Before selfies were called selfies, before smartphones and selfie sticks — if you wanted a portrait of yourself, you sat in a coin-operated photobooth or went to a photo studio to get a “professional” portrait. Photo studios and old-fashioned portrait photographers often relied on gimmicks or tricks, too, to make the portraits look as if you were in some exotic land, or in an improbable situation. (Serious photographers like Francesca Woodman could still do-it-themselves with tripods and cable releases, or self-timers, or mirrors and reflections.)
For the last 30 years, Magnum photographer Martin Parr celebrated these gimmicky, cheesy portrait shots — while traveling around the world on assignments for global media, he would often make side trips to take advantage of goofy set-ups and funky photo studios in diverse and far-flung cultures. This long-term project became a very popular photobook in the year 2000, and in 2015, an updated and expanded versions was re-published — because Parr didn’t stop his project, and people loved the book.
Autoportrait is a delight to those of us who appreciate Martin Parr’s irony and dry sense of humor. In each ridiculous image, Parr assumes a staid and unsmiling pose. The result is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of some of the worst portrait taking in popular culture — ranging from elaborate studio sets reminiscent of the heyday of the Victorian studio photographer, through to digitally manipulated images of Parr as Mr. Universe, or images horrendously re-touched by a studio in their attempts to flatter him.
Presented in chronological order, the photos follow Parr as he ages gently on his travels across continents. And although there are some stand-alone gems, what really makes this collection so great is the long-term visionary nature of this extended “documentary” project about portraiture and self-portraiture and the business of portrait photography. As a collection, the images are priceless and fun and provide unwritten thought-provoking commentary on human nature. Why do people love this kind of kitsch so much?
See for yourself. The cover of the new addition is actually a real 3D game, where by tilting the book back and forth and twisting it, you can try to guide a silver ball through a plastic maze to get to the prize in the center — yes, a portrait of the artist, yet again.
— Jim Casper
by Martin Parr
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Hardcover: 144 pages