Think of Scotland by Martin Parr, reviewed by Frank McElhinney

Martin Parr’s new photo-book Think of Scotland is a catalogue of clichés. The book contains one hundred and three colour photographs made in Scotland over the last quarter century. Forty-two photographs were made on islands and twenty-one in ‘seaside’ towns along the Forth and Clyde estuaries. Fifteen photographs are of food, mostly sugar or fat laden and nicely presented. People wear kilts in fourteen photographs almost always at highland games. Nine are of livestock, always penned in at agricultural shows. Several feature whisky bottles or tins of Irn Bru and Tennents lager. Thankfully there is only one double page spread of a drunk lying prostrate in the street. The choice of location and occasion presents a coming together of people either as tourists or as local communities and guarantees the presence of what Parr craves, the photographic cliché.

In a recent talk given at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, Parr spoke about photography as a way of making sense of the world and of expressing that through his pictures. He said he did not photograph things that were excessively beautiful because “that would be too easy”. Instead, he explained, he sought out clichés that might define a people and he has taken this approach in various countries including his home nation of England, before compiling this new publication on Scotland. He spoke of his fascination for England being rooted in a love/hate relationship and how his dismay at the Brexit vote made him feel more comfortable than ever when in Scotland. It is clear that seen through his ironic lens Martin Parr does have a genuine affection for Scotland and the Scots.

When a photo-book is made about a nation it is hard not to make comparisons with other renowned works on countries such as Japan or America. Successful photo-books by Tomatsu, Frank or Sternfeld tell us something we did not know about the country in question or point to something important that has been hiding in plain sight. Think of Scotland does not attempt such things instead it magnifies the obvious and feasts on nostalgia. When a photographer begins with a tick list there is limited room for surprise. Parr succeeds on his own terms but these terms are superficial. This is an accusation he would probably embrace wholeheartedly, ironically. Parr claims to love clichés and that “all photographers love nostalgia.”

Amongst the many mundane photographs in the book there are a few truly memorable ones. Parr said the picture of a lone swimmer in the luminous blue Gourock Lido set against the grey backdrop of the Clyde is perhaps his best selling print, ever! But the best reason for spending time with this book is to think about how Scotland is seen by others. Parr shows us not what we are but how ridiculous the outsiders’ image can be of Scotland and the Scots. It is a million miles away from the whole story but unless we offer an alternative, this banal falsehood will persist.

There is no real tradition of publishing photo-books about Scotland as a nation. In 1845 William Henry Fox Talbot made one of the world’s first photo-books, Sun Pictures in Scotland, capturing romantic scenes associated with the recently deceased novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott. So began the misleading photographic mythologizing of Scotland. Since then there have been many regional surveys with a focus on dying traditions in remote places and photo-books on popular Scottish tourism themes of nature, landscape and whisky but who, other than Parr, has seriously attempted to discover through photography what this thing called Scotland actually is? In the context of Scottish photography or photography about Scotland this book can be seen as both a benchmark and a challenge to other photographers to find a new path of enquiry that is not reliant on cliché, familiar beauty, romantic myth or nostalgia. Proceeding from a place of not knowing one might discover more than the superficial and begin to unravel the conundrum of this stateless nation.

You can vie the book on Issuu here: