Think of Martin Parr and what comes to mind are vibrant and richly saturated colour images. But it was not always so. Early in his career Parr shot in black and white and this book, The Non-Conformists, presents some of that early work. Just out of art school in the mid 1970’s Parr moved to the mill town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and began documenting the everyday lives of the people of the area together with his friend, and later wife, Susie Mitchell, he with camera, she with notebook and pen.
The area was historically a stronghold of non-conformists, Christians who had rejected the dominant Church of England, and there were Baptist and Methodist chapels in many of the towns and villages. Parr’s father had been a Methodist lay preacher and he was drawn to the chapels eventually developing a strong relationship with the elderly members of one particular Methodist chapel in the village of Crimsworth Dean. Over the course of what became a five year project Parr photographed everyday life in the chapel and the community and this book brings together those images, together with notes and commentary taken by Susie at the time.
While these black and white images look superficially a world apart from Parr’s later work it only takes a moment of looking to see the continuity. There is the same observation of detail, the same ability to pick the moment, the same quirkiness, the same dry humour, but there is also a gentleness, even melancholy in these pictures that sets them apart from his later work. Parr covers everything: chapel life, business and commerce, farming, parties and celebrations, recreation, cricket, auctions, grouse shooting, mining. Nothing is too insignificant. And out of each setting, each situation he manages to find images that provoke both emotion and reflection.
Like Parr, I grew up in these non-conformist traditions, in my case among the Baptists and the Brethren in Northern Ireland, and many of his images reflect my own memories of visiting my grandfather who was a member of the gospel hall in the small village of Ballyhalbert 25 miles from Belfast. Susie Parr notes in the book that at that time the chapels were in decline, as were many of the towns and villages as traditional industries disappeared or shrank. The same was true in Northern Ireland, though perhaps there it took a little longer, and when I return from time to time I’m aware of passing a spot where a gospel hall or mission hall once stood. Some are gone completely, some have fallen into disrepair, some have been converted for other uses, but I do think it is sad that there is little or no record of their existence and of the communities that worshipped there. The chapel at Crimsworth Dean that Parr photographed is also gone, closed in 1997 and converted into a private house a few years later, but thanks to Parr a record remains of the place and the people.
This is undoubtedly one of my favourite photobooks with the superb pictures complemented by Susie Parr’s contemporary notes on the places they visited and photographed. Paper, printing and binding are all high quality and copies are still available either in the US direct from the publishers, Aperture, for $36 or from the usual sources for a similar price. In the UK you can get it for around £27 at Blackwells or for the same price you can have a signed copy from Beyond Words.