The first collection I encountered of Martin Parr’s was “Think of England”, a set of images of the English at play, containing several photographs of Brighton seafront. I was struck immediately by the humour of the photographs, the visual puns and sly references to other images. This ability to both document and comment is what to my mind separates the great observational photographers from the run of the mill and it is a characteristic that runs through Parr’s photography like the wording in a stick of rock.
“The Non-Conformists” then is a departure of sorts, a tightly themed compendium of monochrome images taken between 1975 and 1980 documenting the chapel and farming communities around Hebden Bridge and Calderdale in Yorkshire. The words are provided by Parr’s wife Susie and the resulting project is a crystallisation of a way of life that is now practically extinct. This old worldliness is both striking to the outsider and very typical of Yorkshire, a county that has always struggled with modernity. My childhood memories of Brylcreem and Billy Walker, bakelite and diesel in Richmond and Swaledale during the early 1960’s seem more typical of the austerity of the 1950’s than the flower power of the sixties. Sure enough, the images in the book suggest another era entirely, more closely resembling the fifties than the onrushing punk rock explosion of the seventies.
My favourite section of the book, one that absolutely nails the class divide that is so very pronounced in Yorkshire is the chapter entitled “Grouse Shooting”. Here we see the thin lipped upper classes and their pampered spaniels at play; enthusiastically engaged in the massacre of the wildlife of the moors. Beaters, one memorably captured upended in the snow, drive craftier fowl out of their hiding places and into the guns.
Other riches offered by this book include the sublime brilliance of the photograph of the Anniversary tea at the Steep Lane Methodist Chapel, the participants lined up along the long table, posh hats and twinsets framed beneath a reproduction of “The Last Supper” and the wonderful series documenting Hebden Bridge Picture House, a struggling provincial independent cinema, where weather, seasonal sales and a paucity of available films conspire to keep the crowds away.
In summary, a wonderful, rewarding book, quite likely to be my favourite of the year. Highly recommended.