Lord Mayor Fiona Wolff at swearing in ceremony.

Photos from a Secret City

A favourite photographer of mine, Martin Parr, recently spent two years as photographer in residence for the City of London Corporation, which is the municipal governing body of the City of London. It’s an area of London that many consider the historic centre of the city, where much of the UK’s financial industry is situated.

An exhibition of Parr’s photographs during this residency named Unseen City was recently held at Guildhall Art Gallery, which houses the official art collection of the City of London. As a design researcher particularly interested in using photography and film, I found myself at the exhibit thinking about what it might mean to view these photographs in the context of design research. I’ve often found Parr’s work to go beyond mere ‘snapshots’ – his images often, if not always, function as social and cultural commentary. With images like Imperial War Museum (Parr, 2015) which form part of a larger series on the ‘selfie stick phenomenon’ – his work speaks directly to our contemporary relationship with technology and our personal devices, which we as design researchers are often out to research and communicate with others. As design researchers, we can learn from his ability to comment on and analyse social phenomena through images so effectively.

In Unseen City, Parr has the task of revealing the secretive behind-the-scenes world of the processions and events that take place in the City of London. The task itself might be paradoxical, as many photos mainly illustrate just how opaque the intricacies remain for outsiders. The sheer number, variety and elaborateness of the regalia we see on display indicates the plethora of roles, costumes, rituals and rules they contain. At the same time, he seems to almost be poking fun at it all, emphasising the perhaps ‘ordinariness’ of the people behind all the pomp. This is evidence in photos of the preparations for the Lord Mayor’s show, which is the annual public event of the Corporation. There’s something rather detached about some of these, like for example an almost clinical profile view of the Lord Mayor in full regalia. An image of boots with no one in them pokes fun at the significance we may give to these ornate costumes while making us do a double take, challenging our expectation to see someone in them.

His photographs almost remind me of our own fieldwork, in the sense that they aim to create a narrative – it’s a series telling a story about what happens. It’s hard to imagine the individual photographs would convey as much outside of this series. Visual design research and the work of photographers like Parr have more in common than one might first think. 

You can find more information about the exhibit here.

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