As voguish restaurants pop up, gourmet food trucks start their engines, and snack stands trumpet comfort nosh as a fine art, Toronto is viewed as a paradise by its resident foodies. And for Martin Parr, famed English photographer, who visited to photograph food for a day?
“It was quite like America,” he says over the phone from his home in Bristol, England. “I know that’s the last thing a Canadian wants to hear…. There’s quite a good ethnic mix in Toronto, but that’s there in New York or London. Apart from that, it’s just like anywhere else. Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, Toronto’s really special; it’s different’—but it’s not. Food’s a big middle-class activity now, so in Toronto, it will inevitably be part of that whole trend.”
The globe-trotting documentarian has photographed donuts in Mexico, Spam tins in Tokyo, and fried Mars bars in Glasgow. In Toronto, he shot restaurants, markets, food courts, stands, stalls, and big-box stores over one “blur of a day” last October, on commission for the Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival. Parr turned his lenses to everyday food long before it was trendy. Junk food—and the litter surrounding it—were important elements in his controversial and groundbreaking mid-’80s series, The Last Resort, which focused on the run-down resort town New Brighton. His follow-up, The Cost of Living (1989), depicted the affluent English middle classes, often with food and drink in their hands. In both series, he was seen to be critiquing consumption, but in the mid-’90s, when he started shooting close-ups of food, his approach became even more deadpan, his pictures saturated with colour but oblique in their meaning. Many people find humour, for instance, in his photographs of ostensibly imperfect food—for CONTACT’s artistic director, Bonnie Rubenstein, his work “allows us to laugh at ourselves or with each other in many ways.” But Parr, ever the contrarian, maintains that “the food pictures aren’t particularly humorous per se.”
He says his motives are straightforward: “You get what you’re given on the plate, and you photograph it for real. It’s counter-propaganda. [When] you go to the supermarket and look at the picture on a package and you look inside, the two have no relationship whatsoever. It’s part of the lies that we’re constantly told. So all I’m doing is showing food as it really is rather than the sanitized version.”
Parr praises the kind of unglamorous, garishly lit pictures you’ll find in a greasy spoon above the counter. And although he is a self-professed foodie, he sought out “more general” establishments in Toronto. Accordingly, his work will be displayed
here in high-traffic, public places: Metro Hall and Pearson airport. “We wanted to contextualize it within a global network of food,” says Rubenstein.
Just last month, in Tokyo, Parr’s daughter, chef Ellen Parr, prepared a meal at a pop-up restaurant where she recreated several of his food photographs—except that “what looked sweet was savoury, and vice-versa.” For instance, Thai broth was presented as if it were a cup of tea. One could view this as an ironic twist on Parr’s attempt to portray food “for real,” although he is as disinclined to interpret his daughter’s work as his own. He does, however, suggest we’ve missed a trick: “Why aren’t they doing this in Toronto?”
This photo, taken at the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market, reflects Parr’s own collection of political ephemera—including Barack Obama sneakers, sandals, and underwear. He’s obsessed with dictators, too: In 2004, he published a book called Saddam Hussein Watches.
Parr photographed festival administrator Elena Potter chowing down near a hotdog stand at College and McCaul. In the very act of photographing what he calls unvarnished “real life,” he can affect it as well. Says Potter, “I tried to put on the ketchup in a straighter line than usual.”
This extreme close-up of Poutini’s poutine makes its fries look like worms, recalling a 1995 photo he took of slimy, uncooked sausages. Parr claims he isn’t aiming to repulse: “We’re trying to get nice, colourful, bright pictures of food.”
Controversy and commissions
Martin Parr doesn’t enjoy speaking about his work: “I’m a photographer, not a talker,” he says. Perhaps he’s been worn down by the controversy he’s faced over the years: The Last Resort was widely condemned for “condescension” toward the English working class, and his election to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s agency, Magnum, was opposed by a number of members on the grounds of “anti-humanism.” When asked about the composition of his images, Parr simply sounds weary: “You’re welcome to write anything you like. I don’t care anymore. People write all kinds of stuff about me. You can slag me off; you can do anything you want. I’m creating entertainment—it’s all I’m doing.”
He views his shots of Toronto food as “just solving a problem” of what to shoot on commission in the span of one day, something he feels he did “adequately.” Bonnie Rubenstein is rather more effusive: “The diversity, for sure, is there, and that’s what we felt was important to reflect—we are a very diverse, multicultural city. I do think that the humour is a strong part of it. Some of his work, you could say, is very critical, at the same time. He’s coming out of a documentary stream where it’s not meant to pass judgment—but framing and focus is a way of passing judgment.” —Mike Doherty
Martin Parr’s installation, Food, will be on display at Metro Hall (200 Wellington St. W., at John) until June 2 and at Pearson International Airport (Terminal 1) until Aug. 30.