Martin Parr – The Last Resort

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As previously discussed in the post on planning assignment 3 Martin Parr’s work feels very relevant at this stage in the course. He has worked exclusively in colour since making the switch from black and white in the early 80s and The Last Resort * (1), published in 1986, was his first book in this medium. His technical approach has been fairly consistent since 1983 when he started collecting his photos for Last Resort; at that time he was using a Plaubel Makina medium format camera with a wide angled lens and a daylight flash whereas today he continues to use a wide angled lens and daylight flash albeit on a 35mm camera. He has done some work with a telephoto lens when exploring South America beaches but generally his technique is to get close, neutralise the effect of natural light with his flash and fill the frame with his subject or subjects. Some critics have suggested that his work shows a lack of progression and experimentation but this consistency of technique has proved to be an effective way to communicate and he obviously sees little need to change for the sake of change.

His work is documentary but what sets him apart from many other documentary photographers is a wry sense of humour that pervades much of his work. He explains * (2) that when he was working in black and white his work was totally affectionate or celebratory, a statement that is strongly supported by the sympathetic photos of Hepton Bridge in The Non Conformists (here under black and white portfolios) where he documented a community that was holding on to its traditions as the world changed rapidly around them. However, when he adopted colour and what he calls the “quite strong flash” that he uses in Last Resort he says his work became more of critique on society. * (3)

It is important to place Last Resort in its proper context. Britain was emerged in the Thatcher Years, a time of great divisiveness as the Government aggressively took on the power of the unions whilst promoting privatisation, share ownership, the sale of council houses, home ownership and a more American form of capitalism. It is was the beginning of a time when self became more important than community, a process that has continued and become more extreme in the 21st century. Thatcher’s policies widened the north-south divide with the northern industrial towns and cities suffering an acceleration of an economic downturn that was already underway as a result of the decline of the traditional heavy industries whilst the south and particularly London benefitted from the rapid growth of the financial and service sectors and the concentration of new industries such as IT in the M3 / M4 corridor. Both these trends were well under way long before Thatcher but her policies became an accelerant and as a result her era often obscures how sick the patient was before she entered the scene.

This amplification of something that was already happening is part of the backdrop to The Last Resort. New Brighton’s heyday was well before Parr found the town and by the 80s it was already a run-down sea-side for day-trippers from Liverpool or Manchester more than being a main-stream holiday resort. Parr captures the feel of a seedy, decaying seaside town and uses it as a backdrop to his studies of its visitors. He sees his images as showing how the fabric of the country had gone into disarray whilst everyday life continued. * (4) He says “What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of the foreground people and the background of things falling  apart” and it is this combination that significantly increases the appeal of the Last Resort.

I find it easier to relate to Martin Parr than to the American colour photographers because we share very similar backgrounds. We were born a few months apart and only a few miles apart in Surrey and Parr was teaching at The West Surrey College of Art (now part of UCA) in my home town of Farnham from 1983 to 1990. Val Williams, in her major presentation of Martin Parr’s work for Phaidon * (5) makes the point that, as a child of the suburbia, Parr was an outsider, belonging nowhere so his move to the Northwest would have been a real eyeopener. I also grew up in Surrey and in the late seventies and early eighties I was travelling all over Britain implementing bureau-based computer systems. I remember that sense of being an outsider in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh where the people I met in the course of my work were part of a wider community, socialising within a group to whom they had strong links and loyalties and with a strong sense of the social and political history of their home town.

There is an element of being the outsider in many photographers, of being behind the camera observing and recording the event rather than being a part of it and this has become part of Parr’s trademark. He is the photographer on the edge of the scene, never hiding, often organising his subjects, but always the observer, always the outsider, the southerner in the north, the middle-class man photographing the working class, the scruffy photographer photographing the plumage of the middle and upper classes at Ascot or the Brit in America. Like Eggleston, Shore or other great documentary photographers it is his observational skills that make his work stand apart, as an outsider looking in he sees the world in a different way to its inhabitants and he has an ability to select and structure detail from that scene to provide a succinct summary that reveals that world to, us, the other outsiders.

In studying The Last Resort as part of my preparation for assignment 3 I am especially interested in Parr’s use of colour. Once he had moved to colour he never went back to black and white so it is clear that colour is playing an essential role in his pictures. This is underlined by his use of Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens to maximise colour saturation * (6). However, these photographs are not about colour which, for instance, John Szarkowski suggests was part of the motivation behind the American New Colour photographers, it is more that the vision of England that Parr wants to capture is just better in colour. When Parr chose the photos for The Last Resort he could not afford to have colour contact sheets made so he made all his selections from black and white contact sheets. He says “I never selected them because of the colours though it is essential that they were taken in colour”. This is an important point for me at this stage in the course, I feel that it would be an easy trap to fall into to go out and photograph colour, Parr shows that the most important element of the photograph is the subject and colour is one of the structural elements that supports the image.

