THE MANCUNIAN WAY
Asmall textile factory in the Manchester of the early 1970s. Bare walls, strip lighting, functional. Three women are photographed working with quiet industry. Spool forward to 2018. Another textile works in the same city, every bit as utilitarian. Here 16 men and women are employed but these are by no means Mancunian born and bred – each one is of a different nationality.
The contrast says something – says a lot – about the way immigration has affected the city over 40 years and explains why, for some, the vote for Brexit was a call to limit the number of foreigners ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’.
The pair of images are in an exhibition by photographer Martin Parr entitled Return to Manchester which shows pictures taken from his days as a polytechnic student in 1972 and on to visual essays over the years to the present day.
The picture of the textile workers is not meant to be overtly political, that is not Parr’s style, but the significance of the multinational work force is not lost on him. “I am a Remoaner, of course,” he proclaims. “Do you ever meet anyone in the liberal arts crew who isn’t? We are universally tainted with that vote. The trouble is that it is unsurmountable. The country is so divided I just don’t know how it will be resolved.”
Had he noticed any change in the character of the country as he tramped the streets of Manchester, camera in hand? Has Brexit made people less tolerant, angrier, even more optimistic?
“It’s difficult to know. No, I don’t think so, but because most of the people I know are so firmly in the Remain camp that doesn’t affect me. I literally don’t know anyone who is a Brexiter. It’s like going to America and asking if anyone is Republican. A lot of them won’t admit it because of Trump but you know that in those rural constituencies there is support.
“We know about the protest aspect of it all; ‘up yours, this is our chance to scupper the establishment’. This was the one time that their vote would count when previously it didn’t.”
We should be talking about the show but he has one more point to make. “Just to finish... during the time of Thatcher in the 1980s documentary makers flourished because we collectively didn’t like her. It gave us an incentive. Photographing Britain is a form of therapy for me showing the positive and negatives about what we think about Britain. The ante has risen so much since the Brexit vote and I am so pissed off with my fellow Brits for voting that way that artistically it has given me an incentive. To me it’s a positive thing.
“Interestingly, when I have my big show at the National Portrait Gallery next year the final room will be about Britain in the time of Brexit. Not directly, not marches, just to places where you get a feeling about what’s going on.”
What we have here is Parr as chronicler of the supermarket, the barber shop, the passerby. The humdrum elevated, if not to the exotic, certainly to the quirky and always the authentic.
The exhibition includes scenes from the ‘real’ Coronation Street, taken in 1972 with photographer Daniel Meadows. The original street had been demolished so they found a similar row of terraces in nearby June Street.
The residents were photographed in their front rooms, all of which have electric fireplaces, surrounded by their ornaments, pictures and patterned wallpaper. Ordinary folk caught in a moment of time.
All the early work was shot in black and white – “because colour was just for commercial work and snapshots” – which serves to emphasise the drabness of the city at the time. But in 1986 he was commissioned to record the shopping habits of the city in the project Point of Sale, Salford 1986 and these were in colour.
He is clearly in his element with hairdressers in salons painted in red and yellow or with elaborate wallpaper. A rather defiant butcher leans on a joint of meat, a biker in his helmet checks out a video shop, and a women gather tentatively at a lingerie party. A doughty woman fills up her Ford Escort with petrol, and a baby is left in its pram outside a betting shop.
“Imagine seeing that today. Wouldn’t happen.”
For him this was the decade that the supermarket replaced the corner shop and the term ‘shopaholic’ became popular. He is particularly keen on a customer checking out a bunch of broccoli, a food unusual to many and a symbol of a new shopping order.
For this project he was asked to keep a diary and what a fascinating insight it affords into his working methods; carefully scouting about, chatting with potential subjects and making sure they know what they are in for.
Frustratingly, though the notes are on display, they are too small to read on screen and anyway whizz past too quickly but Parr’s eye for detail and his wry asides are positively Alan Bennett.
Monday, 15th April. Early start at Bettys (sic) hairdresser. She gets in at 8.10 every morning. The star turns are Mrs Woodruff and her extrovert daughter Iris who come on Mondays and have been doing so now for 30 years.... they bring their own sandwiches and Betty makes tea, not only for them and me but anyone else who is in the shop.
On May 15 he is surprised to find that on the delicatessen counter of the Coop Shopping Giant “they used a machine that gave you a ticket to ensure you were served in the right order”. He decides to use flash there unlike Betty’s where the light is better.
And so it goes; trivial matters of passionate concern and pretty much the same routine that he brought to his latest venture Manchester 2018.
