Our institutions and our freedoms are inherently fragile, subject to pressures that can deform or destabilise them. In that respect, a recent drift to the political right can’t have escaped the notice of anyone with an eye for historical parallels, and with it has come a return to the kind of attitudes that once haunted the European continent in even more substantial forms. It seems we have an almost irresistible tendency to keep making the same mistakes, repeating the same destructive patterns, which emerge out of the complex interplay between social and historical factors. Often these can circumscribe future action as much as they enable it, hindering change as a by-product, or to the extent that those in power benefit from the status quo. With that in mind, it is perhaps as good a time as any to re-examine a photographic work that in its own distinctive way takes on this issue of what might be called historical inheritance, precisely by addressing it in those terms, and, in the process, raising often uncomfortable questions about how the reluctance to face a legacy of division and violence can profoundly affect national life.
There is perhaps nothing quite so English – or British, if the distinction is still meaningful – as a day at the seaside. After all, the practice of visiting coastal towns, and indeed many of the towns themselves, can be seen to originate with the early craze among the well-to-do for the bracing sea air, a privilege only later extended to the lower orders by virtue of the new railways. Despite these 19th Century origins, however, the real heyday of the resort destinations surely belongs to the few decades after the Second World War that saw the height of their popularity and sharply declining thereafter, for a host of reasons linked to broader social shifts, not the least of which was the increasing availability of cheap package holidays abroad. The story of that decline and what its trajectory reveals about the dynamics of post-war English life is the driving force behind Martin Parr’s project The Last Resort, a study of New Brighton, then a popular working-class destination just outside Liverpool, made between 1983 and 1985. It is, in many ways, the most early significant achievement of Parr’s long, varied career and of the loose, somewhat controversial ‘new colour’ movement of those years.[i] What I want to revisit here is, in the first instance, the work itself, but also some of the controversy that surrounded its initial release. After all, the themes that define Last Resort – leisure, public space, the supposed absurdity of the banal – would continue to occupy Parr for years to come.
It also marks a peak of intimacy and complex picture-making that he hasn’t recaptured since, despite producing several other accomplished bodies of work, and the reason for this lies, at least partly, in how the work was perceived at the time of its initial release. Specifically, the ire that it aroused centred on Parr’s depiction of the working-class, which was seen as being unfairly biased, a virtual hatch-job compared to the generally left-leaning and, it has to be said, somewhat too cosy pieties of the documentary tradition as it then stood.[ii] In the context of the time these accusations had a potency that may feel quite distant today, but the resulting bitterness was to have a lasting effect. It is not for nothing that Philip Jones Griffiths could denounce Parr as a ‘Thatcherite photographer’ at the time of his admission to the Magnum agency.[iii] The style that Parr adopted in this work – medium format colour film and flash in daylight – also sets Last Resort apart from the often uncritical nostalgia of that same tradition, which had increasingly been reduced to valorising a world that was then in the process of being dismantled. But the distance between Parr’s earlier work and his breakthrough here is equally important; it really does seem as if he has found his own voice in these pictures, perfectly matched to the apparent ‘vulgarity’ of the subject, however divisive that would prove to be – and to whatever extent it would yield diminishing returns in the future.
To his critics the deliberate use of a direct, unflattering style signalled a view of the ‘working-class’ that, in its seemingly unvarnished cruelty, was of a piece with the political thinking that ruthlessly targeted the values and coherence of a whole culture.[iv] To those in power, free-market ideologues, the depredation of the working-class seemed like a very small price to pay for the world they hoped to make, by dismantling the post-war structure of nationalised industries – and incidentally, curbing what they viewed as the deplorable ‘excesses’ of the welfare state. Because Parr didn’t idealise the people and places he photographed, or showed them in ways that didn’t conform to the romantic understanding of the working-class as framed by the documentary tradition, it seemed to many that his attitude was the visual equivalent of Thatcherite disdain, sharing a laugh at the tacky pursuits of the little people whose days were assuredly numbered. A typical review of Last Resort stated that he found people “at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food and discarding containers and wrappers with an abandon likely to send a liberal conscience into paroxysms of sanctimony. Our historic working class, normally dealt with generously by documentary photographers, becomes a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience. They appear fat, simple, styleless, tediously conformist and unable to assert any individual identity. They wear cheap flashy clothes and in true conservative fashion are resigned to their meagre lot.”[v]
At issue here is the significance of Parr’s social and economic relationship to his subjects. He was, at the very least, a middle-class interloper, whose suspect motivations were already hinted at by the supposed cruelty of his pictures – and, at worst, an agent of subversion, attacking the very foundations of English life, and of the documentary tradition from which he sprang. The reviewer just quoted clearly feared the latter, imagining the ‘sophisticated’ viewer laughing up their no doubt well-tailored sleeve at the crowds that huddle on grotty patches of sand, with their bad tattoos and snot-stained infants. Some version of this accusation continues to dog Parr even today. In truth though, the certainties of class – working, middle and otherwise – were by this time already beginning to crumble, largely due to the ever-increasing collapse of the post-war economic boom, along with the social consensus that it had engendered, aided to be sure by the destructive policies set in train by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Consciously or not, Parr found that the crowded sea-front of New Brighton, its tatty Lido packed to capacity on the Bank Holiday weekends that he favoured, along with its amusement arcades and run-down tea shops, were a microcosm of the seismic changes then reshaping English society as a whole.
