Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Sontag, 1972.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Sontag, 1972.

It’s probably a source of bemusement for some that Susan Sontag’s venerable 1977 book On Photography still serves as an entry point into the nebulous world of photographic theory for a great many readers.[i] In much the same way, it has long been a familiar touchstone used to bolster any number of middle-brow articles on the subject, especially those aimed at a non-specialist audience. This longevity might seem unlikely, but in fact, some of the reasons for the book’s popularity aren’t hard to grasp. Sontag’s writing has a sureness of tone, a certainty, that seems to have guaranteed its lasting authority. And, in many respects, the book is nearly unique. It’s difficult to name any other piece of sustained writing on the subject of photography that has gained the same kind of audience, whatever else might be said about its influence one way or another. This popularity is by no means a point in the book’s favour, especially among more academically inclined critics, or even those sick of its increasingly dated ubiquity. But there is no arguing the fact that it is ubiquitous, and that this in itself is a significant phenomenon. At the same time, most readers would probably find it difficult to parse the line of argument actually taken in the book, which is perhaps more known for its near endless quotability, than for what, precisely, Sontag has to say. Even without being able to name its particulars, though, it seems clear that the impression many readers have is of her apparent dislike of the medium, a sour note of approbation for the whole grubby business.

For some clue to Sontag’s motivation in undertaking the project we can turn to a long interview Jonathan Cott conducted with her in 1978. This is how she describes her interest in tackling the medium: “I got interested in writing about photography because I saw that it was this central activity that reflected all the complexities and contradictions and equivocations of this society […] that this activity, by which I mean both the taking of and the looking at pictures encapsulates all these contradictions […] On Photography is a case study for what it means to be living in the twentieth century in an advanced industrial consumer society.” [ii] If nothing else this seems to confirm the idea that photography, as such, was a secondary issue for Sontag, a suspicion that photographers in particular might be seen to harbour. Similarly, Sontag’s language when talking about the medium is often seen as having a decidedly condemnatory ring. This, too, is something Cott asked her about, noting the kind of words she used to describe it in the book: “package, possess, colonize […] consume […] aggress.” (RS, pg. 48) Sontag counters this observation with a list of her own, consisting of more ‘positive’ words she used to describe, if perhaps not photography itself, then at least the experience of looking at pictures, such as: “fascinate, haunt, entrance, inspire, delight.” It is arguable, however, that for most readers the apparently negative terms have had a more lasting currency and are the ones most often cited in relation to her view of the medium. In order to understand why this might be, what I want to address here is the fundamental basis of Sontag’s argument – and its enduring limitations.

The opening essay, In Plato’s Cave, begins with an assumption that has become increasingly familiar, that there are – or were, then – more photographs in the world than ever and that their very pervasiveness has changed how we see the world. The essay is an extended critique of this situation and its consequences, which Sontag sees a product of a particular socio-historical context, with photography as a way of ‘collecting’ and therefore shaping reality. “To photograph,” she says, “is to appropriate the thing photographed”[iii] and this ‘appropriation’ comes to serve as a substitute for the real world, which is progressively obscured by the traffic in photographs, what Sontag later calls the ‘image-world,’ supposedly running in parallel to the real one. That this traffic should be so effective is because of photography’s status as evidence, but, as she notes, photographers also make choices about how something should look – when photographed – that conforms to the ideas they already have about it, so photography is, in that respect, an ideological enterprise, colonising the visible. Similarly, Sontag sees the rituals of family photography and of tourists with their cameras as a way of controlling and collecting the visible world according to the logic of a given social order, helping to reinforce its values. The real burden of the essay, then, and what she has been leading up to, is the idea that photography interposes itself between us and the ‘real world’ in a way that merely looks like engagement, but is in fact satisfied with a symbolic, morally immobilising gesture: “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events. […] Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” (OP, pg. 11)

Sontag closes by saying that “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” (OP, pg. 24, pg. italics mine) Here we can clearly see that her view of the medium is defined by an anxiety about how it imposes a loss of depth and complexity on the world – a virtual dead-end. It appears that, for Sontag, the practice of photography represents a foreclosure of social, aesthetic and even moral possibilities because of the way it depends on a facile duplication of reality. How closely photographs seems to ‘copy’ the visible gives the medium a kind of authority that is ultimately false, and is, in fact, central to the core deceptions that define an industrialised consumer society. This attitude is no less apparent when in the next essay she turns to the way America has been represented by photographers who held out specific claims for their medium and its capacity to make the world around them comprehensible in new ways. She begins, perhaps surprisingly, with Walt Whitman. Her concern in this essay is to address how photography has been used to elevate every-day or even plain tawdry subjects, in order to achieve the kind of ecstatic communion with the American commonplace and its vulgarities that Whitman aspired to in his writing. The key point here is the way in which these hopes would sour, and in time be reduced to an aesthetics of marginalisation, making a spectacle of what they would have ostensibly redeemed. But why should that be?

In fact, the thread linking the first and second essays in the book is actually the basic position that Sontag will continue to occupy throughout. This is precisely her concern with what photography cannot do, which is transcend how the (sometimes passive, sometimes destructive) appropriation of reality that is at the heart of the medium undercuts the aspiration toward moral insight that its leading exponents, in their most Whitmanesque moods, were wont to claim, not least because the idea of the individual creative vision at stake here is fundamentally the product of an industrialised consumer society, whose motivations in this sphere she has already critiqued at some length: “Photographing, and thereby redeeming the homely, trite and humble is also an ingenious means of individual expression.” (OP pg. 30) Framed in this way, the ‘advanced’ photographer is by necessity no more insightful than the snap-happy tourist, in that both are satisfied to merely collect the world, rather than trying to understand it, and worse, the self-consciously ‘artistic’ photographer most often appropriates the private realities of other people, for no less questionable ends. Speaking of Walker Evans, she says “Each thing or person photographed becomes – a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other of his photographs.” (OP, pg. 31, italics mine)

For Sontag, the most telling example of this hollow equivalence was Diane Arbus. The assessment of her work that Sontag elaborates here is remarkably lucid, though perhaps also a little vitriolic.[iv] To her, Arbus appears as the logical endpoint of photography’s inherent tendency towards a colonisation of the real, with the photographer aggressively co-opting other people’s lives and then inserting them as mere characters in her own aesthetic melodrama without any sense of responsibility for how they are depicted. This is not just a failing unique to Arbus, but to the medium itself: “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.” (OP, pg. 41) In this case, the result “suggest[s] a naïveté that is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.” (OP, pg. 34) Arbus is exemplary then, albeit in a negative sense, because of how her work is defined by the basic social and psychological aggressiveness that is at the heart of the medium, by the way it invites us to confront (supposed) ugliness and deformity as a test of will, and by treating the private lives of real people as a public spectacle. In this way, so Sontag argues, Arbus undermines any possible moral or compassionate response to her subjects, creating the equivalence that Sontag views as being entirely characteristic both of photography and an industrialised consumer society, leaving only “paper ghosts and a sharp-eyed witty program of despair” (OP, pg. 48), whose most tangible result is the calculated deadening of our moral response to the world as it is pictured, an ideological slight-of-hand perpetrated by the photographer as the – often all too willing – agent of larger social forces.

The third essay, Melancholy Objects, is also perhaps the most wide-ranging, but it turns on what Sontag sees as being the basic tendency of the modern sensibility, a taste for the surreal, and its place in photography, which to her is a ‘surrealist’ medium like no other, not because of how it was used by the members of that historical movement, with their hackneyed repertoire of solarisation and double exposures, but more importantly, because of how photography works to transform the visible.[v] “Surrealism,” she says, “lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” (OP, pg. 52) To Sontag, however, the ‘surreal’ also means something quite specific about the camera’s – and the photographer’s – relationship to the world around them. The hallmark of what she calls the surrealist sensibility, and what she insists it shares with photography as a medium, is the tendency to view reality as a succession of atomised fragments, all more or less fit for the collector’s attention, and, in the process, entirely flattening the social and political dimensions of that reality. The surrealist’s search for ‘the other’ is ultimately no different from what motivates documentary photographers, who are little more than socio-economic tourists in other people’s lives: “The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down […] marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism.” (OP, pg. 54 – 55)

It is precisely this tendency towards voyeurism, of treating the world as a spectacle to be appreciated (and appropriated) that for Sontag so decisively undermines the reformist intentions of the documentary tradition, not just because of what photography is – although that doesn’t help – but also because of how it channels the worst impulses of the culture that both produces and consumes it. The result is a kind moral, as well as historical amnesia, having “devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence for history.” (OP, pg. 75) Indeed, to criticise this ‘sensibility’ and its failure to deliver a new vision of the world implicit in the ‘surrealist’ ambition is also a critique of modernity itself, of the hopes invested in technological development and in ‘progress’ generally. “Photography,” she tells us, “has become the quintessential art of affluent, wasteful, restless societies.” (OP, pg. 69) and, needless to say, those societies have a vested interest in the majority being satisfied with ‘mere’ images, of the simulated engagement with the world that photography has facilitated. The sensibility she identifies here as characteristic of the medium – and of the times – is one that has willingly accepted the apparent dead-lock that it embodies: “Photographers […] suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.” (OP, pg. 82)

The next two essays, The Heroism of Vision and Photographic Evangels, are further variations on this theme. In the first she is concerned with how photography, by providing a new standard of pictorial realism, one founded on a uniquely direct relation between the photograph and its subject, also progressively modified our sense of what actually is real, or rather of what ‘reality’ looks like, so that it seems, at times, to have overtaken ‘the real’ entirely, becoming, as Sontag says, “the norm for the way things appear to us.” (OP, pg. 87) More than this, photographers, especially those with advanced ambitions, were intent on creating new ways of seeing the world – seeing photographically – to further supplant established points of view, emphasising what the camera made possible for the first time, a kind of intensified seeing that spilt the world into fragments. For Sontag, perhaps the best exemplar of this tradition was Edward Weston, whose views she astutely (and amusingly) compares to the woolly pontificating of DH Lawrence. But much more damning is the extent to which what she calls his “habit of photographic seeing” (OP, pg. 97) fulfils her old gripe about the appropriating tendencies of the medium, dividing reality into a series of photo-opportunities that claim a kind of moral uplift, but that ultimately makes this impossible, precisely because of how photography operates on our relationship to the world around us. The result, in her view, is that “every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation” and is, consequently, “analgesic morally”. (OP, pg. 110)

(Part 2 can be found here).


[i] The other perennial is, of course, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, responsible for otherwise apparently sensible people using words like “punctum” with abandon.

[ii] Jonathan Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Yale University Press, 2013, pgs. 52-53. Further citations as ‘RS’ in the text. First appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, the complete interview was only published after her death. It is required reading for anyone interested in Sontag, presenting a more rounded and indeed more sympathetic portrait of her than is usually the case.

[iii] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, 2008, pg. 4. Further citations as ‘OP’ in the text.

[iv] It is perhaps revealing that the personal trajectory Sontag assigns to Arbus, in flight from her well-to-do, liberal, Jewish upbringing, was in large measure Sontag’s own as well, though in her case from a rather more modest background, along with a stifling marriage and what she saw as the dull conformity of an academic career.

[v] By far the best account of photography and Surrealism as an historical movement is Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris, Manchester University Press, 2002. Like Sontag, Walker discounts the shallow manipulations of most Surrealist photography in favour of what might be called a ‘documentary’ surrealism, though his treatment of the subject is obviously far more complete than hers.

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]

GB. England. New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85.

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.

GB. England. New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85.

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.