Elaine Constantine, photographer and filmmaker, on a picture by Martin Parr
GB Tell me why you chose this.
EC It’s one of my favourite images in the whole world. I find it beautiful aesthetically even though there was no motivation from Martin Parr to create a beautiful picture. He’s so interested in things culturally tHat he doesn’t look for the perfect composition, it’s more haphazard because he wants to quickly capture a moment with as many cultural references in it as possible – and often a little humour. This is a picture from the Silver Jubilee in 1977 when all the street parties were happening. From my perspective, there was so much excitement. We were simple people. NF hadn’t come into play. You just had these wonderful, colourful Union Jacks and this sense of pride. It was the last moment in my life that I can remember the country coming together over something and having a real sense of community. When I see this picture, apart from it looking so beautiful, it’s so tragic. I imagine that the community is based around factory workers who probably wouldn’t have got the day off because they work shifts. Everything looks homemade so there’s this sense of all the excitement being dashed by the weather. That’s what it’s like up there. It must have come down so fast that they left their pork pies behind. In that area there’s this huge valley where it rains all the time. It’s in Yorkshire and the cotton industry is based there because it’s damp. But for one day it could have been bright!
GB So it actually brings back a poignant personal moment for you.
EC It is personal but there’s something mystical about the picture too because it’s black and white and a bit like all the pictures you grew up with about the history of this and that, so it has that one removed feeling.
GB Can you remember when you first saw it?
EC It was about twenty years ago. When I first got into photography, Martin Parr was quite controversial. I started photography in my early twenties when I was unemployed. There was a darkroom for unemployed people in Bury and it was full of old men who were amateur photographers but had no interest in art. There was one guy who came into the group who was more middle class and a bit more educated. He said I should look at Martin Parr’s work because my pictures were a bit like that. I was just shooting with a camera I’d borrowed from the centre. It probably looked a bit brash to him, but to me it just looked normal. He showed me Martin Parr’s work and explained that he didn’t like it because he thought it was taking the piss out of people. But I instantly loved it. Taste is so shaped by our own experiences.
GB Do you think you have to be part of it to be able to laugh at it? There is a middle class squeamishness about that.
EC I like it even more now I know Martin Parr. He’s like a kid in a sweet shop. He’s the least snobby person I’ve ever met. His parents were professionals. He’s from a lower middle class background in Surbiton.
GB Do you think people who have never been to the North of England would also find this picture beautiful?
EC I think anyone can look at that picture and find it beautiful for the tragedy in it. I think that black humour is something that British people and American Jewish people do really well.
GB He developed a whole new tone of voice for social documentary photography, which is something you did for fashion photography.
EC The board of Magnum suggested Martin Parr as a member years ago and it caused a riot because Cartier Bresson, the master of romantic street photography, just saw him as an alien. He didn’t understand the work and didn’t want to. But now Martin Parr has been a Magnum photographer since 1994. Nothing about him stands still. He’s always leaping ahead. He’s not afraid and he’s not trying to be PC. There’s no political motive in the humour. He just sees things that are quite bizarre. He likes characters. There’s nothing condescending about it. I met him in 1995 when I was shooting portraits for the Telegraph Magazine and his best mate from college was doing printing for me.
GB Do you think about beauty in your own work?
EC I think commercial constraints dictate that kind of thing.
GB So you feel like you have to make things look a bit more beautiful than you’d like to?
EC Yes, in commercial work. I think most photographers will tell you that. Beauty is an awkward term because it suggests that there’s a consensus to it. There is a shape that the fashion industry has a consensus in finding photogenic for advertising. Then the light hits a certain face in a certain way. There is perfect skin, a perfect nose, perfect cheekbones. My own idea of beauty involves getting as much character out of someone as possible so that’s more than aesthetic, it goes deeper.
GB Northern Soul is a very beautiful film to look at. Was that intentional?
EC Not really. I needed the two leads to be fit enough to do the dancing and they are photogenic. They’re easy to shoot.
GB Do you think the soundtrack adds to the beauty? Does it make you see things differently?
EC God yeah. Sound makes such a difference. It’s such a joy to have that new addition, having worked in photography. It’s not just the music, any sound is such a wonderful thing to create.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?