“The producer and I had a sweep of Longsight (a residential district south to
the south of the city) and just went in and asked to take pictures. Obviously there has been a huge difference over the years.”
He was keen to shoot areas like the Northern Quarter, once a dismal no-man’s land now a lively centre for cafes, restaurants and music, and Media City which was not even dreamt of 45 years ago.
“It seems there are two Manchesters now, the new, gentrified districts and the likes of Bury market which remind me of my days in the seventies. It’s very reassuring that it still exists.”
It’s fascinating to contrast the seventies with today. His favourite examples of the extremes include food such as a selection of chunky rhubarb and gooseberry pies in Bury Market selling for 20p and a trio of tiny ‘Energy Balls’ from a fashionable city centre food centre for £1.20 – 21st century style over good, old-fashioned substance.
Compare the gloomy functionality of the Yates’s Wine Lodges of the 1980s, smoke-filled and cavernous, men in flat hats, women sipping sweet sherry, where the customers had to queue to be served, with Mackie Mayor, Manchester’s foodie Mecca (and home to the expensive Energy Ball cakes).
Once a Victorian meat market, a gaggle of eateries sell all sorts of international food under its vaulting glass ceiling. It is bright, light and modishly decorated. Though, this being a Parr composition, one customer looks on glumly leaving us to wonder what his problem is.
Every bit as revelatory is the difference in the types of people photographed today.
In the early pictures there are some black faces, probably Caribbean, today there are more from the Indian sub-continent. One captures a mother celebrating her daughter’s 21st birthday with some gusto, a group strut it at a Zumba class, we see Muslims praying in the mosque.
In 2018, football fans cheer on the football gods (juxtaposed in the catalogue alongside Muslims at prayer – a happy accident, says Parr) but in the early works entertainment was provided by a miniskirted singer in a half-empty pub.
Media City in Salford opened in 2013 but already the BBC offices are a tad shabby with strange curved pods for staff to meet and exchange clever ideas. They look like a set for W1A, the comedy satire on the Beeb. As one would hope there is a foldaway bike of the type favoured by the cast in one of the pictures.
In 2018, tattoos are in, ties are off and trainers on.
A hen party looks on with some approval at a man holding a giant inflatable penis, the gay community, hidden in the seventies, is here in all its flamboyance.
“That to me is progress,” says Parr.
“The tolerance to the LGBT community when previously they would have been driven out of town, that’s a huge difference.” Parr has often been criticised for, as he puts it, taking the piss. A picture editor described him as “a gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people”.
In the 2018 collection a particularly nerdy individual in a woolly hat sporting a beard and T-shirt reading, ‘This is what a vegan looks like’ might well be open to mockery but Parr says: “He was wearing
the T-shirt, I got permission to photograph him with it on and he has been given a copy of the print. I told him what it was for – but he may not know he is a metre and a half high.
“I’ve been accused of everything under the sun but we always ask people and talk about what we want to do.
“This is just what happened one week in Manchester. When I think about all the bigger issues, everything from sustainability to the future of Britain, I get very depressed.”
“But I am an upbeat, positive person. The human qualities are the same. People are still people, predictable and
unpredictable at the same time, tribal, yet different. There are all these ambiguities and contradictions in society and within people.
“My feelings about Britain are a mixture of affection and concern. I’m trying to express that ambiguity.”
What he did not see in his week in Manchester – or at least photograph – was a reflection of the city’s underbelly, the violent crime, the sex attacks and robberies which are on the rise, the homelessness. On the 10-minute walk from the gallery to the station there are many sleeping rough.
But that is not his style. In the seventies
he made a documentary of Prestwich Mental Hospital, exhibited here, but rather than the bleak, gruelling depictions of suffering patients one might anticipate they are sympathetic, sometimes humorous.
So don’t expect to be shocked but do look forward to seeing the everyday in a new way. Parr says he will never be bored photographing people. There’s nothing boring about the people he has photographed in this show.
Martin Parr Return to Manchester runs at Manchesterart Gallery until April 22, 2019
2 CAPTURING A CITY:1 Martin Parr’s first published colour photograph. Manchester, 1971
32 Textile factory, Manchester, early 1970s3 A biker checks out movies in a video rental shop, Salford, 1986
2 CHANGING TIMES:1 June Street, Salford, 1973 Photo: Martin Parr & Daniel Meadows 2 Salford, 1986 Photo: Martin Parr 3 Textile factory, Manchester, 2018