Only Human: Martin Parr review

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(15user reviews)
Only Human: Martin Parr review
Magdalene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit: © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery;

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

As Britain’s Self-Loathing Olympics head towards their Closing Ceremony, the country’s favourite documenter of our endlessly conflicted national identity lands at the NPG. This is not a coincidence. Since the referendum result in 2016, photographer Martin Parr has been pointing his lens at various aspects of the nation to investigate, in his word, ‘Brexitness’. That’s the background to this show, but the result is more of a latter-career retrospective. Along with the Brexit images, there are celeb portraits, weird self-portraits, portraits of groups of people doing stuff (bog-snorkelling, Indian dancing) that Parr made for the BBC, a merch shop and a caff where you can have a cuppa and a piece of battenberg cake. One room has a disco ball and a pub carpet in it. Another has astroturf on the floor. To be honest, it’s all a bit of a mess, but then so is the UK right now, so maybe it’s fitting.

Parr has always been a keen observer of the contradictions of being a person and how those contradictions are magnified and distorted by also being a person of a certain age, gender, race or class, then magnified and distorted out of all recognition by the idea of nationhood. So Brexit is very much business as usual for him. There are St George’s flags, people watching the royal wedding, florid toffs at the test match, tattoos, Carnival mas-paraders and plucky pensioners. The cumulative effect is a kind of Parr-land (which wouldn’t be a bad shout for Margate or Herne Bay or somewhere), populated by sort-of pantomime stereotypes who are also actual, real people. It’s a good trick. Parr is one of those photographers who makes you see things like he does. Suddenly things look ‘very Martin Parr’: glum or gaudy or a bit shoddy or apparently trapped in time. If this show lost some of its gimmicks, it would have a clear message about how the seeds of Brexit have been germinating all around us, all of our lives. But I suspect the daft gimmicks have a purpose, as a metaphor for distraction and complication. Parr probes at the contradictions of Brexit. People don’t always want a clear message: they want to be entertained and to be allowed to believe what they want to believe, however silly or crass or counter-intuitive. To be human.


Users say (15)

4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

3.7 / 5

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3 people listening

How much more British can an exhibition get?! Absolutely fantastic display from the museum, the circulation is easy within the rooms and despite the exhibition being rather busy you would enjoy the view as the print are plenty big enough.

I really like Martin Parr's work but I'm glad I visited the exhibition with a British native as I would have missed plenty of references on my own (as I wasn't born and raised in the UK).

I would definitely recommend this exhibition.


An interesting and amusing take on certain British stereotypes and innovative exhibition highlighting that despite all we're going through at the moment, we remain united in our own quirky way.


I really liked the exhibition overall and this is a nice immersion into the British habits and mores.

I enjoyed the fact that all social classes and ages were represented in this exhibition. Martin Parr is showing all the aspects of the United Kingdom is known, and this is appreciable nowadays.

I was lacking a bit of explanation regarding the artistic approach Parr took unfortunately.

If you are under 25, be aware that on Fridays, you can access the exhibition for only £5 during the evening.


Do you live in the UK? Have you consumed any news coverage at all in the last few years? If you answered yes to both, I’d say it’s a safe bet that your faith in humanity has been decaying at roughly a half-rate since the day of that bloody Brexit vote. Even the best efforts to avoid this utterly intolerable shambles and persevere are often rendered futile; there’s seemingly no escape.

Enter Martin Parr. Professional Cataloguer of Quirks, Seeker of Strangers, National Treasure.

There are faces, more British faces than you could shake a big stick at. There’s a giant disco ball rotating slowly over a carpet reminiscent of every Wetherspoons ever. Elsewhere you might find the familiar royal blue lined acrylic of a tennis court underfoot, whilst in another room there are garishly printed folding deck chairs which, unusually for an art exhibition, you are more than welcome to park your curious caboose on. And as if that wasn’t enough to entice you, hows about the fully functioning seaside Caf selling battenburg by the slice?

So before we run entirely out of our capacity for sarcasm, dispensable income and/or our ready supply of fresh food, give that faith in humanity one last fighting chance by soaking up all that is undeniably kitsch and refreshingly patriotic about ‘Only Human’. It’ll take the edge off.


On a weekend of different images in the media about Brexit - crowds in London for remain, trickles in the rain walking down from Sunderland for leave, it's interesting to be able to look at this show on 'Brexitness'. One of the most arresting images is of people looking out to a rough sea as a reg flat signals turbulent conditions. Next to it are a series of pictures firstly of what it means to be British - these go from a picture of a Father & son chain makers, fish smokers onto to "The Establishment" - looking at behind the doors in the most posh of British institutions.

It was lovely to have a smile brought on by the amount of humour in the show and by the way your eye is guided by Martin to look at our country in a different, somewhat joyous way. It's hard not to be moved both by people on the beach in Tenby or by someone sprawled on plush cushions after a night at an Oxbridge ball. It's interesting the saw that recent political moves have subtly have changed the meaning of so many of the images - the patriotism and the nostalgia, the multiculturalism and the pictures of leave-voting areas. 

Whilst I didn't like the portraits quite as much as the pictures of everyday life, overall a show that makes you think and makes you smile has to be worth popping in for a look 


I was intrigued to see this exhibition after the BBC News covered it. I must say that Martin Parr's work is colourful and at times wacky. The exhibition does capture the wackiness of the British culture and the diversity of its people .  In my opinion, the classic ones showing traditional Britain, portraits and his work for the BBC One were the highlights. Some of the other photographs lacked focus and could be viewed as amateur, like it was snapped by a tourist passing by. An hour was sufficient to see the exhibition.


