Flush life: Parr snaps the trappings

Martin Parr, "Birdview," The Melbourne Cup, Australia. 2008, pigment print, 40 x 60 inches, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.
Martin Parr, "Birdview," The Melbourne Cup, Australia. 2008, pigment print, 40 x 60 inches, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

“I’m very much in favor of photographing things that are about to change or might change,” said Martin Parr during his “INsight Conversation” during Look3, Festival of the Photograph. Call him prescient because many of the subjects in his Second Street Gallery exhibition, “Luxury,” are no doubt  living a little less large these days.

Interested in consumerism and globalization, Parr spent the past several years traveling the world to shoot lifestyles of the rich and occasionally famous. The 42 oversized, color images tacked to SSG’s walls with magnets put the “conspicuous” back in conspicuous consumption, as Parr cheekily exposes the look-at-me / don’t-look-at-me accoutrements the wealthy use as stamps of identity. (Lesson #1: If you want to pass for affluent, don’t leave home without your Dior sunglasses.)

Parr is less intrigued by his subjects as individuals than he is by the way they position themselves in social situations. Faces are often obscured in favor of highlighting telling, often hilarious details. For instance, in a photo taken at Australia’s Melbourne Cup, Parr focuses on an orange bird atop a woman’s hat that appears engaged in examining another woman on the left edge of the frame. Rather than show us the face of the hat’s wearer, Parr instead presents the back of her head, where her golden brown hair elides with the iridescent feathered fringe on her cap.

With a professed love of stereotypes, Parr skillfully finds moments that fulfill societal caricatures, and his in-your-face crayon colors– “I stole the palette of commercial photography,” he admitted at the Paramount– add to the cartoonish effect. In one image, a heavy-browed young woman in Moscow stares into space as she puffs on a fat cigar with two martini glasses and gold coins spread on a table in front of her. The picture is awash in shades of gold, from the woman’s sparkling amber nails to the ochre tablecloth– except for the grey fur stole draped over her shoulders, the beady eyes of the dead animal seeming to engage the viewer in a moment of truth.

Almost like a wildlife photographer, Parr shoots the wealthy in their natural habitats–parties, sporting events, and art openings– exposing their odd habits (e.g. clutching little dogs) and distinctive markings. In so doing, he has perhaps captured the last gasps of an endangered species, given the cataclysmic change in the economic climate. Discussing “Luxury” he observed, “Now it’s more of an epitaph.”

Martin Parr’s “Luxury” is on view as part of Look3, Festival of the Photograph through July 18 at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE. 977-7284.