Martin Parr on snapping secrets of the Square Mile

Ace photographer on snapping secrets of the square mile
Swan song: David Barber

A well-to-do gentleman dressed in a decorated red blazer and captain’s hat stands Thames-side, gingerly holding a grotty-looking swan away from his crisp white trousers. If this image of David Barber, the man who leads the annual ceremony to round up and mark mute swans each July, isn’t enough to convince you that we British are just a bit mad, then a visit to Martin Parr’s latest exhibition at the Tower Bridge Engine Rooms certainly will.

Swans Gloves Roses and Pancakes is the second body of work from Parr’s two years spent as photographer in residence for the City of London, during which he was given unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the City’s ancient traditions. The eccentricity on display includes schoolchildren whacking the ground with wands of willow to reaffirm parish boundaries, a pair of empty boots observing the swearing in of the new Lord Mayor, and the procession of a single rose through the City streets on a silken pillow.

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The Christs Hospital school band. Photo: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

When asked to nominate a favourite shot, Parr pauses: “You have to view it as a group of pictures,” he says. “One image needs the other to reflect this strange world.” So what has Parr learned of these traditions that are largely hidden from public view? “I think the City of London is almost a feudal society, but at the same time it’s at the cutting edge of modern technology and banking and business, so it’s a complete contradiction,” he says.

“And contradictions are my livestock.” Parr has documented a great many contradictions in this country through his efforts to create what he terms “an archive of the British.” From working class holidaymakers in 1980s New Brighton to rhubarb farmers in West Yorkshire, he has made his name as the country’s best-known living photographer through his wry observations of British life.

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The Worshipful Company of Mercers. Photo: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

“I am a very quintessential British photographer, so inevitably that humour, the irony is part of my make up,” he says. “The British are very funny…we’re a great subject matter.” Parr spent the better part of two years with his lens trained firmly on the Square Mile as part of a broader focus on the concept of the establishment, which so far includes Harrow, Oxford University, Christ’s Hospital and the British Army in Germany.

He also has his sights set on Eton College, but admits there’s plenty left undocumented in the Square Mile. “I was originally only going to do one calendar year but because there are so many [ceremonies], and they’re so hidden, I had to make it two years because often you find out about something that had just passed. “I could have gone on for another five years and I would have never run out of subject matter.”

Swans Gloves Roses and Pancakes is on at Tower Bridge Engine Rooms until 31 March.
All images © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos