Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Last Resort Revisited

Martin Parr. Rarely does a day pass in my professional life when he isn’t mentioned by, or to me. Martin Parr, one of the world’s greatest living photographers and behemoth of photographic history. His third book The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, is perhaps the most influential on my career - well, it's certainly top five. It was his first book in colour, and what a way to do it. Bam! Flicking through the pages a kaleidoscopic bulb burns straight on to the retina, it’s a saturated slap about the face.

The photographs were taken in the Liverpool suburb and working class seaside resort of New Brighton over three seasons, 1983-1985. The Last Resort was published a year later - a year in which I spent my summer behind the counter of Weymouth Joke Shop selling cans of 'Instant Shit’ and ‘Heavy Drinker’ caps to Bristolians and Brummies on holiday during factory shutdown. I first saw the book aged 18 in the library of the art college where I was studying for a National Diploma in photography. It was not a book of war photographs or famine but it was Parr’s front line and one I recognized as my youth. The book was a genuine revelation that a photographer didn’t have to fly to far-flung places to photograph suffering, horror and despair; you could just get on a bus.

I’d like to think I would have arrived at the style of photographs I take regardless of Martin Parr, but he certainly hastened the process. Professionally his presence has sometimes been a burden; though more often that not it's been a great benefit. Whatever, I accept the influence. It is 25 years since Parr self published the first edition. The images have become as familiar to me as my own family album. As homage to the work, earlier this year I packed the 1998 edition by Dewi Lewis publishing and headed to New Brighton on a Bank Holiday Weekend photographic pilgrimage to stomp in the footsteps of Parr.

I was born beside the seaside, beside the sea; any reason to return to the coast is welcome and welcome to New Brighton. Arriving on the Wirral Line the neck hair prickled. Through habit on any coastal trip, I deployed myself straight to the seafront and stared across the River Mersey at the 30+ wind turbines that turned steadily enough to huff New Brighton away. The resorts decline was protracted. The, 'I’m bigger than Blackpool Tower' (New Brighton Tower) was dismantled in 1920, the pier finally demolished in 78’. By the time Parr arrived it was on the fringes of ruin, but it still had the open air bathing pool. A documentary photographers jackpot, the then largest open-air pool in the country provides half a dozen plates in The Last Resort. I imagined Parr photographing the Miss New Brighton pageant wearing his trademark sandals and stooping in Speedos to shoot among the tiered benches designed to seat 20,000 sun seekers in addition to 4000 bathers. Bulldozers levelled the pool in the summer of 1990 after winter storms had caused irreparable damage - well damage the council didn’t want to pay for. A replacement has finally been nodded for approval. I squinted at the size - it would embarrass the more affluent garden pond.

On Marine Promenade I crouched in the exact spot where Parr photographed two children dribbling ice cream in front of a weather shelter and electric blue painted railings. Since he focused the 55mm lens on that Plaubel Makina 67 rangefinder camera, the railings have been layered brown, white and black then weather whipped back through black, white, brown, to original 'Parr blue' and, in places, to green underneath. What struck me was how close he must have been - an undeniable presence.

In Vale Park I knelt at the bandstand where Parr flashed for a fraction of a second in front of a woman poised in shiny pink leotard and skirt. On my visit the dancer was replaced by the Northwest Concert Band. As they tuned up, I tuned out and noticed the same bin from Parr’s shot on the parks periphery. The updated striped deckchairs still gently cradled the elderly and infirm. I snapped the scene as those able to stand for the national anthem did so.

There were hundreds of cars along the Prom but where were the people? Mostly in their cars, texting on mobile phones, talking on mobile phones, reading, staring but, mostly eating. They still came to New Brighton but there’s not much to do when you get there, except walk. The 15-mile Wirral Coastal Walk, dotted with Rhubarb and Custard uniformed Lifeguards, passes through New Brighton and a dog is a good excuse to use it. I photographed the dog walkers, ice cream eaters, pigeon feeders, model boat enthusiasts and the families hooking for crabs I met along the way. I photographed outside Susie’s Ice Cream Parlour and Legends CafĂ© Bar, but was prevented from shooting in the Bright Spot Arcade. It’s impossible as a photographer familiar with The Last Resort, not to see Parr parts in every shot. Alsatian dogs, dogs with tongues hanging out, crying children, elderly women in waterproof headscarves, scattered chips on the pavement. All have succeeded in history.

In the Queens Royal hotel, a procession of framed portraits of Miss New Brightons wearing one-piece swimsuits and knees-together sepia smiles, looked down over the wedding guests whose overfed buttocks gyrated to Lady Gaga - buttocks that would never find sepia-framed fame. I showed The Last Resort to as many locals as I could. Bridesmaid Claire was too young to remember much of old New Brighton and was uncomfortable with a stranger showing her a bright colour photograph of a naked boy balancing next to the litter strewn Marina Lake. She drank some more to forget. In The Olive Tree, Ray remembered working at Wilkie’s covered fairground 13 hours a day and the girls that would send him ‘Remember me?’ letters. He remembered days on the beach where day-trippers stood shoulder to shoulder. "Now everyone is just wider and wider,” he says wryly. None of the locals I showed The Last Resort to had heard of Martin Parr (I briefly considered moving to New Brighton). They talked more of Thatcher than of photographers. Some had seen the photographs before, they thought, somewhere, but not sure where.

On initial publication, The Last Resort divided photographers, critics and the public alike - still does. The defining moment of colour photography or the rape of noble and traditional practice? Some thought the content sneering and cruel; others affectionate and humanistic. There was no Flickr, Facebook or TwitPic to forewarn what was to come - it just flew into our laps like a chucked can of rainbow paint. Arriving in New Brighton I expected residents to react with outrage that these types of photographs were taken and that I’d brought them back into their consciousness, but no one minded. I’d hoped to find some of the individuals photographed. Perhaps the ice cool girl in the ice cream shop married someone like Ray and now both run a pub on Victoria Parade. No one recognized the individuals in the photographs but everyone recognized a little of themselves in them. Without exception they all felt sad. Sad what New Brighton once was and, despite attempts at regeneration, would probably never be again? The Last Resort was read as simply that - the last of a proud, great seaside tradition, where Mr Punch Swazzled, “That’s the way to do it!” Where The Beatles once headlined in 1961 at the Tower Ballroom for 5d a ticket, and where Gerry and his Pacemakers belted out their anthem across the Mersey. I always read it as the last resort - the place you would least want to go.

As I beat a retreat from New Brighton I too felt sad. There’s one thing the English seaside does well and that’s nostalgia. Leafing through the book my youth flickered across the pages in a visual echo of Smiths Crisps, Milky Way chocolate bars, Kwik Save carrier bags, factor two suntanned mums, prams and Pepsi cans, chip wrappers overflowing from wire rubbish bins and the cheap worn white shoes; so many white shoes. And this is what strikes me as the importance of documentary photography and film making. I’m not yet 40 and the images provoke thought and trigger memories of a past generation. This is why I will always be a photographer; to photograph what is real, to record the present in an attempt to preserve the past.

I email Parr my bank holiday snaps, he replies that he has returned to New Brighton a good few times and that it’s changed beyond all recognition: He says “Of course, now you could not shoot naked children the way I did then.” Unaware of what I can photograph today that I might not next year, I grab my camera and blink into the sunshine. It’s bright, but not quite technically brilliant dazzling New Brighton Martin Parr bright.

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #1 of Hungry Eye Magazine

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Dench Diary : August 2011

1st – 6th It’s just after 9am on a sunny summers day. The sound of pre-premiership football friendlies pollute the air. I’m sat by a swimming pool looking at a pair of shorts laid neatly on a sun lounger. A long black dress is smoothed out on the adjacent lounger. I imagine the couple that will fill them. I decide the woman will smell of coconut, the man of white musk. They will be on their first holiday as a couple, they will be in love. They will link little fingers listening to the albums of Coldplay and David Gray through shared iPod headphones. I decide I won’t say hello but smile warmly at them to acknowledge their blossoming future. Three hours later they haven’t arrived. Other sun-seekers have had to sit on the floor by the pool. I hate the selfish couple and their vacated attire. I think of photographing myself in the man’s shorts and leaving a picture on the hotel notice-board, of tossing the girls dress into the pool or placing funny shaped fruit in the garment pockets.

I am on a family holiday. I’m not cut out for the family holiday. I don’t play cards at home with the window open listening to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day being sung badly on the Karaoke, but I do on a family holiday. I don’t normally drink odd coloured alcohol from odd shaped bottles, but I do that on a family holiday too. The trip has been paid for by my mother-in-law, there’s no irony in being working class and skint, mostly it just blows. I got into photography to travel the world at others expense. On assignment, I’ve partied with Maharaja’s, dined off a silver platter with Billionaires, taken a helicopter ride up the river Thames with a Hollywood movie star and sipped Gin with the Queen gazing out across the Indian Ocean.

On the family holiday, I find myself shopping for Heinz products in the Spa Supermarket listening to Bohemian Rhapsody being played over the tannoy. I eavesdrop on customers talking excitedly about the evenings Roy Chubby Brown experience. On the way back to the hotel, Scouse Tony tries to cajole me into a restaurant pointing at the beige and orange pictures of food I could tolerate on the lunchtime menu. The week is spent in a beer-haze of playing thumb wars, Hello Kitty Top Trumps and trying to purchase the photographs of happy families you find as you exit the water park. I keep sane by shooting some stock and file ‘the family holiday’ away with other events I can’t spontaneously enjoy: birthdays, weddings, New Years Eve, the entire Christmas period, school plays, the morning, sunsets and romantic walks in the park. My favourite time in the pub is Monday Brunch-time, when most people are at work. The truth is, despite my struggles, I rather like my life. Touching down in London, it feels good to back.

8th From burning on the beaches of Spain, to burning on the streets of London. With X-Factor off the air, the riot season is in full fling with looters grabbing giant TV’s ahead of the new series of the X-Factor. Spot news is not my forte. With situations like this you have to get on board early and see it through. Grow a pair and get stuck in. Sat in the comfort of The Villiers Terrace, I do what I do best in grave situations of uncertainty and Tweet some gags:

- The fire at the furniture store will end after the bank holiday weekend.
- The Croydon formal attire shop is a blazer.
- Using a water canon will have consequenches.
- Looters of Argos made off with six small blue pens.
- Mob reported on Lavender Hill.

9th As London continues to smoulder; it’s with a sense of relief that my daughter has a planned visit to her grandparents. Terminating at Weymouth we remain on the platform to observe the arrival of a rare train. The waiting train-spotters observe my daughter for what I decide is an inappropriate length of time. No one seems concerned about London so I ask about Weymouth; It’s been four months since my last visit, what’s been happening? “A charity swim and some scaffolding have been put up round by the harbour.” The 1940’s-built Southern Railway Bulleid Pacific steam locomotive named Tangmere chuffs to a halt. I don’t take out my camera.

11th Sat in the beer garden of Camden’s Edinboro’ Castle tucking into a second bottle of afternoon blush with international thriller writer Tom Knox, a French phone number flashes on the mobile. It’s Grazia with a commission to report on post London rioting, from a woman’s perspective.

12th – 13th I meet the French journalist in Dalston for the start of our riot-tour. We visit Eltham looking for a female vigilante linked to the English Defence League prevalent in the area. Join a clean up in Tottenham where I bump into the much admired Edinburgh born snapper Muir Vidler. In Croydon, we talk to the perfectly petite police staff Francesca and Claire, stand to inhale what’s left of the Reeve’s furniture store and have a pint in the Tamworth Arms where the reception from one local isn’t as warm as the street, a bit of cricket chat smoothes things over. In between the chain-smoking and caffeine quaffing, the journalist is kind enough to find time to suggest how people should be posing for my camera. Walking Clapham High St, the horror is evident but also the hope. Boarded up shops have become temporary walls of condolence with thousands of messages of support and it’s a welcome opportunity to shoot some positive images. Also evident in Clapham is the amount of whole-food shops smashed but not looted. I think it should be known as the summer of the bad-diet-riots.

16th Head down to the Ian Parry awards supported by Canon Europe at the Getty Gallery sponsored by Nikon. Ian Parry was a photojournalist who died aged only 24 whilst on assignment for the Sunday Times during the 1989 Romanian revolution. A scholarship was set up designed to award young photojournalists with a bursary that will enable them to undertake a chosen project and raise their profile in the international photographic community. The competition is for photographers who are 24 years or under. It’s also open to ancient photographers on a full-time photographic course, ask previous winner Marcus Bleasdale. Thanks to the external network at Derby University, the first time I heard of the scholarship was after I left education at the age of 25. In a way, it’s good not to have been denied the prize and I arrive uninhibited by failure to enjoy the evening. Despite the sombre origin of the prize, it attracts industry heavyweights for an upbeat industry bender. Congratulations to 2011 recipient of the prize Rasel Chowdhury from Bangladesh for Desperate Urbanization, his landscape series documenting the pollution of Dhaka.

17th Ouch! I can’t move. Throb. The clock ticks. I’m late. Focus, heave into last nights clothes and speed towards Waterloo, every second counts. Ticket, twelve minutes to spare, easy. Where the F*** is Threshers! Major refurbishment has erased my habitual shopping point. I tweet my terror. Whistlestop at the far end by platform 1, gone @ChrisSharps. Costcutter round the corner, their fridges are unreliable @paulrussell99. Sainsbury’s opposite the station, not enough time @_JamesDavies. M&S, yes, queue, four-pack of cider and I make the 10.05 to Weymouth by a doors wheeze. At Southampton Airport Parkway the M&S finest has done the job and I doze a flashback Parry party where feathered legend Dod Miller snaps under the Bognor sun and I stroke enough DNA from the face of Simon Roberts to cultivate my own line of Lumberjack shirts.

I arrive in Weymouth just in time for the space hopper race. The town’s annual highlight, the carnival, is in under way. I’m delighted that 21-years after my initial request, a beer tent has been erected for the big day. I top-up my liver and get to work filming and photographing the Devizes Male Major Wrecks down in the ‘Muff’ to raise money for the charity, Contact a Family. The men train for two hours every Sunday evening from January to May, if you live in the Devizes area, are male and a wreck they urgently need recruits. I meet newly crowned 20-year old carnival queen Lucy Compton who has enjoyed watching the event with her family since a little girl and who will lead the motorised procession flanked by Jessica Miller, 18, who when she was chosen as a finalist “Didn’t know what to do so I just ran down the stairs” and Sarah Flann, 26, a keen amateur photographer who has just finished a hairdressing course at Weymouth College. Confusingly, there’s also a Miss Weymouth, the shimmering Shiralee Gould who will be walking the Carnival route for the charity Pets at Home. I shoot video of Shiralee, also winner of the Miss Dorset Popularity award and take some stills of her eating a Mr Whippy ice cream. Shiralee says she’d “Rather be single than to be lied to, cheated on, and disrespected.” I nod sagely.

24th My shirt is on the floor. The room is full. I think there is whooping. A woman shouts “SUCK IT IN” another squeals. I am #Lot10 at the London Street Photography Festival fundraiser auction. The audience are bidding on a personal portrait session with me at their chosen venue, the prize includes a digital photo and print package. The guide price is £250 - £300. I am petrified. £100’s have been spent so far and most guide prices breached. I can see my Ketel One Vodka cocktail. I want my Ketel One Vodka cocktail. Over the festival period, I have come to rely on the Ketel One Vodka cocktail. I throw some moves and am relieved when the bidding hits £420. Someone calls for my shoes and socks to be removed. I can see where this is going and shake my head. The gavel falls. I look forward to spending the afternoon with Mr Proudfoot and his pertner.

27th Apprehensively pack for the Visa pour l’image festival of photojournalism in Perpignan. It is to date, potentially the greatest opportunity of my career. I have a 40+ print exhibition and am scheduled to give a Canon sponsored seminar, two television interviews, and a number of guided tours to my exhibit. The place can be brutal. I like a drink, photojournalists like a drink and there will be thousands. Positions two and three in my all time top ten of inebriation are attributed to the festival. Previously, I’ve had five screenings in eight years; I was there for three of them and only made it to one. I can’t even think about the country that occupies position number one. Many years later, viewing it on a map still has me retching and reaching for the floor to cuddle my knees. Each year around the anniversary of that day, I meet the man who accompanied me and we whisper our shame. For an attempt at restraint, my family are coming to Perpignan for the first few days, even my parents. This may have not been wise; the imbibing mother that bore me relishes a holiday snifter. I re-check my checklist; throw in an extra box of soluble codeine, breath in and head for the airport. It should be quite a ride.

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #1 of Hungry Eye Magazine, home of the Dench Diary