Martin Parr's exhibition at the NPG explores what it means to be British and his answer is fascinating. Parr himself states in one of the videos about the exhibition that picturing any culture is completely subjective and that you automatically highlight some behaviours more than other that you think are representative of it. Parr in this exhibition chooses to highlight Britain's twisted relationship to social differences: from trashy hendos in limos to balls in Oxford University to pictures of fishmongers in pro-Brexit areas. All of the pictures are touching, funny and very real and will make you rethink your relationship to the UK, whether you are Brit or foreigner. There are also a few rooms exploring human behaviour in general, my favourite was the one about people dancing, focusing on the pleasure showing on their faces when people are moving no matter what the environment is, from metal festival to classical dancing. If you like photography, you cannot miss this exhibition!


National Portrait Gallery currently presents Martin Parr’s photography exhibition.

Going from one room to another you are on a journey of observations of Britishness through Parr's eyes. Oh no, they are not just ordinary snaps but a reflection of British attitudes. Sometimes I couldn't stop laughing as there were so much irony how Brits are partying, drinking, dancing; looking at other images I was full of admiration of style, identity and preserved culture. Through the lens of Parr's eyes we recognise such faces as Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Anna Wintour, Tracey Emin, Cara Delevingne. What I love about the set of photos on the second shot is the way Parr presented Westwood and Wintour, which is totally epic because of such polar difference in these women's style. Parr captured perfectly Westwood 'don't give a **' attitude and absolutely refined lady-like Wintour presence with her delicate dress and jewellery style.

The ‘Dance’ room is fabulous with a huge spinning disco ball hanging from the ceiling and illuminating a selection of Pride parade dancing brilliant photos.


I think there weren’t many other times in the modern British history that scrutinised Britishness to the extend it’s been dissected after the Brexit vote.

Grayson Perry’s excellent tv series about the British classes and identity already tried to answer the question what is means to be British these days (no surprise the artists was asked to write the introduction to the show) and Parr’s exhibition seems to be  fitting very well into that discourse.

Portraying the upper and the lower classes, the expats, the migrants and ones in between, Parr is saying he’s just a social observant. However, it is hard not to notice how often he mocks his fellow man, the cheesiness but also pompousness of the way the national identity is being manifested, especially during important moments, like the Royal Wedding or the Royal Ascot.

He doesn’t shy away from taking the mick at himself by showing a series of photographs taken in photo parlours around the world, the results of which in big majority look ridiculous. On the other hand, by sharing something that looks so bad to the Western eye (but is absolutely serious and fine in their native geos), he’s trying to get the viewer to get a perspective on their own identity and how it might be perceived to the other nationalities.

The last room of the exhibition is separated from the rest by a walk through café. A kitschy, unsophisticated  little place we can find on every high street in the UK. A symbol of community. Stepping outside we end up in the last isolated room devoted to Brexit. Same motifs, yet different circumstances, same sense pride, same reason to laugh.

So what is it to be British today? The exhibition doesn’t answer this question. As I guess it cannot be answered. Being British means so many different things and, as a freshly naturalised Brit myself, I guess it will be quite a while before I figure it out.


I must admit I wasn't aware of Martin Parr's work until this exhibition but am a big fan of his style and eye. His pieces are quite comical and told an interesting story of the UK as we walked around each section. I also liked the addition of a typical British caf' right in the middle where you can stop for a drink and some cake. So why the 3/5? I was very lucky to get a guest pass to attend this exhibit but was disappointed to see that the usual admission price is a hefty £18! One of the best things about London is how accessible culture is to the masses no matter your income or circumstance, but in this instance, only the middle to upper class would be able to afford this admission and that to me is a disgrace. 


I’m not specifically a Martin Parr’s fan, but I do appreciate his humour and eye for detail on the most everyday images. This exhibition is a good showcase for that, but I think it got a little lost in its desire to entertain. After a while, it feels just a little random (and it kinda is, but in this case, it ends up losing meaning). It still has very interesting bits and some truly beautiful, challenging, interesting images; but it is not a crucial show (as a Martin Parr’s could be).


I really liked the way this exhibition was put together and displayed and it was an enjoyable experience overall due to its vibrant look. I liked the cafe that was both a real cafe and a part of the exhibition itself mainly because it was just a bit different.

My favourite section of the exhibit was the dancing photography purely because everyone always looks cheery when they dance so this part of the gallery really made you smile.

Overall I felt that there were only a couple of pieces that were truly different in terms of there would have been a huge effort and skill to gain the photos. In that respect I wasn’t that impressed as the photos looked like many I see on Instagram from random mates now. Maybe we’re all pro photographers in this snap happy age.

I also felt the price was a bit steep for what you get.


I wasn't sure what to expect from the exhibition as I hadn't heard of Martin Parr's work before. After the exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised by the humour and soul he captured through his photography. 

People might be familiar with his idents series for the BBC (which are the short sequences shown between programmes to identify the channel, another thing I learned that day!), which I have always thought to be a fun and genuine way of showing everyday Britain.

Overall, the exhibition lacks something special to excite you but there is just enough to make you smile.


I wasn't aware of Martin Parr before the exhibition, but I enjoyed this introduction to his work.

Multiple rooms explored different aspects of humanness, Britishness, and Parr himself. It was well done and entertaining, and refreshingly different to the Old Masters at the National Portrait Gallery. 

I was particularly enamoured with Parr's self-mockery, with entertaining staged self-portraits at different tourist destinations around the world. 


A very colourful exhibition showcasing British life. I liked the photographs, but it was a bit lost on me - I'm more of a painting kind of gal. I'm sure those who can appreciate fine photography will enjoy this exhibition.

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