Photographer Martin Parr captures the good times 

Parr's Hagedorn Foundation Gallery show reveals humanity is all its strange glory

ORDER UP: “Staff at the Silver Skillet Restaurant” by Martin Parr

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Janet Borden, Inc.

ORDER UP: “Staff at the Silver Skillet Restaurant” by Martin Parr

If the only images that alien visitors had of life on earth were photographs taken by Martin Parr, what might they think of us?

It's true we're not a terribly attractive species seen through his lens. Parr first rocketed to art-world fame in the mid '80s with his color photographs of the seedy but lively goings-on at crowded, tatty British beach towns. His sharp documentarian's eye captured sunburned cheeks and grease-smeared gobs on overcrowded, litter-strewn, pebbly beaches and dreary boardwalks.

The early work divided critics. Some felt it unfair to offer up images of lowbrow vulgarity for the delectation of a "more sophisticated" art-world audience, but Parr continued, taking similar photographs of people in all their ickiness at tony horse races, expensive tourist spots, even highbrow art galleries, as if to say: "Nope, we're actually pretty gross wherever we go."

In spite of an overarching atmosphere of crammed funfairs, Day-Glo food, and problem skin, there's always a quiet tenderness to a Parr photograph. The dichotomy is especially apparent in the wide-ranging selection of about 25 works now on view at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery. While tackiness often rears its ugly head, true cruelty never does, and a touching humanity pervades the work. Parr catches his subjects' familiar, naked needs: to relax, enjoy, escape, connect, celebrate, experience, even when these goals remain poignantly elusive.

There's a hint of nostalgia in four early black-and-white photographs of rural England — crumbling moss-covered walls, old English couples in church pews, tweedy men and boys gathered to watch a horse race on a misty beach. The nostalgia vanishes in his later photographs, as if that particular "Last of England" sentiment couldn't survive the crucible of color. The remaining work reveals a compulsion to document human beings at leisure, whom Parr photographs with a blend of detachment and engagement, misanthropy and empathy, delight and disgust.

Parr also photographed Atlantans as a commission for the High Museum's recent Picturing the South exhibit, and several photos from his Up and Down Peachtree series are on display at Hagedorn. The most compelling is his 2011 photo of waitresses at the Silver Skillet Restaurant on 14th Street. Although the fascinations with vivid color, peculiar food, and the strangeness of folk are still present, the waitresses have an uncharacteristic air of dignity for a Parr photo. They stand patiently arrayed behind the counter, expectant, individuated, enduring.

If the only information aliens had about us were Parr's photographs, they might decide to hightail it to the next galaxy as quickly as possible. But then again, there's the chance that the photos might lure them to join the mass, to jostle for a good position on the concrete embankment by the shore, to stand in line for some greasy chips and pink ice cream. With any luck, they would, like Parr, understand that the two characteristics that make us most human — our gross physicality and our vibrancy — are often one and the same.

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