In Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” James Stewart plays a befuddled mid-Westerner caught-up in a grand conspiracy he can’t untangle. The first half of the film takes place in Morocco, and there are scenes in which Stewart and Doris Day are shown winging around Marrakesh in a carriage, bus, or convertible, while a film of street scenes is projected behind them.
It’s an old Hollywood trick, one employed for years to cut costs of location shooting. But in Hitchcock’s case, the lighting’s wrong. Shadows fall to the right in the foreground and lean left in the background. The illusion is of a reality that cannot be believed.
There’s a likeness between rear-projected scenes of car conversations in old movies and Martin Parr’s new book, “Mexico” (Aperture $40.00). All foreground and background, an absent middle.
Which is not to say Parr’s sandwich has no meat. Like Hitchcock, he’s a master at making you see exactly what he wants you to see. In fact, he may be the best at it, but it comes with a cost. As Parr’s career has developed, his hand has become heavier. As a photographer, I wonder what he’s left out, what uncomposed mess lurks outside the edges of his frames.
Inside Parr’s crops, the light’s great, the subject’s been pinned-down, and whatever is happening in the background (if anything) further accentuates the primacy of the subject. With no middle-ground, there’s no grey area, no room to second-guess, get lost or reconsider. But technically, his pictures are faultless.
At least Parr’s conceit is clear. Mexico looks a lot like England and Africa and Japan. All have McDonald’s and Marlboros, and people tend to wear gaudy clothes, eat bad food, and worship American culture wherever they may live. This is not new news, but it’s a fight that needs to be picked. While other photographers at Magnum concentrate on how our differences make us the same, Parr seems intent on finding how our similarities smother us. How mass culture’s a brightly-colored curse.
In Mexico, Parr found men who posed for portraits wearing ball caps from American sports teams. He found chocolate mice, pink doughnuts and iguanas. A man in a triangular rain tarp posed beneath a pyramid. Martin Parr went to Mexico and all he bought me was this lousy t-shirt.
Parr’s early work allowed his subjects a little breathing room, space to be themselves. Now, his inspection of gastrointestinal grotesqueries feel like substitutes for pictures of people. Many of Parr’s food photos (unlike the one below) read like family photos in which the kids have faces “only a mother could love.”
It’s as if Parr’s become The Man Who Knew Too Much. He knows what he knows about globalization, about the culture of commerce, and is comfortable in his own certainty. Within that expertly created perspective, he’s able to find unique surprises, and his pictures contain little blessings that are to be admired. Ultimately, the pages of “Mexico” fly by quickly, as in a magazine. After the quick jokes, there’s no real reason to slow down, stop and linger.
My trouble with “Mexico” is the same trouble I have with television. You don’t have to watch it to know what’s going on. Inexactly, just because something’s expertly made doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. (I think I enjoyed the opening essay and the design of the book more than most of the photographs. I didn’t want to say that, but there it is.)
Parr’s capacity for irony is his calling card, and in Mexico he found plenty of ripe examples, juxtaposing cartoon characters, crypts and cellophane. But Parr’s ironic distance relies on creating the illusion that Mexico is exactly what he says it is. James Stewart and Doris Day may be having an important conversation about who kidnapped their kid, but I can’t keep from wondering why there’s a blurry film playing behind them. Same for “Mexico”. The foregrounds are so bright, so crisp and obvious, my eyes are drawn to figure out what’s happening in the blurred backgrounds.
In directing our attention (like a good advertisement) to what’s important, Parr misses out on the hallmarks of art photography; mystery, wonder, and the chance to truly stun. Parr’s “Mexico” ultimately feels like it’s more about Martin Parr than Mexico, which isn’t a surprise — the photographer’s name is on the cover 154 times.
“Mexico” is available on Amazon.