Martin Parr and the Legacy of British Colonial Photography

Cammie Tipton

Palavras-chave: colonial photography; postcolonial studies; documentary photography; British photography; still life photography

Participação: on-line

The British contemporary photographer Martin Parr, in his short photobook, 7 Colonial Still Lifes (2005), delivers seven seemingly banal and benign images of remnants of British colonization in Sri Lanka. Through a simple bowl of porridge, a few jam cakes and a cheap tuxedo, Parr has invited us to “see colonially,” to use a period-eye that invokes the nineteenth century birth of photography as well as the height of the British colonial empire.

With his groundbreaking color collection, The Last Resort (1986), Parr solidified his position as a forerunner in British contemporary color photography. However, several critics, as well as audiences, rendered harsh reviews concerning his representation of the working-class people of Northern New Brighton. Critics saw the collection as distantly judgmental, coolly patronizing, even “fascist.” For years afterward, Parr was unable to escape the reactions to his first color output. Why was the criticism so harsh? What was the specific lens that facilitated Parr’s controversial images? I argue that what Parr’s critics and viewers saw was the historically established legacy of British colonial photography. What the critics saw was an “othering” of the working-class people of the North, and they were reacting to a colonial lens used by many early British photographers. Drawing on James Ryan’s interpretation of an early photographic way of seeing, beginning in the nineteenth century, I explore my own term of “seeing colonially” and how Parr uses this technique to questionable ends when aimed at human subjects, however, this lens illuminates new ways of viewing Parr’s work when aimed at the British empire itself.

Parr’s defenders have safeguarded his images in The Last Resort and his overall reputation by arguing that he is simply employing humor in his photographs. As late as 2019, during Parr’s second major retrospective, defenders were still using humor as the primary defense against any photographic transgressions. However, I claim that scholars of British photography will be well acquainted with the “othering” lens of colonial photography and can quite easily identify the historically contentious relationship between photography and colonialism. Through the nineteenth century British colonial photographer John Thomson and his collection Street Life in London (1877), I am able to link Parr’s images from The Last Resort to a historical “othering” of the British people. Thomson and Parr, both documentary street photographers, employ identical tactics and achieve strikingly similar results. Moreover, I connect Parr’s invitation to see colonially in 7 Colonial Still Lifes to Thomson’s own under-explored, colonial still life photography. This historical legacy between Parr and British colonial photography provides us with a fresh perspective in which to view his entire oeuvre.


Parr Martin. 7 Colonial Still Lifes. Tucson 2005
Ryan James. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. 1997.
Hall Stuart Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon eds. Representation. 2nd ed. London 2013
Thomson John and Adolphe Smith. Street Life in London. London 1877.
Hochstrasser Julie Berger. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven 2007.


Cammie Tipton-Amini is Assistant Curator at Public Art, University of Houston System. Her areas of research interest are contemporary British photography and its intersection with postcolonial theory.