I’ve been vaguely aware of this work for a while, and the time seemed right to get hold of a copy of it, specifically the 2012 reprint  with new introduction. Last year I visited the ‘Only In England‘ exhibition, featuring the 1960s work of Tony Ray-Jones and the mid-1970s Hebden Bridge series by Martin Parr, and one of the major elements of the exhibition was the influence that Ray-Jones had on Parr. Yet the main influence at the time seemed to have been the aesthetic (black-and-white, documentary style) rather than the subject matter (Ray-Jones covered the English at leisure, particularly at the seaside, Parr featured a methodist community in West Yorkshire). I knew then that Parr’s later work revisited the seaside locale but with a very different style – bright, saturated colours. So when this book was mentioned by my tutor as a recommendation for the Narrative & Illustration section of the course, it seemed like an appropriate point to complete the triangle of Ray-Jones, Parr and the English seaside.
‘Tatty and vibrant’
It’s hard to look at this in 2014 and experience the ‘shock of the new’ that the 1986 readers did; this type of colour aesthetic is commonplace now. So my view on this is a response to the images, not their place in the history of photography.
The look of (most of) the images is consistently bright, with seemingly over-saturated colours and in some cases noticeably high contrast. This look is mainly down to his choice of equipment: a medium-format but highly portable camera and daytime flash to make the images more vibrant, almost hyper-real in some cases. The look perfectly suits the subject matter, in the words of the introduction (and seemingly quoting Parr himself) “tatty and vibrant”.
Oddly the first image in the collection, of an old couple in a tea room, is the most subdued of the lot; it could almost be an outtake from the Ray-Jones 1960s series. Maybe Parr wanted to lead the viewer in gently – or lull them into a false sense of security. What follows is almost 40 images of working class families at leisure – in all their ‘tacky glory’.
The rest of this write-up isn’t so much about the images from a photographic critique point of view, as I’m sure that’s been done to death. I’m more interested in how the images made me think and feel.
Recognition – and not
It’s interesting looking at these photos, as in a way I see my own childhood. My family holidays weren’t at New Brighton but they were at Blackpool, Morecambe and Cleveleys on the same north-west coast. So unlike many of the original critics, or maybe even Parr himself (self-proclaimed middle-class) the images don’t represent some kind of anthropological study of a mysterious sub-culture, they are on one level pure nostalgia for me.
So I recognise the families making the best of a day at the seaside together, because that’s what you did. The shock to me is this: had I remembered those days with rose-tinted spectacles? Was there really so much junk food? (probably); so much smoking? (probably); were there really babies drinking coke from the can? (again, probably); was there really so much LITTER?! Part of me thinks (hopes?) that he selected some images for shock value. Or maybe even to make a political point? (see below)
Themes and messages
A few themes run through the book. As mentioned, a lot of images seem to include an ugly amount of litter. I say ‘seem to’ as in fact it’s only about half a dozen; but their effect is disproportionate; ugly, dirty, tatty is the lingering impression of the place (but crucially, not of the people).
Similarly, on first viewing it seemed to me that a majority of images included people eating or drinking (in reality less than half do), but in fairness that is a big part of the seaside tradition: fish and chips, ice creams and fizzy pop. Interestingly not alcohol; maybe that would be a difference in the 2014 equivalent.
But on closer viewing, by far the most common subject is families – especially children, especially toddlers and babies. Over two-thirds of the photos feature small children – usually in family units. This is a series of tableaux of families at leisure, together. This is where the warmth and the affection (and in some cases, the inherent humour) come in.
The combination of these thematic elements builds up in layers to deliver a message that I find hard to put into words, but will try: it’s a depiction of people making the best of it. Maybe they had easy-to-meet expectations of what constitutes a holiday; the older generations here, the grandparents, they lived through the post-war decades. Package holidays abroad weren’t part of their lives at this point. For northern working class families in the mid-1980s it was holiday enough to be at the seaside, and you didn’t notice or didn’t mind that you were paddling in almost black, litter-filled water, or that you were sunbathing adjacent to a digger.
Is there a political undercurrent? If the depiction of the grime isn’t patronising (and I don’t think it is, I believe Parr treated these subjects with a certain amount of detached affection) then the next most likely explanation is that he wanted to heighten the squalor of their surroundings as some kind of comment on how the working class – especially in the north, even more specifically in Merseyside – were being neglected or even mistreated in the Thatcher years. Their stoicism in ‘determinedly enjoying themselves’ is heightened by the depiction of their unglamorous environment.
Like any photographer who curates an exhibition or book, Parr selected images that tell a story or convey a message. He must have taken hundreds of exposures; the 38 collected here were the ones that conveyed his message the best – even if that message was subconscious in his own head at the time.
This is without doubt a ‘warts and all’ depiction of these people; he disregards the previously-held rule that the poor or working class had to be depicted respectfully by photographers. Maybe the shock of the (for want of a better word) ‘ugliness’ was greater than the shock of the colour aesthetic, although the latter supported – or exaggerated – the former.
Regardless of its reputation as a semi-controversial landmark in modern photography, I personally found it to be a very evocative, almost moving collection of images from a past that I recognise (but wouldn’t want to go back to!)
1. Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis