Autoportrait of an Island Hopper

Posted in Uncategorized by Joachim Schmid on März 21, 2019

One of the things that puzzles me time and again when we talk about photography is the use of the singular. Photography – as if a photo booth machine in a bustling Paris metro station had anything to do with an old man who takes an occasional snapshot at a remote place close to the end of the world. That’s like asking what a poet, an accountant and a judge signing a death sentence have in common. They all use writing utensils. It’s true, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the peculiar activities of any of the three.

The singular “photography” suggests one cohesive field, something like a continent. Everyone will admit that there are a number of different regions with their specific particularities in this continent, art, fashion, journalism, and so on. But if you take a closer look it’s probably an archipelago rather than a continent, and the number of tiny islands are not yet even counted. The inhabitants of one island have little or nothing to do with those of another one, and what is known to be true in one island may be completely unknown and irrelevant in another one. Life is comfortable that way, you don’t have to ask too many questions and can avoid a war or two.

So let’s talk about the plural – photographies. The word subsumes diverse practices, and many of the practitioners have little or no knowledge of and interest in the work done in other islands. Some of them even deny the existence of other islands. There are exceptions, and Martin Parr is one of them. He worked in all the islands mentioned above, and as an avid island hopper visited quite a number of remote areas. The probably clearest demonstration of this quirk is his collection of autoportraits.

Don’t expect a photographer looking at a mirror though, camera in hand. Autoportrait in this case means that the photographer submitted himself to all available portrait procedures offered by anyone anywhere in the world, no matter how tacky or atrocious they may seem for the educated mind. Yes, that’s photography. It’s one of its legitimate islands where people make a living by using a camera. These photographers may have their aesthetic preferences and their professional pride but at the end of the day it’s a job done for the money they count after closing the shop.

Exploring this island is a job for brave men. I know that from personal experience. Before I saw Martin’s portraits I had been doing the same for some years, or let’s say, nearly the same. I gave up on my endeavour when I learned about his, not because someone had done it but because I noticed two mistakes I had made. First mistake: I was too stingy. In my little corner of the world you simply don’t spend money on something that’s unquestionable rubbish. Second mistake: looking at Martin’s collection I understood that you have to be absolutely free of any vanity. I realized I am not. For getting a compelling collection you have to be willing to collaborate with a photographer who makes you look like a complete idiot; knowing you’ll look like an idiot you must be ready to hand over cash to that person, preferably with a smile on your face.

Talking of smiles, maybe you noticed the lack thereof in the portraits themselves. The no smile principle seems to be a conceptual no-brainer, but resisting the photographers‘ expert attempts of seducing the client is something that has to be mastered. Martin is good at it. Leafing through his book I was reminded of my own failures and of situations when I said no to a portrait opportunity. Nobody wants to look like an idiot, but sometimes it has to be done.

So what do the autoportraits not made by the photographer tell us about the subject’s self? Not much really, just like all commercially motivated portraits that tell us more about the photographers‘ methods of glossing over than about the people depicted. As a series however they highlight one aspect of the personality, and that’s Martin’s virtually unlimited curiosity for all things photographic. While most of us may have encountered and experienced a few of these savage photo opportunities, he had them all, without declining even the most ridiculous one. With no fear of contact he got all the pictures made, as a representative for the universal traveller who is welcome everywhere as long as there’s some cash to be gained. Without his autoportraits we’d have more white spots in that unmapped area of photographies. Bonus for the anxious and vain parts of the audience: you can enjoy the imagery without looking like an idiot yourself.

Joachim Schmid
September 2018

Published in Only Human, Photographs by Martin Parr, London 2019