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 i think he wants to quickly capture a moment with as many cultural contradictions as possible – and often a little humour. This is a picture taken on the day of the Silver Jubilee in 1977 when all the street parties were happening across the UK. From my young perspective, there was so much excitement. We were simple people and where we lived the National Front’s association with the Union Jack hadn’t come into play. You just had these wonderful, colourful Union Jacks and everywhere you looked there things were red, white and blue and this sense of pride for all. It was the last moment i actually remember in my life of the country coming together over something and also having that real sense of community. When I see this picture, apart from it looking so beautiful, it’s so tragic. I imagine that the community where it was taken were based around factory who probably wouldn’t have got the day off because the inhibility to stop production. Everything looks homemade so there’s this sense of all the effort being dashed by the weather. That’s what it’s like up there in Lancashire and Yorkshire. It must have come down so fast that they left their pork pies behind. In that area where I grew up, there’s this huge valley where it rains all the time, the cotton industry was based there because of the damp keeping the cotton moist. I believe this image was taken in Yorkshire and I’m sure it was the same deal there with the weather as it’s just over the pennines. If only 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 feels older than it is. Black and white images always feel this way for me. The pictures I grew up with around the house of a bygone era always felt like this so it has that one removed feeling.
GB Can you remember when you first saw it?
EC It was about twenty years ago. But about ten years before this 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 who had no interest in art photography or documentary – a lot of them were into shooting things like butterflies on long lenses or clubbing together to hire a glamour model in the studio… There was one guy who came into the group who’d had an arty education and knew his photography. 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 as he was very conservative and middle class, but to me my subject matter 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 and from what I can gather he’s from a lower middle class background in Surbitan where he had a pretty boring up-bringing so I can really see how excited he gets when he shoots.
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 also thinking about it, 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 I think the story goes that 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, didn’t like his work. I don’t think he got how Parr was embracing something real, there was this ‘dignity in the subject’ kind of argument I believe. 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 doesn’t worry about political trends. I think he just loves 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 (Peter Frazer who’s also a great photographer) 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 are certain looks that become trends for all sorts of social and political reasons reasons good or bad and the fashion industry is always the first to reflect and jump on these preoccupations. For an awful long time the feeling has been all about youth and that is reflected in shapes of lips, eyes, size of ears and noses. Then the light hits a certain face in a certain way and the more youthful people look the more successful those models become. These kinds of faces change as times moves on. My own idea of beauty involves getting as much character out of someone as possible so that’s more than aesthetic, it goes deeper but at the end of the day nearly all commercial clients will insist on what the current take on beauty is.
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 and youthful looking but neither would end up being top models on looks alone as both were rejected by model agents due to physical reasons.
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 especially if you’re work has been silent for decades.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?