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Over the Top and Dead On Right – Review of “Fashion Faux Parr” by Martin Parr

I should begin with a disclaimer.  I think a lot of haute couture is preposterous.

I do realize style is exactly that – style – and what we wear or carry is one of the many ways we define ourselves to ourselves and others. I do realize a lot of what we wear or carry, finally, has little to do with function and everything to do with mood and race and class and gender and age and status quo versus avant garde and new ways of expression. In other words, when I look at the fashion world and fashion photography, I do know what I’m looking at.

I still think it’s silly.


“Fashion Faux Parr” by Martin Parr
Published by Phaidon, 2024
review by W. Scott Olsen


So, perhaps I am not the best person to review a book on high-end fashion photography. While I often admire the photographic quality of images I see in clothing catalogs that arrive at our house, the high-concept work from trend-setting houses leaves me feeling more sorry for the models than wanting the products.

That being said, let me also say I enjoy, admire, and really like a new book called Fashion Faux Parr by well-known documentary and fashion photographer Martin Parr. Here is a book that energizes and celebrates the exaggerations and weirdness of our love for high style. Every page of this book has loud fun and subtle insight.

New York, USA, 2019. Commissioned by Vogue USA. Picture credit: © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos (pages 248-249)

In an introductory essay called “An Authentic World of Fashion,” fashion designer Patrick Grant writes:

The very best of his [Parr’s] fashion photography celebrates the same kitsch that was the hallmark of his early colour documentary work. Amusement arcades, petrol stations, the beach and greasy spoons are his sets. His shoes, handbags and accessories come leaping off the page in juicy bursts, like the vibrant ice creams and beach paraphernalia of The Last Resort. Cherry buns with rings on top, cuffs with cruets, bad carpets, plastic mops and other assorted ephemera…all feature prominently in his idiosyncratic take on fashion photography showcased in this book.

Exactly!

He goes on to say:

Martin’s fashion images feature the uncomfortable angles and the odd crops that are his stock in trade as a documentary photographer, the frame full with action all the way to the edges. Kaleidoscope patterns in clothes, accessories and backgrounds combine to pull the audience in. It is hard to know where the real world ends and the fashion begins and that blurring of reality and fiction is a large part of the joy of it.

Katz’s Delicatessen, New York, USA, 2018. Commissioned by Vogue USA. Picture credit: © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos (pages 258-259)

In another bit of preface writing, fashion designer Tabitha Simmons describes a working day with Parr:

Martin’s ability to find beauty and intrigue in the most unlikely places was eye-opening…a rocking horse sporting a Balenciaga shoulder bag sheathed in rhinestones, a rusting stone statue carrying a Fendi Baguette laden with silver paillettes… Martin would direct me, saying ‘Put the necklace on the chandelier; actually, no, put it on the teddy bear,’ which ended up being one of my favourite pictures from the story: a lonesome teddy bear that was a bit rough around the edges, suddenly lit up by being crowned by a Givenchy necklace.

The book is divided into chapters: Gucci, Arles, Vogue Espana, Models and Fashionistas, Designed By…, Best of British, Vogue at the Museum, and The Show Must Go On. Within each chapter, the images usually get small captions or bits of context that explain the context and client.

Versailles, France, 2023. Commissioned by Jacquemus. Picture credit: © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos (pages 280-281) 

When I look at the book as evidence of fashion, I often wince. That’s just my sense of taste or lack of taste. However, when I look at the book as a book of photographs – in other words, when I pay attention to the art of the image versus the art of the cotton – I find myself deeply impressed. I find myself having a wonderful and joyful time going through the pages. There are explosions of color and energy on every page. The contradictions and complexities of each setting are rich. There’s often an explicit or implied narrative that is frankly absurd and impossible to parse out in the real world. That’s what makes this book so much fun.

The moment I stop looking at the pages and thinking I would never wear that, and I would be embarrassed to see anybody else wearing that, and I start looking at them as compositions of people and light and color and shadow, I could not be more impressed.

Fashion Faux Parr. Martin Parr. With essays by Patrick Grant and Tabitha Simmons. Phaidon

I think, perhaps, there is an editorial statement being made in the title of this book: Fashion Faux Parr. Of course, the title is a bit of wit, the same sense of play and humor found in the images. Not only does faux mean false or imitation, but there’s a strong echo of faux pas, which means slip, blunder, and embarrassing public mistake. It would be wrong to claim that Parr is producing an indictment of the fashion industry. But there is no way to ignore the way the book is self-aware.

This is a book I would have opened, assuming it was about clothes and accessories, and put right back down. However, knowing now this as a book demonstrating a huge photographic talent, I believe it is eloquent, dynamic, creative and inspiring.

Parr is a member of the Magnum agency. According to the book, “Martin Parr’s distinctive style has established him as a leading cultural commentator in contemporary photography. Since the 1970s, he has depicted subjects ranging from consumerism and British identity to the art of the self-portrait…Parr has published over 120 photobooks, and his work has been recognized with major awards and over 100 exhibitions worldwide.”

A note from FRAMES: Please let us know if you have an upcoming or recently published photography book.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>


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