In Real Food, Martin Parr collects images from previous essays, notably British Food and Common Sense, also drawing on Hong Kong, Parrjektif: Istanbul, Mexico and various others. Assembled here, they narrate Parr’s interest in quotidian minutiae, sometimes garish, sometimes affectionate, always recognisable. This is a story of occasional food: street food and Saturday sixpence treats.
Parr’s books often have a strong material presence, resistant to an e-reader culture. Parking Spaces’ suede binding, the velvet of Parrjektif– now Real Food has Parr’s characteristic inventive design, a cover evoking nostalgia for the PVC tablecloth of childhood meal-times. Within, images are paired cogently, often wittily, as with the mirrored Mickey Mouse icons (pp 70-71), and the triangle of red napkin echoing the shapes of strawberries balanced on jigsaw boxes (p.122-3).
Mainly, these images are public rather than domestic, and though the food is largely processed, alarmingly gaudy, we recognise it, often nostalgically. The food comes from street markets, and corner shops. No shiny aisles of hypermarkets: we see table cloths, sticky fingers, vegetable stalls with hand-written signs. Parr stays close to the moments of eating.
In curating this essay, closeness is a deliberate choice. Many shots adopt the perspective of someone about eat: an ice-cream sundae with glacé cherry and straw so close it moves out of focus, a gravy-boat ready to pour, a luminous lemon meringue. Importantly, many pictures take a child’s point of view, yearning for sugary doughnuts, iced buns like fluorescent skulls, hypnotic multi-coloured jelly. Only those with hearts of stone could fail to respond to the rainbow-layered cake (page 149), though perhaps without wishing to eat any! A more austere image, afternoon light across triangles of white bread on a gingham cloth (p.60) provoked a stream of readers’ comments in The Guardian (10-04-16) affirming the nostalgia Parr creates in reminding them of grandmothers and childhood.
Not many of the images include people; when present, they are often truncated, so hands holding dripping cornets represent imminent pleasure (pp134-5). Parr captures immediacy with the biting teeth, clutching hands, greedy enthusiasm. Selecting close-up images reduces context, yet there is enough detail to tell us of a kitsch world of fetes and fun-fairs. Popular culture is constantly present: a bright lolly waves before a Spice Girls poster, Disney motifs recur. Fragmentary details suggest the eaters: blue nail varnish, a gold sovereign ring, a child’s dirty finger nails, a willow-pattern plate, a doily. And of course, Parr is too wise to omit the sausage jokes, a staple of popular humour. Through such details we find the layered skill of Parr’s essay; though he shows our foods, he is talking about our societies.
Some images are mini-sagas, with the compressed eloquence of Hemingway’s six word “novel”: For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn. With Real Food, subtitles suggest themselves: ‘The Widower’s Teatime’ (p.53) and ‘Homesick’ – the bleak boarding house breakfast (p.55). With these, Parr delicately implies personal wastelands.
This is shared demotic territory; no molecular chemistry (Parr also photographed El Bulli), no gentrified artisan markets. Parr shows the small pleasures of the ordinary world, and the gusto of daily life punctuated by treats, where it is not calories that count, but conviviality.
Parr’s intense, saturated colour can attract and repel simultaneously; his work pulls us in, yet often we are pushed away by what he reveals in unforgiving close-up: the stains, the grease,the smears . The cleverness of his vision is contradictory; Susan Sontag’s words (Notes On Camp, 1966) might have been meant for Real Food: “It’s good because it’s awful.”
– reviewed by Patricia Baker-Cassidy
Real Food by Martin Parr was published by Phaidon April 2016