitive, bored. Eternally hungry for everything the world has to offer.
Martin Parr is a British photographer, born in 1952 in Epsom, England.