A message from the wilderness
PHOTOGRAPHER MARTIN PARR EXPLORED SCOTLAND’S FARTHEST CORNERS TO CREATE A UNIQUE PORTRAIT OF REMOTE COMMUNITIES ... VIEWED THROUGH A LETTERBOX
IN the age of digital communication, the humble post box can seem quaintly antiquated in a contemporary urban setting. But it’s worth remembering that at one time, these objects – first introduced to the UK in 1852 (in Jersey) – were emblematic of a communications revolution. For remote communities, they offered a lifeline – even if their bright red presence must have appeared otherworldly in their rural settings.
Even today, those boldly coloured receptacles can look strangely at odds with the wilderness that surrounds them, as these striking images by Martin Parr confirm. The celebrated photographer’s work to date has focused on modern life among the various social classes of England and across the Western world. Early this century, however, he began a unique documentary project whose results are about to be published in a new book, Remote Scottish Postboxes. His first major contribution to landscape photography, it includes photographs taken between 2004 and 2010 on the Scottish mainland, and on the islands of Orkney, Shetland, Barra, Lewis and Islay.
During their travels in Scotland, the photographer and his wife, the author Susie Parr, stopped to take pictures of the local Royal Mail postboxes. Often they would revisit remote outposts, going miles out of their way so that Parr could capture the postboxes at a particular time of day to take advantage of the best light.
Through Parr’s photographs, these isolated, red outposts of civilisation each take on a character and personality of their own, set against the lonely yet beautiful rural backdrop.
Ahead of the book’s launch, we publish a selection of those evocative images, along with the following unique insight into Parr’s documentary process, as written by Susie Parr.
PARR ON PARR
BEING driven by Martin can be a very nerve-wracking experience – he is always looking about, spotting things to photograph: a front garden, a shop window, a pile of home-grown vegetables for sale by the side of the road.
When we lived in Ireland, it was Morris Minors. Back then, people didn’t trade in their old cars or take them to the scrapyard; they let them rust away in situ or sometimes found a use for them in the form of a hen coop, storage for animal feed, a compost heap. Martin became obsessed with spotting abandoned Morris Minors – scarcely recognisable shapes mouldering away in the middle of fields, under hedges, beside barns. We would be driving along and he would suddenly jam on the brakes, leap out, climb over a wall and start taking photos while I waited in the car. He was always oblivious to the astonishment of passers-by.
I was reminded of those days when he began photographing post boxes in remote parts of Scotland. It would be the exact same thing: driving happily along, screeching to a halt, then a period of time spent looking for the best angle for the photograph, while I drummed my fingers. Once he had worked out when the light would be right there was usually another phase of activity. So we would often have to deviate from our planned route, sometimes by miles, in order to get back to a particular post box at the right time of day, or in perfect weather conditions. We spent many holidays exploring outlying Scottish islands and the far north-western reaches of the mainland. Orkney, Shetland, Barra, Lewis, Islay ... all these places have their unique character and distinctive beauty, as well as predictably unpredictable weather. Driving along, mile after mile, I would be happily looking out for otters and eagles, while Martin would be hoping to add to his collection of post boxes. Luckily, in these remote spots there was usually not much traffic, so when he spotted a likely candidate coming up he generally managed to stop safely.
On the Scottish islands, or in remote parts of the mainland, a bright day can make the colours of the landscape almost unbelievably intense: yellow, pink, mauve, green and turquoise, glowing and iridescent. But when the clouds roll up, the mists descend, and the light dims, colours soften and dull.
Bravely gleaming out against this everchanging backdrop, the bright red of the post boxes is always the same: a cheery reminder of the red sweater that was always present in a John Hinde landscape postcard, placed as a foil to the more subtle shades of the natural world.
When you are in the middle of nowhere, in a bleak landscape and in wild weather, these little post boxes are strangely comforting, a sign that other people are around, that life is going on, and that you are connected to the world.
Remote Scottish Postboxes by Martin Parr is published on October 30 by RRB Photobooks. It will be available from www.rrbphotobooks.com as well as online booksellers such as Amazon and selected bookshops
From left to right: Tiree, Inner Hebrides; The Isle of Coll, Inner Hebrides; East Yell, Isle of Yell, Shetland Islands