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Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Martin Parr: "You can't dig into a corner of my life that has been hidden away."

I've been writing the text for the New Brighton Revisited Show (opening July 14th at the Sailing Club Gallery, New Brighton). It's one of the most enjoyable commissions I've had because I get to speak to Tom Wood, Ken Grant and Martin Parr, all of whom lived, worked and socialised there. And it was Martin Parr of course who  made his photobook the Last Resort there. I'll post their interviews here. Also images will be going up @northernnarratives Instagram account so follow that. 

Of all the speaker, Martin said the least. He started the interview by saying “I’ve talked about the Last Resort so much that I’ve nothing left to say,” but that wasn't quite true. He had quite a bit to say, and I got to see the original 10 x 8s and contact sheets of the Last Resort which was a real treat.

Some of these images are in The Last Resort, some aren't, some will be in the show, some won't, some are close cousins, and the contact sheet at the end was made in black and white because Parr was so broke when he came to live in New Brighton from Ireland. Here are some of those images, and here is what Martin said.

“I moved there in the spring of 1982 from Ireland because Susie got a job in Liverpool as a speech therapist. I knew New Brighton because I had shot in black and white there on  in the 1970s and I liked it. I liked the idea of looking over the river and walking along the promenade.

I came back from Ireland where I was quite destitute because I didn’t get any work there. When I got to New Brighton I started doing some part time teaching at Newport and Farnham. They’re two places I taught throughout the 1980s.

I was doing photography of course, but not commissions, not really. Teaching was my main source of income. I did black and white pictures in the 1970s because David Chadwick took me there once and I was very excited about it. I’ve always liked that side of the British seaside; down-at-heel but energised at the same time. New Brighton was shabby, and scruffy and dirty and it had lots of energy – and it still had that in the 1980s. That’s less the case now because a lot of the main attractions are gone like the lido, and it’s been gentrified. But I haven’t seen it for 18 months or two years so I’ll find out what it’s like when I go there in July.

When I moved back to Liverpool I got a Plaubel camera and initially I started photographing urban scenes in Liverpool in the spring and then immediately applied it to New Brighton because I felt an affinity.

Peter Fraser bought a Plaubel but he bought a standard and I bought a wide and you could see the quality was extraordinary. Previously you had Hasselblads and rangefinders, so the Plaubel was comparatively easy to use. The only frustration was you’d have to change film after 10 pictures.
The colour was more of a critique than a celebration. Although the pictures in black and white are hardly a celebration. They have that melancholy look about them. I just showed it as it was. It had those qualities written into it. Because apart from being rundown and part of the fabric of the north, which is pretty shabby, it’s still the go-to place to take the kids out for the day. People go to New Brighton, to the amusements, to the sea, to the sand, albeit a bit dodgy. It’s either there or Southport. New Brighton’s nearer and of course if you’re in Birkenhead it’s just up the road.

Pretty early on I thought, we’re on to something here. It was pretty exciting. The combination of flash and colour worked. I’d seen that with the American colour photographers and people like Andy Earle who did those British social events and the John Hinde postcards. There was Peter Mitchell. I was aware of the potential of colour and just took the plunge.

Tom (Wood) and Lorna were good friends of Susie and mine so we’d socialise together and talk about work together. Tom did more portraits and was more traditionally respectful of the people he photographed. But it’s not for me to say what his work is like. That’s your job.  I like his work and have supported him. We have his pictures in the foundation. We go back a long way and he’s a very fine photographer.

We had Ellen in 1986 so the babies were a foreshadowing. Inevitably the babies would creep in. It wasn’t something conscious, it just happened. You can read into that what you like. You’re a writer and that’s what writers do. And I’m very happy that you do. Perhaps that can quell my critics.
It was first shown at the Open Eye with Tom, curated by Neil Burgess. And nobody blinked an eye because everyone knows what New Brighton was like. I can’t remember any negative comments from the Open Eye. It wasn’t a shock for them to see what New Brighton was like. But as soon as it got down to the Serpentine, I wouldn’t say all hell let loose, because that’s a brag that isn’t true, but there was some negative feedback.

I realised early on that criticism wasn’t as harmful as you might think. It’s better to be observed than ignored. People who go to the Serpentine don’t know what the north is like. It’s middle classes, people like you and I. Here is a middle-class photographer taking the piss out of, you know all the arguments, you know them pretty well.

Basically the percentage of people who see an art show at the Serpentine is miniscule. It was a non-event. It had more feedback when it went to Arles in 1986 because there the response was overwhelmingly positive and I guess it opened up my career to European audiences which can do no harm. It’s great to be known as a European photographer and to this day I do as much work in Europe as I do in the UK.

At one point there was discussion about doing a book with Tom, but I stuck out for doing a book on my own because I knew it would work and I applied for a subsidy to help that along and I received it.
I was doing the teaching so I’d be doing a lot of journeys down to Farnham and Newport. I used to stay with Paul Graham and Paul Trevor. I photographed in New Brighton most weekends and occasionally in the week when it was hot. I’d stroll out around 11 o’clock when people were beginning to arrive and come back at five or six when things started to feel like it was over.

I shot it over three summers. Three summers and it was there. There was nothing more to do. I don’t know how many rolls I shot, probably two or three hundred. The book’s only got 40 pictures in. It’s enough to get the message across. We all put too many pictures in books. We’re all guilty of that. We can’t let go of your babies.

Susie didn’t like it because she’s a swimmer and she couldn’t swim. The water’s weren’t particularly attractive. She didn’t much like it. She was not as big a swimmer then as she is now. In July when we’re up the water’s may be better. My sister told me there’s dolphins up the Mersey now. It’s got a lot cleaner.

It’s all been asked. It’s a pretty well-known story. I feel almost embarrassed on your behalf. You can’t dig into a corner of my life that has been hidden away. You’re best talking to Susie and Tom.”


Stan B. said...

The Last Resort continues to be a minor miracle of a book, each picture a story within a story. His latter photography, while still intense, became more and more one liners, less novellas. I don't think anyone could have kept that intensity of vision forever.

Tom Broadbent said...

This has to be one of the great interviews, seemingly off the cuff and yet reveals so much about Martin Parr's outlook. It's quite brilliant. I leave with big respect for his work, which is good as I have quite a few of his books.