As part of my feedback from EYV Part 2, my tutor suggested that I look at reviews of Martin Parr’s work to widen my reflection.
My visit to The Hepworth to see The Last Resort was made very early in this course and I had few experiences of looking a exhibitions in a critical way but I recorded my thoughts and described what I saw. Now I am further into the course and, on my tutor’s advice that I need to contextualise my learning, I wish to research Martin Parr’s work further, particularly The Last Resort, to look at other people’s responses to it, and re-assess my own.
Please see my earlier post: Martin Parr ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ and ‘The Last Resort’
The Last Resort is a collection of images taken at the English seaside town of New Brighton. This area, like many English seaside towns is popular with the less affluent working classes, in the tradition of the ‘works weeks’ vacations where families took a break for two weeks each year to get away from it all. In reality, this was a well deserved break from the hard labour of the mines and factories and an opportunity for families to relax and have fun for minimal cost.
Parr’s photographs were taken between 1983 and 1985. The year-long miners’ strike began in March of 1984. The impact on mining communities of this dispute cannot be overstated. A holiday during this period, for many, would certainly have been a luxury, and would probably have amounted to a day trip rather than anything else. Parr’s images then, are probably of day-trippers making the most of a sunny day despite the reality of poverty and despair to which they must return.
I am very familiar with some similar English seaside resorts and perhaps a little defensive of them, having spent many happy holidays there. My initial reaction to Parr’s work was to acknowledge the stereotype but also both the humour and the apparent stoicism and determination of ordinary people to enjoy themselves whatever the circumstances.
I particularly liked these two images:
I find Image 1 a particularly powerful image. It shows a, presumably long married, couple, waiting for service in a café while on their holiday. Sitting opposite each other at the table, there is no interaction between them. He stares at something unseen, and she at her hands. They look uncomfortable with each other and with the situation. The bare table emphasises the absence of interaction and the fact that this couple has nothing to talk about. They are smartly dressed, as if dressed up for this as a special occasion.
I see this image as showing a recognisable reality of the seaside holiday and relationships between people, and something of the artificiality of engineered ‘entertainment’. It speaks of the expectations that people have and of their disappointments. This image makes me feel sad.
Image 2 presents us with a crowd of young people buying fast food at a take-away café. The subjects are unaware of the camera and absorbed in the task at hand. The girl in the centre of the image is engrossed in putting ketchup on her chips. The photograph is taken from behind the counter, which acts as a physical barrier between the crowd and the photographer. The viewer is positioned as separate from the crowd and therefore as an uninvolved observer (like watching the activity in a glass-fronted cage).
This image appears to be a stereotype of the working class at the seaside . These holiday makers are shown as greedy and undignified. As a group they are chaotic and self absorbed. This is not a pretty look. However, fish and chips a the seaside is a fabulous old tradition and I can relate to this image as clearly showing a shared enjoyment of the experience and of the holiday.
Parr’s work has been seen in a number of ways: as a political statement; as poking fun a the working class, and as showing a genuine, non-cynical interest in his subjects.
In an article for the Tate, Rachel Taylor (September 2003) says:
‘Some critics understood Parr’s depiction of an area of economic deprivation and his focus on his subjects’ personal indulgences as a political statement decrying the excesses of Thatcherism’.
However, citing Val Williams (2002), she continues:
‘More recently, in her monograph on Parr, Val Williams has proposed a less political reading of the pictures. In her view, The Last Resort typifies Parr’s incisive eye for the eccentric. She has commented, ‘There’s no cynicism in Parr’s gaze, just interest, excitement and a real sense of the comedic’ (Williams, p.161).’.
‘Parr himself has claimed, ‘I’m less interested in the fact that these people aren’t well off financially as in the fact that they have to deal with screaming kids, like anyone has to … I’m also interested in making the photographs work on another level, showing how British society is decaying; how this once great society is falling apart’ (quoted in Williams, p.160)’.
Mike Johnson’s review in Online Photographer (Feb 2011) says:
‘It’s not a flattering picture of the British. Some of the pictures even seem cruel but Parr has denied he was mocking his subjects’.
Online Photographer Readers’ comments on this review include:
‘I’m never prouder of my British passport than when looking at The Last Resort. These are people who truly do not give a sh1t, people who have rejected the self-studying antics of the colour supplement magazines and are so clearly prevailing in the rough, rude business of life. Good on ’em!”
“Parr is all external, an arrogant gaze on figures of ridicule, stripping them of worth, taking himself to be so much better than they are.’
Eric Kim, in his blog: Street Photography Book Review: “The Last Resort” by Martin Parr quotes Art Critic David Lee’s response to Parr’s initial exhibition:
‘(Parr) has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food and discarding containers and wrappers …Our historic working class, normally dealt with generosity 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’.
There is clearly much controversy about The Last Resort though Parr has denied any intention to exploit his subjects.
I am not offended by Parr’s images as some viewers clearly are, despite my general hatred of stereotyping, but I do have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, I very much enjoy these images and the stories they tell, and can relate to them as part of England’s heritage and my own experiences of holidays, but on the other I want to challenge them as just one reality. I know English seaside resorts and have seen scenes like this in real life but this is not the whole story.
Although I am becoming more comfortable taking candid photographs, I still find it difficult to consider producing images that are unflattering to my subject and I personally avoid this. I imagine that some of Parr’s subjects may be quite embarrassed or upset by his images of them. Les Monaghan’s commitment to fairness (Monaghan 2016), in contrast, sits more comfortably with me. However, I do not believe Parr deliberately wants to ridicule people; I believe he has a genuine interest in them. His Rhubarb Triangle images show the people involved in the production of rhubarb in a more positive and respectful way, as hard working and proud.
My EYV Assignment 2 shows an alternative view of an English seaside resort. Yes, there are dark and dirty corners in Filey, and people eat fish and chips, but that is not the only story. Parr does not claim that he tells the only story, but images like this are very powerful and help to create stereotypes and fixed views of people.
In conclusion, I think I sit on the fence! I can see Parr’s images as a political statement about class difference and about the decline within communities. I can also see a voyeurism that suggests a lack of respect, but overall, I greatly admire the images in The Last Resort, am fascinated by the experiences of ordinary people myself, and believe that Martin Parr genuinely is interested in people whatever their situation.
Please see my post Martin Parr further research for more reflection on Martin Parr.
List of illustrations
Image 1 Parr, M. (1985)The Last Resort. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/martin-parr-the-last-resort/ Accessed 26 August 2016
Image 2 Parr, M. (1983-1985)The Last Resort. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/martin-parr-the-last-resort/ Accessed 26 August 2016
Johnson, M (ed)The Online Photographer. At http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/ accessed 26 August 2016
Kim, E, ‘Street Photography Book Review: “The Last Resort” by Martin Parr'(Blog) At: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/01/20/street-photography-book-review-the-last-resort-by-martin-parr/
Monaghan, L. (2016) Fairness and effecting change [Lecture at Doncaster Cast 21 May 2016)
Taylor, R (2003) Tate. At http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/parr-the-last-resort-40-p11922/text-summary Accessed 26 August 2016