Seeing Colonially: Martin Parr, John Thomson and the British Photographic Imagination



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The British contemporary photographer Martin Parr’s collection 7 Colonial Still Lifes (2005) delivers banal images of remnants of British colonization in Sri Lanka. Parr’s early collection The Last Resort (1986) was harshly critiqued for its judgmental lens of the working-class British, with critics decrying it “cruel”, even “fascist”. Some identified a contemporary “othering” in Parr’s imagery, yet this line of reasoning was never explored fully. I form a postcolonial reading to argue that what Parr’s critics sensed was the historical legacy of British colonial photography. Parr reversed the traditional colonial trope of “othering” onto England’s own working class, a technique the artist formulated that actively emulates the earliest photographic practices of the mid-nineteenth century. I connect The Last Resort to the nineteenth century British colonial photographer John Thomson’s collection Street Life in London (1877). Thomson spent his early career as a prolific photographer in service to the British Empire, capturing images throughout Asia for imperial expansion. Thomson is the first photographer to reverse the colonial lens onto his own British people with similar results, through which I am able to establish a visual legacy between Thomson and Parr. Moreover, Parr’s unexamined still lifes from Sri Lanka, in relation to Thomson’s under-examined, experimental still lifes from Hong Kong, further strengthen these connections. However, the genre of still life, with its Dutch colonial-capitalist origins and its inherent relationship to advertising, enables Parr to surreptitiously reveal dark realities of the colonial project that street photography is simply not able. In Parr’s still lifes, the traditional colonial lens is (again) subverted, exposing the horrors and absurdities of colonization.



British documentary photography, Martin Parr, John Thomson, color photography, colonial photography, colonial still life photography, still life photography, twentieth century photography