Fotographi A Roma – My Martin Parr story

In Inspiration by Chris Foley


I’ve been a really big Martin Parr fan for many years. His were some of the first images I can remember staring into, being mesmerized by. Surely there are more mesmerizing photographers and I’ve come to be exposed to far more work over the past decade or more but I’ll never forget the first time I flipped through The Last Resort photo book in my local Barnes & Noble.

What struck me about this book was that the images were very much not what I expected. I had been looking through art photography books where everything was controlled, pre-imagined, cinematic even. This is the sort of photography I think I was into at that time; the images you’d expect to find on album covers and movie posters. Parr’s images were so different and his approach to photography was so fresh, so spontaneous. (I obviously had never seen any real street photography before that moment and I certainly wasn’t yet aware of Magnum Photos. This must have been around 2002 or 2003.)


The Last Resort was full of images that seemed to be snatched right out of normal, everyday life. Each photograph contained just the right combination of ingredients, assembled in all the right ways to produce a moment caught in time that served to evoke a mild sense of voyeurism in me.

With all of that said this wasn’t my biggest takeaway from that first exposure to Parr’s work. My biggest takeaway was that his images seemed to exude a unique sense of sarcasm. A mocking indictment of the vagaries of summer tourism. Growing up in New England I had seen all of the same ridiculous displays of weird humanity on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Newport, Rhode Island. And here these images were not only snapshots of vacation life but distinct editorial commentary smuggled inside of colorful pictures. And those colors! This was my first warning that images could do this.

Okay, enough of that. This isn’t what I sat down to write about tonight but the backstory had to be told. I came here to write about a photography exhibition I recently attended in Rome.

End of Backstory.

I have clients in Rome and I’m fortunate enough to visit them there 3-4 times every year. [remember when we used to travel??]

While I was there this past summer I stumbled onto the FOTOGRAPHI A ROMA, exhibition at Museo di Roma, which is situated at the Piazza Navona.

It was 7€ to get in, and took me a good 90 minutes to get through. All in all it was a very interesting exhibition, and was split into two distinct areas of focus.

The dry stuff

The first area was full of historical images of Rome shot in various parts of the city since the early days of photography. Those images were of historical value and interest but they were all straightforward documentary work; a fairly dry affair. Architecture. Arial views of piazzas and of the Tiber River. I quite enjoyed seeing what the Pantheon looked like in the 1930s, for instance, and it was fun to learn how many parts of the city had been transformed with the invention and increased popularity of automobiles.

The not dry stuff

The second area of focus was a rather large collection, spanning several rooms of the mansion, of photographs made all around Rome by prominent and celebrated photographers. Their vision. Their Rome.

Now, if I’m being honest, I found myself fairly disappointed in this second collection. Photos on display were made by the likes of Alec Soth, Paolo Pellegrin (who is Roman,) Anders Petersen, Tod Papageorge. JOSEF KOUDELKA for Pete’s sake – and somehow, most of these images were just okay. Not fascinating. Not their best work, but work they’d done in Rome. There wasn’t anything that stopped me in my tracks, made me catch my breath. Even the Koudelka images were just okay. Nothing that would be listed among Koudelka’s 1,000 finest images. Just, meh.


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And then something happened.

I turned a corner and found myself in what was to be the final room. There was a row of images displayed on one wall and I finally stopped in my tracks. I thought to myself “Wow, look at these!” The images stood out against the entirety of the show, not only for their vibrant colors, but for their subject matter, compositions and blocking; for their overall approach.

I glanced up at the sign mounted over the images: Martin Parr.

Of course.

I actually began to laugh out loud at my reaction. I saw the images first, was captivated by them, and only noticed the author’s name later.

This part of the experience was the highlight of my day, and the moral of the story is not that Parr’s images were the best of the exhibition. The moral of the story is that we know what we like. What struck me when I rounded that corner were the precise qualities I was struck by 16 or more years ago when I first discovered Parr’s work as a young man browsing in a bookstore.

I’ve since purchased several of his books, including The Last Resort, and Small World and they continue to delight me every time I open them.

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“My black-and-white work is more of a celebration, and the color work became more of a critique of society.”
~ Martin Parr