The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories 

There are few photographers who achieve the delicate balance of the humdrum and the absurd as well as Martin Parr. His new major exhibition at the Hepworth brings together a wealth of subjects from across his career, with backdrops ranging from theme parks to biscuit factories.

Brand new commission The Rhubarb Triangle marks a year spent observing the production of forced rhubarb in West Yorkshire, an industry sustained over two centuries. Parr’s photographs are testament to how intensive the process truly is; workers are hunched over in a bleak and unforgiving landscape, with grave expressions and boots caked in mud. Despite the emphasis on labour, however, there are still whimsical moments, such as the scenes of vibrant red stalks being plucked from the soil by candlelight.

The sequence also features Wakefield’s food festival, with rhubarb reinstated as cosy pudding staple, the townsfolk congregating to sample its many forms. In one image, a little girl in a pink coat and Frozen leggings reaches out to shake hands with a beaming apparition in a rhubarb costume. It’s these bizarre moments which Parr excels at -- for all the surface drabness of modern British towns, with their ‘To Let’ placards and scaffolding, he manages to release the shutter at precisely the moment something special happens. The series serves as the perfect springboard for becoming reacquainted with Parr’s earlier works, which also explore the interplay between day jobs and downtime.

Work & Leisure, 1986-2015, for instance, brings together several defining images from Parr’s career. Alongside the hypnotic beach scenes for which he is celebrated, there are photographs in which inane office conversations are imbued with unexpected drama, while in Utah an Employee of the Month award is held aloft like an Oscar.

Next, Common Sense 1995-9: a grid of 350 dazzling close-ups. Gaudy as a Woolworths confectionery aisle, these images focus less on people than on things: fast food, Barbie dolls, Spice Girls t-shirts. The layout of the works call to mind the rolling, lavish display of an Instagram feed, a surprisingly prescient quality given that the photographs were taken two decades ago. It’s a shrewd comment on the ways we focus on, and assign value to, material commodities.

Also displayed is The Last Resort, 1983-85, a study of holidaymakers in the seaside town of New Brighton. The work was famously attacked for what was seen as its condescending portrayal of the working-classes, with claims that the photographs’ vast canopies of litter and children sunbathing on grubby stretches of concrete were exploitative. Nevertheless, as a deconstruction of northern life during the 1980s it remains a fascinating body of work.

Taken over a period of three years, several during the heatwave of 1983, the photographs offer a glimpse of a town hell-bent on escaping the drudgeries of everyday life -- no mean feat considering the economic hardships imposed on Merseyside at that time. For all their grubbiness, British seaside towns were once a mainstay of people’s leisure-time, and the series is a poignant reminder of their lost vitality.  

It’s also interesting to consider the huge changes in the way that holidays are documented, a shift Parr is keenly aware of. In a blog post deconstructing the rise of “selfie sticks”, he reflects: “The tourism industry, which is the biggest in the world, now dictates that the first requirement of any trip is to prove you were there with the necessary photo. It connects you to the world that we know and understand, and is a vital part of any successful holiday experience.”

Yet this glib, competitive holiday aesthetic didn’t exist in the same way during the 1980s, when albums were unlikely to be circulated beyond someone’s living room. Perhaps that’s what gives these images their intrusive quality: the arresting glare of the permed young woman at the ice-cream stand implies that you have stepped into a domain you have no right to be.

For all the controversy generated by The Last Resort, it could be argued that the works in The Cost of Living, 1986-9, also exhibited, offer a more savage portrait of British society. Where The Last Resort fizzes with life, families seizing the occasion to lap up rays of elusive sunlight, this later work focuses on the carefully-constructed private universe of the upper-middle classes. Behold: their preoccupation with unruffled interiors and preened lawns; their stuffy craft fairs and Conservative garden parties, where women in floral dresses frown stiffly at one another while their balding husbands stand pompously upright. The younger generation are present too, at horse trials and aerobics sessions, or shuffling along in gabardines as their mothers escort them to prep school.

The overall effect is reminiscent of eighteenth-century conversation-piece paintings. The subjects, whether caught off-guard or standing to attention, seem entrenched within their environment, anxious to be defined in terms of their bulging wallets and supposedly excellent taste.

There are earlier works on show here too, such as The Non-Conformists, 1975-80, a study of parishioners in Hebden Bridge. These are displayed unassumingly in small mounted frames, and being black and white, lack the arresting, almost garish palette we now associate with Parr.

Yet this quaint rendering of village life, when people would dress in their Sunday best to sit quietly in pews, is just as pronounced in its evocation of Englishness. One image shows a woman slipping sugar into her tea beneath a huge painting of the Last Supper, a fairly bald reminder of the way religion could loom over daily life in small, rural communities. Another depicting villagers in tweeds jostling at a buffet could be almost be the promotional image for a nostalgic family film.

Certainly, it’s this atmosphere of nostalgia which seems to define Parr, so it’s satisfying that he’s managed to find robust new material in The Rhubarb Triangle. No matter how recognisably English the scene, he still finds ways to subvert the viewer’s expectations and stumble upon a gloriously jarring note. You think you’ve got it all figured out, then along comes the man in a rhubarb suit.

2016. Previously unpublished.