The first plate in The Last Resort is a good example. (here). We see two middle aged customers in an old fashioned restaurant or tea room. The man is smoking a cigarette and staring at nothing, the women is starting at her hands, they look bored as they wait for their meal. The relationship between the two main characters is obviously the point of the picture, it is melancholy, perhaps even sad and the pale pink and green walls, a colour combination that seems dated in itself, add to the muted mood of the picture. It is interesting to note that much later Parr created a whole series of people looking bored in similar circumstances Bored Couples * (7).

The second plate (here) is one of the few images in the series were decay is placed centre stage. A young man, a baby and a much older women are viewed through the dirty and partially broken window of a beach-side shelter. The window frame is marked with rust and when someone touched up the paintwork their lack of skill led to paint splashes on the seat so even in providing maintenance there is no real care. However, this is a good example of Parr’s eye for contrasts because behind the dirty and broken glass the baby is dressed in a smart, clean sun bonnet and is being held tight by the young man so in contrast to the building we see a description of the care with with she has been dressed and the loving cuddle she is being given.

The mood changes with the third plate (here) where a young girl dressed in bright red watches as a women strokes the head of a large dog under the smiling eyes of an older man. This is a joyful picture with the bright red jumper of the little girl leaping out of the image thanks to the use of daylight flash. The composition brings together a whole series of lovely details that tell an everyday story that many people will relate to. The little girl and her mother are out for a walk, perhaps to the shops as mum is carrying an empty shopping bag, with the little girl pushing her pram containing an oversized doll. The elderly man must own the dog as he is looking on with pleasure and pride. Everyone is smart, dressed in clean and nice clothes, the pram is clean and shiny but the backdrop seems to be a boarded up shop complete with graffiti and a wind torn poster advertising a long past circus.

Rugby Programme on the Streets of Central London 1/100 at f/11, ISO 250

Rugby Programme on the Streets of Central London 1/100 at f/11, ISO 250

Plate 4 in which colour does not play a dominant role in this picture, it is muted and restrained (here) is one of many where I find myself at odds with some other reviewers. I know that Parr loved the litter and specifically liked to visit the resort on bank holiday weekends so that the litter was at its peak but I believe that what he is showing is how ordinary people deal with ordinary everyday issues regardless of where they are. This is not a photograph of poverty or depravation, it tells us nothing about Thatcher’s Britain, it is not as David Lee * (5) pg. 161) suggests “[Parr] has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food”. It is a picture of a smartly dressed mum in a crisp clean dress with her two smartly dressed children, albeit the boy’s tank-top and shorts have separated in the way that boys’ cloths do, eating fish and chips at the end of their day at the sea-side. The boy is probably, what mothers always call, “over tired” and something has set him off, perhaps his sister, who has a knowing smile about her, is not sharing the chips. Perhaps if one views the world from the “nice” parts of Chelsea or Kensington and moves in the arty circles of London the real world comes as a shock. Litter on the streets after a busy bank holiday weekend is not a barometer of class or of despair, as a visit to Twickenham, that most middle class of venues, after a match or Lord’s Cricket Ground will show.

However, if the art critics or the modern day bloggers want to be disturbed plate 5 (here) has more to offer. Three women are playing on some sort of gambling machine in a typical sea-side amusement arcade. I remember spending my pocket money in similar arcades whilst on holiday in the 50s and 60s. There is a pram in the centre of the room and, presumedly it is its normal occupant who is barefoot and wandering, investigating a fruit machine in a deserted aisle. There is a seedy feel to this image with loose tiles hanging from the ceiling and the kind of imitation wood decor that was popular in the 60s. It was taken with a slow shutter speed so the baby is movement blurred as are some of the arms and hands of the players. The tones are very muted and I find this picture a little depressing in the same way that I find television adverts for gambling “apps” and high street bookies depressing. I recognise this as a form of class prejudice and stereo-typing, the middle and upper classes go to Ascot, drink bubbly, have fun and a flutter, the lower classes gamble money they can ill afford. I do not know if Parr shares these prejudices or whether he is simply documenting a recognisable aspect of the British sea-side.

Val Williams * (5) takes the view that Parr is not cynical “just interest, excitement and a real sense of the comedic” and having watched several interviews with the man and read a lot about him I share this view. He finds humour in the ordinary, his observational skills allow him to spot details that provide the structure to his pictures, he loves the unusual and treasures the “quirky and weird” (words that he uses a lot in interviews). This approach appears to  position him far away from gritty street photographers capturing social issues although, when I look at Vegara’s street photos, there is also often humour there as well. Parr is describing broader subjects in society whilst showing ordinary people enjoying themselves against a backdrop of tatty in the 80s or embarrassing displays of bad taste and extravagance later in his career.

