Rich and quirky: The ancient rituals of London's 'invisible' financial City

Story highlights

  • Martin Parr is considered to be one of Britain's greatest living photographers
  • He has been capturing the archaic rituals of London's financial quarter since 2013
  • "City of London" is the name given to a square mile of central London, home to many global banks

London (CNN)London's original financial quarter is a wall-ringed square mile piled thick with skyscrapers and Palladian palaces, populated by secretive institutions who live by laws of their own making, and whose doors are closed to anyone but the initiated.

Here, we call this city-within-a-city -- to add to the confusion -- "the City of London," and this is where photographer Martin Parr has been welcomed for the last three years, with unprecedented access, inside the financial epicenter of Europe.
    Parr is one of Britain's most beloved living photographers and has been the photographer-in-residence in "the City" since 2013. He has amassed a collection of images revealing the mystifying traditions and rituals that continue to take place among the glistening skyscrapers -- plus a vast collection of odd hats.
    "It's full of contradictions and that's really what I liked," says 63-year-old Parr, whose new exhibition, "Unseen City", opened at the Guildhall Gallery -- within the City's ancient walls -- on 4 March.
    Martin Parr
    "What is amazing is there's all these traditions still going on. I mean the City is a very modern place, at the same time as being partly feudal."
    His subject is a global anomaly: due to a peculiar history of economic flourishing stretching back as far as Roman times, the British monarchy and Parliaments have permitted the City to operate a degree outside of the laws that govern the rest of the UK.
    Unlike the financial districts of New York or Hong Kong, the City of London is legally it's own city, separate from the much bigger London beyond -- with its own Mayor, its own police force and a unique democratic process where private companies vote for candidates drawn (by and large) from the City's 108 medieval guilds.
    Martin Parr is best known internationally for humorously capturing the quirks of British life
    It's confusing. But then Parr says this opaqueness fueled his interest, so too to see inside banqueting halls and ceremonies that would otherwise remain off-limits. Three years in, he says he still finds it hard to get his head around many of the City's quirks: mixing up the Aldermen and the City Sheriffs -- two ancient ranks of standing he describes as "rewards for City work."

    The 'Establishment'

    Thanks to its fantastic wealth, the City has been home to buildings that have dominated London's skyline for hundreds of years: St Paul's Cathedral, The Gherkin, and the looming, unloved Heron Tower. But the ability of the City of London's governing "Corporation" to remain overlooked -- governing itself for two thousand years, unnoticed -- is perhaps its greatest achievement of all, according to the Financial Times: "Invisible earnings, invisible power."
    While seeming idiosyncratic and obscure, critics say the City's archaic rituals (revealed in the collection of images above) hide a very modern system of tax avoidance and dangerous lobbying for unregulated banking -- both of which have consequences across the UK and the world.
    For Parr -- who describes the City dignitaries he met during the project as "perfectly respectful" -- the situation is more nuanced. The project is not critical -- he's a documentary photographer, he reminds -- but sets its sights on "The Establishment," at large.
    He says he will eventually pull sections from "Unseen City" together into a major work, along with recent trips to visit Oxford University, British soldiers stationed in Germany, and the UK's expensive elite schools.
    These are all points on a network you "cannot escape in the UK," says Parr: "I mean, they're the people that run the country."

    Above Parr?

    Parr has been busy beyond the financiers: "Unseen City" is the second of three exhibitions he's opening in the space of six weeks. "I've got a bit of a festival," says Parr drily. "A bit of a binge really."
    He has already launched "The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories", a new series taken over the last 12 months in an area of countryside known in Yorkshire, northern England, as "The Rhubarb Triangle." There, the back-breaking work of growing and picking tangy rhubarb crops is still done by candlelight.
    This appears familiar territory for Parr, who is best know for his vividly colored, affectionately humorous portraits of social class and community in small British towns, including the groundbreaking The Last Resort (in 1985) and Think of England (2000).
    To come, "Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers" flips the photographer's interest on its head. The exhibition of works by international photographers (curated by obsessive photobook -collector Parr) spotlights foreigners who have have captured the social, cultural and political identity of the UK.