But the reaction the work garnered, specifically with regard to how a middle-class photographer viewed working-class culture – and this view especially, characterised by most as damningly spiteful – also seems to have caused a fundamental change in Parr’s attitude toward his subjects, one defined not in terms of style, but by his own relationship to what he has chosen to photograph. The reaction against the work, however much it seems overblown now and to whatever extent it was at the time, actually prodded Parr to examine his own class, resulting in The Cost of Living and Sign of the Times. If anything, the satirical edge often attributed to his pictures found its most cutting expression here, exposing the pretensions of his subjects in ways that were, I would argue for the first time, genuinely – and deliberately – unflattering. There is no little irony in the fact that the attitude he supposedly displayed towards his ‘working-class’ subjects seems to appear more strongly when photographing his own class, even as those distinctions began to be a lot less clear-cut. More broadly though, he never would again so unselfconsciously risk exposing himself to the accusation of exploiting his subjects in the way he was thought to be doing here.[vi] From then on, the ‘exploitation’ would be strictly on his terms.
However, the choice Parr’s critics seemed to offer between unmitigated cruelty on the one hand and rose-tinted nostalgia on the other was, ultimately, a false one. At that particular moment in English history to look critically at the working-class and to try grasp their place in a rapidly changing world – in fact, their status as a measure of that change – seems by far the more worthwhile goal. Similarly, to describe the work now, with the benefit of hindsight, as ‘warm’ or ‘affectionate’ in its portrayal of a given class is perhaps true, but it also ascribes an almost moral purpose to something that is more usefully understood in sociological – and indeed, photographic – terms. In a long essay on Parr, his friend and frequent collaborator Gerry Badger makes a significant point about the different receptions given to both The Last Resort and a near contemporary work, In Flagrante, by Chris Killip. They are, of course, very different, but despite Killip’s apparent closeness to the tenets of the documentary tradition, Badger is surely right when he suggests that only a “difference in emphasis” separates them as “fiercely independent, individualistic photographers,” that is, precisely not as exemplars of a tradition, but artists producing statements that reflected how they themselves saw the world, something Killip indicated by describing his landmark book as “a fiction about metaphor.”[vii] This difference in ‘emphasis,’ a difference that Badger considers as much stylistic as anything else, meant that Killip’s work was not subjected to the same kind of criticism as Parr’s.
It seems to me, however, that style is only part of the answer, though there is no doubt that Parr fusing the aesthetics of American colour photography to ‘documentary’ subjects was, in its own way, radical. More broadly (and as Badger also acknowledges) at stake is the issue of representation. Though Parr himself lived only a short distance from New Brighton he was, in no tangible sense, part of the world that he photographed and made no effort to be integrated into it – as, by contrast, Chris Killip often did with the people he photographed. His status is instead that of an observer and what seems to motivate these pictures time and again is the sheer pictorial vitality of his subjects, the wealth of detail and incident that he found there. After all, working-class culture was widely noted, if with some condescension, for its vibrancy, so to say that Parr was immersed – fleetingly, it’s true – in one aspect of that culture, it is surely because he saw an expression of something that had once been valued and was now under threat, increasingly degraded by a process that found a distinctive expression here. But even if, as Val Williams suggests, Last Resort was “an exercise in looking,” it still mattered who was looking at whom.[viii]
So, in that respect it is precisely its intimacy that sets the work apart. Parr is right in the action, looking directly at the crowd and the small dramas that make it up, from their midst. It would be too much to say he goes unseen, but in truth very few people seem to even notice him, despite the frequent use of electronic flash. There are some exceptions, however. In one remarkable picture, for example, a young woman serving ice-cream turns to stare proverbial daggers at the photographer (and at us) as customers surge to the counter behind her – while a teenage patron regards her chest with equally rapt attention. This image (and the authority, the defiance – or maybe just simple irritation – of her look) is one of the major pivots of the work. If Parr’s subjects are most often unware of what he is able to see – and our potential to judge – they can still look back, confronting our gaze. The pictures also have a brilliant all-over density to them, choreographing the sheer amount of stuff – people and things – jam-packed into every frame, that nonetheless often turns on some incredible detail (or series of details) that it is hard to believe he actually saw, but that still ‘makes’ the picture, like the stray biscuit that sits propped on the edge of a towel, just beside the tired young mother whose squalling infant occupies the centre of the frame.
