The Last Resort • Martin Parr

I had intended to use this book (Parr and Walker, 1998) as part of my research for Assignment 1 (Square Mile) but it arrived late from the library. However, it remains of interest for the course in general. The book was originally published in 1986; I refer to the 1998 edition.

The book is in two parts, a six-page essay by Walker and 40 colour plates by Parr. There is no referential link between the two, except for a footnote to the text noting that Walker visited New Brighton in 1985 and Parr’s photographs were taken in the three seasons 1983-85. The link, of course, is the subject matter.

New Brighton is a seaside resort on the Wirral peninsula, built in the 1830s, popular in its heyday but starting to fall into decline after the First World War. By the time Parr and Walker visited in the mid-1980s the resort was a depressed area, the tower and pier long-gone, the ferries had stopped visiting and many shops and establishments were boarded up.

The Walker essay describes two visits to New Brighton during the dismal 1985 season, interviewing residents and leisure business owners. The essay style is very ‘colour-supplement’ and the attitude of the interviewees came across more as resigned than despairing. The essay sets up the backdrop for Parr’s photographs, taken during 1985 and the preceding two hot seasons of 1983 and 1984.

The 40 plates are mostly placed one per spread, on right-hand pages, but there are three spreads with two images on facing pages, where these juxtapose. The blank pages are not completely white, having random confetti-like small geometric motifs. My impression is that these, together with the device of placing the plate number in random positions on the page, echo the general sense of litter and untidiness seen in the images.

These are very saturated colour images (I understand that they were taken on medium-format Fuji slide film) and appear to have been taken in bright daylight with on-camera fill-flash. The pictures are not of New Brighton, except as background, but of the people who are using and enjoying it. We see them sunbathing, eating ice-cream or fish-and-chips, changing or feeding the baby and competing in beauty contests all apparently oblivious to the litter and general broken-down nature of their surroundings. With the exception of the ice-cream seller in plate 23, all seem to be ignoring the photographer, who cannot have been inconspicuous.

The image below is plate 40.

Mother concentrates on her tan, while the girl plays with a bucket and spade, both apparently oblivious to the large tracked excavator; the passer-by in jacket and long trousers is oblivious to both.

Badger (2010:161-2) notes that the book led to controversy with Parr, ‘a middle-class boy from Surrey, being accused of cynicism’ but was also immensely influential, particularly among young photographers of the time.

Badger (ibid) writes ‘Above all, it was about Britishness, about how the British muddle through, how they make the best of things despite crowds, bad weather and litter-strewn promenades’. Although he has a point, I suggest that this is a rather romanticised view of the book. My impression was more of an anthropological exercise and I felt a little like an intruder or voyeur in reading/viewing it.

Postscript: 30 years on and, unsurprisingly, the local tourist board websites (Wirral Council and Visit New Brighton) make no reference to Parr or Walker. They appear to show a resort that has ‘turned the corner’ with major redevelopments (theatre, leisure centre etc.) It would be nice to think that this came about, at least in part, due to ‘The Last Resort’

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography, How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille

Parr, M. and Walker, I. (1998) The Last Resort – Photographs of New Brighton by Martin Parr, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Visit New Brighton (2016) [online] at : http://www.visitnewbrighton.com (accessed on 20 March 2016)

Wirral Council (s.d.) [online] at: http://www.visitwirral.com/attractions-and-activities/places/new-brighton (accessed on 20 March 2016)

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