Plates 6 and 7 are the first pictures to share a spread in the book, (here) and (here) and this appears quite intentional. To the left we have a young mother on a fairground ride heading left to right with her baby in her arms. Reds and oranges dominate the composition. To the right and facing the other way so the two photos head towards each other is a young father in some sort of flight simulator with one child on his lap and another in a push chair. Parr was a new parent when he was working on The Last Resort and, in interview, he often mentions how interested he was in how everyone had to deal with their children and children are a recurring theme in The Last Resort. The father is presumably in the flight simulator for his own amusement, the women’s motives are more obscure as she is not displaying any particular signs of pleasure but there again Parr does not want his subjects to smile as it reduces the picture to a “family snap” * (3). Colour has an important role in these pictures especially as they are chosen to face each other, orange to the left and blue to the right with a similar tone of red appearing in both. The two images compliment each other as well as working within themselves and show the importance of how photographs are displayed and positioned within a series.

The subject of series or sets is an important one. Parr works in series and sees his work in that context, each photograph must work in its own right but his kind of documentary only works when the full series is seen. The Last Resort is carefully structured, we start with the lonely couple in muted tones but are then quickly into a long series of 7 photographs of parents interacting with their children with the last 5 centred around amusements, the colours move from muted to strong and back down a notch to finish this particular introductory stream. Plate 10 (here) seems to be a divider with a strong shot of the open air baths crowded with people of whom many appear to be teenagers before we move back to the children theme. This series within a series are all about parents and grandparents interacting with their children at the beach or at the lido . We are shown all the normal highs and lows of taking children to the sea-side, messy ice cream, cheap snacks, granddad with his camera, mothers encouraging tiny toddlers to paddle or trying to get five minutes peace when the baby is crying, feeding the baby whilst sun bathing, kids getting dirty, changing nappies and so forth. All very ordinary, all very normal and many of the aspects that people now think are a politicised message were not considered dreadful at the time. Lots of people are too sunburned but, when the sun came out, most of us were in the 70s and 80s and children eating crisps and drinking colas was not thought of as unhealthy and certainly wasn’t unusual.

The details that stand out for me are the way people dressed, the ladies in a row with the naked toddler are all dressed smartly for their day out at the sea-side and granddad with his suit trousers held up by braces. This tells us that even in the mid-80s a day out was a special occasion and you dressed up for special occasions thus giving us a very direct link back to Tony Ray-Jones and A Day Out. It was not until the British started holidaying abroad in large numbers and saw how the “Continentals” dressed that we learnt how to dress casually for the beach. In this same series we have some disturbing glimpses of pollution and dirt but it doesn’t seem to be spoiling anyone’s day and that might also be part of the point, people go out to have a good time and can block out many details that might detract from that aim, when  presented in a photograph the details they turned a blind eye to become very obvious and in that we have a hint of the fiction within photography that Parr often talks of * (8).

Parr enjoys the weird, the eccentric, the quirky things that people do and wear and eat. In one film * (4) he talks at length about photographing a man struggling with the rind in a bacon sandwich. He see want most people ignore or take for granted, frames it in his particular way and captures it in a true documentary manner. He no doubt weighs people up, perhaps judges them, warms to them or not because that is generally what people do when they think about a stranger, however, I don’t see his photographs as judgemental or that he is passing his opinions on to the viewer, he openly states that his work is “subjective documentation” * (8) but that is true of all photographs. A photograph is the view that the photographer has chosen to present, it is a document of what the photographer has chosen to include and chosen to exclude. Garry Winogrand, one of Parr’s influences said “Photographs do not tell a story, they just show you what something looks like” , the subjectivity lies in what the photographer has chosen to show us and the only story is the fiction we create when we look at the picture.

The Last Resort continues with beauty pageants, the chaos of buying fast food, children, babies, litter and boredom and describes the strange relationship that the British have with a sunny day and the sea-side. It might be possible to understand a nation purely by considering this relationship. In The Last Resort we are presented with a study of what one group of people, in one place, at a certain point in time did when they had a day out and in doing that Parr has captured something about those people, their relationships with each other and the attitudes of the day. In this sense it has value as a historical document, in another way it is a humorous and sympathetic look at being English but the end result is a collection of compelling images.

Sources

Books

* (1) Parr, Martin. (1986) The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton Fourth reprinting 2013. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

* (5) Williams, Val, (2002) Martin Parr: Reprinted 2010. London: Phaidon Press Limited

Films

* (2) Murphy, Michael. (2007) Martin Parr. Bloomberg Tate Shots.

* (3) Broffman, Neal. (2012) Hot Spots – Martin parr in the American South. F-Stop Films.

* (4) Stephanian, Eric. (2002) Contacts – Martin Parr. Arte France

* (8) Onrust, hank. Martin Parr – De Magie Van Het Moment. VPRO

Internet

* (6) Martin Parr www.martinparr.com

* (7) Magnum Photos www.magnumphotos.com

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