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Book Review: Up and Down Peachtree

Up and Down Peachtree. Photographs by Martin Parr.
Contrasto, 2012.
Up and Down Peachtree
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich

Up and Down Peachtree
Photographs by Martin Parr
Contrasto, 2012. Hardbound. 208 pp., 100 color illustrations, 8x10-1/2".

"Don't be scared of photographing a storm-out, crying fit or strop…" British photographer Martin Parr advised readers in a 2010 Guardian column about vacation photography. "I would argue that the more valuable document is the honest one." Parr's vivid documentary chronicle of Atlanta's main's street, Peachtree Street, is a provocative, pleasurable mix of honesty and hyperbole.

Originally commissioned for Atlanta's High Museum of Art's June 2012 "Picturing the South" exhibition, Parr's documentary project was exhibited at the High Museum alongside work by photographers Kael Alford and Shane Lavalette. A documentary about Parr's work in Atlanta in 2010 and 2011 has also been made into a documentary film, "Hot Spots: Martin Parr in the American South" which premiered in June 2012. Though Parr was on assignment in Atlanta rather than on holiday, he has the eye of a consistently curious and genuinely engaged outsider who wants to document even and especially the most quotidian of details. For Parr, the everyday is rich, valuable and often wryly comical.

Up and Down Peachtree, by Martin Parr. Published by Contrasto, 2012.

The book opens with a two-page close-up portrait in profile of a middle-aged man that emphasizes the saturated colors and pronounced textures that delight Parr. His stringy blond hair and a scraggly beard graze a cream shirt printed with orange and yellow tulips and he's standing in front of square turquoise structure with a red SNACK BAR sign affixed to its roof. The viewer is going where he's headed: down Peachtree Street, replete with gay rights advocates holding up signs reading I "heart" my gay sons; gay rights opponents holding up banners that read "I now pronounce you pervert and pervert;" couples ballroom dancing around a swimming pool; groups of Braves' fans drinking cans of Bud Light in a parking lot. We will also encounter a woman licking her lips in between bites of a corn dog slathered with ketchup and mustard; a woman's fake aqua and lilac striped nails digging into a hunk of roasted meat; a disembodied arm offering an oversize candy apple coated with multicolored sprinkles to a disinterested child.

Up and Down Peachtree, by Martin Parr. Published by Contrasto, 2012.

An honest image for Parr is a close-up of a person or object that possesses discomfiting, tantalizing details, like the portrait of an African American woman wearing a platinum wig with nylon hairs poking out around her forehead; her heavily eye shadowed eyes are half-open and her mouth partially agape to reveal a wide gap between her two front teeth. Or it may reveal the dynamics of social interaction at a fancy garden party, a Pentecostal church service or a dog show. One of the collection's most evocative group environmental portraits is of four female wait staff standing behind the Formica counter at their classic diner, the Silver Skillet. Each of the women's expressions is revealing and distinct; their backdrop is a wall decorated with hand-lettered signs advertising Roast Beef Sandwiches, Country Grilled Ham Steaks, Chicken Salad Cold Plates, Fruit and Ice Box Pies. Parr relishes the repetition of commercial signs and products: stacks of jumbo plastic football shaped jars of pretzels on a supermarket shelf, rows of bright red and white flips flops printed with the Coca Cola logo. And he delights in droll, bold juxtapositions: one page we see a photograph of a church deacon holding a palm leaf; on the facing page, we see a panda at the zoo munching a bamboo leaf. He also revels in showing how an image differs as a cropped close up and as a larger print that reveals the original context. One page shows a full size image of a fried corn dog in all its phallic grandeur; on the next page, we see a blond hair woman at a street fair biting into it. 

Up and Down Peachtree, by Martin Parr. Published by Contrasto, 2012.

The collection's prints almost all take up a full page, published without any captions or identifying information. Parr's photographs are large in scale and personality: they are flashy, brash, whimsical and garish and much less subtle than Garry Winogrand's work, one of Parr's most revered photographers. His style and subject matter is almost akin to Tom Wolfe's early journalism: performative, opinionated and exaggerated. But his curiosity, energy and delight in his subject matter is palpable and infectious for the viewer, who enthusiastically becomes the photographer's fellow traveler down Peachtree Street. "Life is weird. If only we could see it," said Parr in a 2003 interview. Thankfully, he is here to show us.—JOSCELYN JURICH

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JOSCELYN JURICH is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice.