Luxury 29.03.10

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Haute Couture Printemps-Eté, Paris 2007, by Martin Parr (image: © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos)

Photographer Martin Parr turns his deadpan lens on the super-rich and their playgrounds. The results aren't pretty, says Owen Hatherley

Nothing human is alien to Martin Parr. Sometimes, though, a little alienation can be a good, bracing thing, and sometimes the all-encompassing nature of "Parrworld" (as his recent memorabilia exhibition was called) can be suffocating. As photographer and prodigious collector, everything is placed into the same quirky mincer, so seaside tat, postcards of airports, the miners' strike, avant-garde books, Obama flip-flops, Saddam watches and photographs of picturesque/grotesque England all become part of the same, essentially meaningless continuum. Luxury pulls together a recent series of images of the extremely wealthy at play, adding another layer of brightly overlit embarrassment and pretension to Parrworld.

Parr does have an eye for this sort of thing, however, a very English ability to capture the nuances and delusions of (social, if not always economic) class. Perhaps the most historically fascinating of Parr's books is Signs of the Times, a Thatcher-era bestiary cataloguing the interior decor of the upwardly mobile, of working class Tories and petit-bourgeois climbers. Parr appeared throughout to be blankly non-judgemental, albeit placing the subjects' pronouncements on "individuality" sharply alongside their conformist hire-purchase goods. It's a quietly sad book, with a hint of anger at how easily and cheaply we were bought. Luxury deals with the opposite aspect of the same thing, capturing those who got obscenely rich (or rather obscenely richer) during the similarly venal 2000s boom. Old is next to new money, consumers of kitsch alongside conceptual art, Chantilly next to Dubai next to Moscow's "Millionaire Fair". It's the seamy underside of the Financial Times' How To Spend It pages, with the implicit subtitle "and this is how disgusting you look when you're spending it".

There's disgust and then there's snobbery, which is less interesting. Paul Smith's introduction tries to place Luxury into the latter category, as the designer opines on the evils of materialism in the way the very rich often do. Parr can be more subtle than this, but not always. Some of the picturesquely artless images – a gigantic hat at Ascot with a fly perched upon it, a gurning face at St Moritz – are so clunkily obvious that Parr should just have added "DO YOU SEE?" as a caption. Likewise, the private view-attendees on mobile phones offer the insight that the art world is all about money and networking. There's a faintly creepy regular motif featuring tanned, leather-skinned women of a certain age in proximity to flawless images of models. So the rich are ugly – who knew?

Luxury is cleverer when it looks elsewhere for its grotesqueries. The Frieze fair and Documenta are here aligned with Oktoberfest and Glyndebourne, and the new luxury looks rather different to the old, at first – a startlingly thin, bald "intellectual" at Documenta, for instance, or the stubbly, ostentatiously casual attendees at Frieze, all seem initially rather different to the Bullingdon mafia, the Dubai potentates and Moscow Al Capones, but the same flunkies are present in the background.

Luxury isn't a "critique", and proudly encased in its padded cover with its £25 price tag, it's an object many of its subjects would be happy to own. What it does, it does with wit and occasionally, some pathos; the wan expressions of the uniformed attendants at the Moscow Millionaire fair in particular, these two women who look like they know a committal expression could get them sacked, linger after all the jolly grossness has been quickly forgotten.

Luxury by Martin Parr, Chris Boot, £25



Owen Hatherley

quotes story

It's the seamy underside of the Financial Times' How To Spend It pages, with the implicit subtitle "and this is how disgusting you look when you're spending it"

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