All systems grow: Martin Parr and the Rhubarb Triangle

05 February 2016

Photographer Martin Parr has carved a niche documenting British society in all its everyday glory. WILLIAM COOK catches up with him in the unlikely setting of a shed full of rhubarb in deepest, darkest Yorkshire to discuss his new exhibition, The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories, at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery.

GB. England. West Yorkshire. Wakefield. David Asquith. The Rhubarb Triangle. 2015. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos. Courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.

I’m standing in a windowless shed in a muddy field on the edge of Wakefield. As my eyes adjust to the twilight I realise I’m stranded in a sea of rhubarb, a crowd of bright pink stalks amid the gloom.

There are dozens of other people in here: reporters, camera crews, hangers-on... We’ve all come here to meet Martin Parr, arguably Britain’s greatest living photographer. What are we all doing here? What on earth is going on?

We’ve all come here to meet Martin Parr, arguably Britain’s greatest living photographer

Martin Parr’s photographs reveal the extraordinary amid the ordinary, and when The Hepworth Wakefield asked him to make a new exhibition for their handsome modern gallery, the subject he chose was rhubarb growers in a corner of the Pennines popularly known as the Rhubarb Triangle.

Here the plants are taken inside before they sprout, and then cultivated in almost total darkness. Deprived of light, they grow furiously, searching for sunlight. The result is an elegant, delicious plant with a longer, sweeter stem.

Most photographers would struggle to find anything interesting in these dark, drab sheds. Forcing rhubarb requires skill and patience, but it’s also hard, monotonous and humdrum.

However Martin specialises in finding drama in the most mundane places. His portraits of these rhubarb growers are full of fascinating human detail. ‘I’m a very nosy person,’ he says. It’s this nosiness that makes his perceptive photos so intriguing.

So why is rhubarb grown like this around Wakefield, and nowhere else? Two reasons: Yorkshire climate and Yorkshire industry.

These plants like a good hard frost to get them going (they originated in Siberia) and then warmth to make them sprout.

Martin Parr. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.
Parr's rhubarb photos on display at the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.

The Pennines supply the cold, the local coalfields supplied the heat. These plants also need lots of nitrogen. ‘Shoddy’ (a waste product from the nearby cotton mills) is full of the stuff. Today the mills and mines are long gone, but the Rhubarb Triangle lives on.

The current ‘foodie’ renaissance has given the Rhubarb Triangle a new lease of life

There used to be hundreds of rhubarb farms around here. Now there are only a dozen.

Supermarkets started importing cheap foreign fruit, rhubarb became associated with school dinners.

However the current ‘foodie’ renaissance has given the Rhubarb Triangle a new lease of life.

Consumers are rediscovering local varieties. Forced rhubarb has become a delicacy.

Martin’s rhubarb pictures form the centrepiece of his new exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, but this one man show also doubles as a survey of his earlier work.

Rhubarb grower by his portrait. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.
A display of Parr's earlier work. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.
Parr's early work. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.
Viewers at the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.

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Back at The Hepworth, Martin takes us on a guided tour. ‘This is a Yorkshire sandwich,’ he says, with a boyish grin, explaining the format of this show, which begins and ends in Yorkshire.

Parr spots the things we miss, the incidental details that reveal what’s really happening

As you walk through this airy gallery (a sunlit contrast to those gloomy rhubarb sheds) you realise this rugged county has shaped his entire career.

Martin Parr was born in 1952, in Epsom, Surrey. Although he was raised in the Home Counties, in the heart of the Stockbroker Belt, his grandparents lived in Yorkshire, and Martin spent his childhood holidays there.

His grandfather, George Parr, was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. It was George who inspired Martin to become a photographer.

George was also a Methodist lay preacher, and Martin’s first major series was The Non-Conformists, a monochrome study of Yorkshire’s stark and simple chapels, and the folk who worship there.

Parr spots the things we miss, the incidental details that reveal what’s really happening. Even in these early photos, taken in the late 1970s, you can sense his discerning eye.

His breakthrough show was The Last Resort, an uncompromising study of day trippers at New Brighton, a rundown beach resort beside the Mersey.

These pictures were in colour, which was still seen as radical in the early 1980s. ‘If you were a serious photographer, you had to work in black and white.’ Yet what was really radical was his treatment of his subjects.

Some critics accused him of demeaning the working classes. It’s an accusation he refutes. These pictures pull no punches, but they never descend into mockery. Like any decent artist, he’s simply telling it like it is.

GB. England. West Yorkshire. Calderdale. Halifax. Steep Lane Baptist Chapel buffet lunch. 1976. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos. Courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.

Initially, Martin was a bit rattled by this controversy, but he soon realised it was no bad thing. ‘Suddenly, the work became more of a critique of society.’

If I knew how to take a good photograph I would probably stop doing it!
Martin Parr

From then on, he never looked back.

His subsequent studies of the middle classes reveal the discreet tragedy of Middle England. Even at Conservative tea parties and Badminton horse trials, he finds pathos and pain.

Martin Parr has travelled the world, from Barrow in Furness to St Moritz, but everywhere he goes, his approach to photography remains much the same.

‘My main subject matter is the leisure time of the west,’ he says. ‘I have tried to focus on very everyday things and very everyday activities.’

Yet in these everyday events, he captures those fleeting revelations that uncover what his subjects are really thinking – the emotion behind the mask.

‘I take a lot of bad photos – most of the photos that I take are bad,’ he chuckles. ‘If I knew how to take a good photograph I would probably stop doing it!’

Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield.

The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories is at The Hepworth Wakefield from 4 February to 12 June 2016.

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