The relationship between the elements in each picture and the space they occupy is important, of course visually, but even more than that, in terms of what it tells us about the world Parr wants to depict. In a similar way, how people relate to their surroundings is perhaps the real key to understanding this work. The abundance of rubbish that most commentators noticed, the overall shabbiness of the place, its air of neglect, is contrasted to people simply getting on and trying to enjoy themselves, taking whatever leisure they can find, despite the fact that they have increasingly been pushed to the margins. Parr’s off-kilter framing repeatedly emphasizes this point, as does the somewhat genteel, very English absurdity that he favours, such as with the well-known image of a woman sunbathing next to the tracks of a large earth-mover while a tweedy gent floats obliviously by in the background. Less noted perhaps is the significance of the relation between this crude industrial machinery and the remnants of better times, such as the iron railing (where the sunbather’s towel now hangs) and the ornate bandstand in the background. It is a deliberate clash of the old world and the new, their values opposed, and we are left in no doubt that one will cancel out the other – demolish it, in fact, with ‘ordinary’ people stranded uncertainly in the path of this inevitable collision.
Gesture is equally important in these pictures as a marker of different social roles and how they might be perceived. Parr is very aware of these roles and he catches them being performed with split-second timing. Sometimes, it is true, the pictures might be seen to puncture the dignity of their subjects – it is as if in order to communicate effectively a certain amount of caricature is called for, drawing with broad strokes, though I would say that in this instance at least they are never so sharply critical as his detractors were wont to claim. And there is certainly room for pathos as well, such as with the old couple lost in thought and mutual silence, waiting for their tea, in the poignant image that opens the book.[ix] No less significant is how the space between people is articulated and how they are obliged to negotiate these communal areas in a distinctly haphazard fashion, which might well be taken as that traditionally English sense of making do and fair play, but because there is also so often a visible tension here, a sense of constraint emphasized by how the pictures are made, they strongly suggest a real, substantial failure to accommodate the needs of a whole class and a culture, that are then seen as being essentially disposable, the relic of an age now passing into history, with little place in the supposedly bright future to come.
Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement about there being ‘no such thing’ as society is, of course, well known. Less often cited, however, is how she continued, saying that, in its place there were “individual men and women and families.” Society, then, is not the aggregate of efforts and responsibilities held in common, what people share, but everyone merely scrabbling for their own small advantage, clinging to the illusion that it can, in fact, be gained, and Parr finds the world that has been created – emphatically not just described – by this attitude; traditional bonds wrenched apart by changes that benefited the few and left the many to survive as best they could, while the infrastructure that once sustained them is let run-down and left to rot. Thatcher’s formula was, in that respect, a self-fulfilling prophesy.[x] And yet, that is not really all. There is in these pictures a human complexity that belies whatever simplistic ideas we – and their initial audience – might want to impose on the lives (or moments from lives, really) that are being shown. If Parr was able to see that it is because he was, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, an outsider in the middle of the crowd, someone who didn’t ‘belong’ there, for any number of reasons, not the least of which was class, and yet it was precisely this that allowed him to see what the people he photographed could not – their own fraught relationship to the world around them and to each other. The acuteness of this perception still resonates today, indeed perhaps now more so than ever.
[i] The other main contender would be Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, which shares a great deal with The Last Resort both in terms of style and intent, but, ultimately, I think Graham’s finest achievements come in a specifically European context rather than a British one.
[ii] This is perhaps a little unfair. Some photographers, such as Ken Grant, for example, have continued working in that tradition and enlarged it in important ways.
[iii] This was, on the whole, an unseemly little spat. In an open letter to his Magnum colleagues Philip Jones Griffiths said that Parr embodied the “moral climate of Thatcher’s rule” with a “penchant for kicking the victims of Tory violence.”
[iv] In the conversation – and controversy – around Parr’s work, what exactly ‘class’ meant was often left tellingly undefined, as it is by necessity here. What this suggests, however, is that the arguments levelled against The Last Resort were based as much on some idea about ‘class’ as the lived reality of it.
[v] David Lee, Arts Review, August 1986, quoted in Val Williams, Martin Parr, Phaidon, 2002/2014, pg. 159.
[vi] For Parr himself addressing different aspects of this issue, see the BBC documentary, The World According to Parr, also featuring the inevitable Saddam Hussein watches, Spice Girls memorabilia and much more besides.
[vii] Gerry Badger, Ruthless Courtesies: The Making of Martin Parr in The Pleasures of Good Photographs, Aperture, 2010, found here: http://www.gerrybadger.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/ParrByBadger.pdf
[viii] Williams, Martin Parr, pg. 159.
[ix] I am referring here, and throughout, to the 1998 edition of The Last Resort published by Dewi Lewis. It’s a classic of quirky design, with all sorts of pastel-coloured doodads scattered across the pages.
[x] For a damning summary of Mrs. Thatcher’s effect on the social, as opposed to the merely economic aspects of English life, see Tony Judt, Post-War: A History of Europe Since 1945, Vintage, 2010, pgs. 539-547.