It was easy to find the way to Martin Parr's pop-up studio at The Hepworth Wakefield when the master photographer set up shop there on Saturday 20 February: just follow the signs or listen for the sound of laughter and barking.
The laughter came mainly from groups of families and friends as they gathered round a computer screen to choose which picture of themselves and their various pets they were going to have printed and framed. And the barking? By and large, the dogs themselves remained schtum: most of the noise came from Parr himself as he attempted to persuade recalcitrant canines to look at the camera…
Fourteen-year-old collie cross Storm took it all in his stride as the growling, yapping (very realistic, incidentally) photographer sought to attract his attention. Meanwhile, Storm's two-legged companions Richard Byrne, Steph Taylor, Charlie Oates and toddler Amelie Byrne, who had travelled from Leeds, were visibly struggling to keep straight(ish) faces at the goings-on.
“We're both big fans of Martin Parr's work so we're really excited to be here,” said Steph. “It's great seeing someone who we admire so much at work – and even better to be part of it.
“Storm's getting to be a senior citizen now, so one of the things we wanted to do is to create some good memories of Amelie with him. Out of all of us, he's the one who's the most laid back about everything!”
The same could hardly be said about another four-legged participant, Ed, the 15-year-old tabby point Siamese cat who accompanied Mark Robinson and Alice Rossi from Sheffield. Having watched Parr's barking antics, Alice predicted “Ed will just ignore everyone as usual,” and she wasn't wrong as, having reluctantly emerged from his carrying box, he proceeded to give a classic demonstration of feline awkwardness by hanging like a limp rag despite the best efforts of Mark, Alice and Martin (the latter with a chirruping call employed both on cats and babies) to prompt even a modicum of co-operation.
Having given it up as a bad job and returned Ed to his carrier, however, the couple relished their time in front of the camera. “We
admire Martin's photography,” said Mark. “It's very natural and fun, a celebration of ordinary things. We didn't have any preconceived ideas of what we wanted out of the session, we were just 'leave it to the expert' and we're sure the result will be brilliant.”
Alice and Martin were among more than 70 groups of families and friends from all over the country who took the opportunity to have their portraits taken by the renowned documentary photographer at this one of the several events coinciding with his current Hepworth exhibition The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories. The 12-strong combined Everest and Mattingley family group had, in the words of elder statesman Kelvin Everest, “converged on Wakefield from Liverpool, London and Manchester for an opportunity that seemed too good to miss”. With a combined age of 361 years – plus nine months for baby Rhoda – they came armed with a weird and wonderful selection of props which suggested they were entering fully into the quirky spirit which characterises much of Parr's output.
“Each item symbolises someone who has passed on, or someone's interest or passion,” explained Kelvin. So while his grandson carried a policeman's helmet in memory of the youngster's great-grandad's occupation, a daughter brought a copper watering can to reflect her love of gardening and Kelvin's wife held up a copy of a book on the poetry of Shelley which her University of Liverpool professor husband had edited. As for the stuffed ferret, it seemed diplomatic not to ask…
Once each group's time in Parr's viewfinder was over, they reviewed the resulting shots with the aid of his studio manager Jennifer Smith – and judging from the peals of laughter regularly arising in that corner of the room, no-one was anything but royally entertained by the results.
While it was obvious that every one of the photographic subjects was having wow of a time from start to finish (OK, Ed, we'll concede that you found it all to be beneath your dignity), there were two aspects of
Parr's role in proceedings which stood out. The first was his eye for detail in arranging the participants: how turning a foot one way rather than the other, for example, made all the difference to a pose and consequently to the whole shot. They're the kind of things the majority of us would never notice – and perhaps the ability to spot them is one of the skills which elevate the likes of Martin Parr above the millions of point-and-shoot snappers.
The second observation was how much he was enjoying himself. This appointment was clearly no mere contractual obligation for Parr: he entered fully into the spirit of the event – in fact it could be argued he actually created it with his highly-visible enthusiasm – and this rubbed off on the people he was putting in the picture.
His feet, shutter finger and barking muscles had probably had enough by the time the last shot was taken – but for hundreds of happy people and one nonplussed cat, Martin Parr's marathon effort will have created some pictures to treasure as well as a host of long-lasting memories.
The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories is at The Hepworth Wakefield until Sunday 12 June. For more information and details of other associated events, go to www.hepworthwakefield.org.