TATE BRITAIN Why am I writing a blog using such a poor image? Because I think Martin Parr's work is too good to miss and images of higher resolution are understandably guarded by copyright. There's only one solution - go to Tate Britain to see it hanging on the wall or browse the internet.
It’s part of a series of photographs taken in 1983-5 at the height of the Thatcher years and, like her government, it caused controversy. The pictures are of holiday makers making the best of things at New Brighton, across the Mersey Estuary from Liverpool, at a time of economic decline, overcrowded beaches, bad weather and junk food.
The young woman turning to face the camera doesn’t seem to like what she sees. Hand on her hip, gazing straight at us, she’s bored and defiant. Her lips, behind a startling frosted pink lipstick, are not about to smile. No chance of a friendly chat. Penned in by the rail behind her is a crowd of jostling children buying ice cream. The oldest boy to the left is leaning over, money ready to pay for a clutch of dripping cones in his hand, each topped with ice cream of a stomach-churning green. But he is not trying to catch the attention of those heavily mascaraed eyes. His own dreamy eyes are on her chest.
The pale translucent colour of the window behind makes the fluorescent jumble of biting colours stand out even more. On the table in the bottom left hand corner is a crooked metal table top smudged with blobs of melting ice cream. A grubby knife is lying horizontally across the surface pointing to the girl. The only adult in the picture is barely visible. She’s on the extreme left, sliced out of the picture like a rasher of bacon.
Opinion was divided about The Last Resort. Was it a stunning satire on the state of Thatcherite Britain? Or was it cultural colonialism? Are the repulsive food and the mismatched clothes an arrogant take, inviting the viewer to be patronising? In other words, cheap fun? But some saw it as a defining watershed for British photography, not least because it broke many rules, including how to compose a picture and how to break with the tradition of an unrealistic, romantic view of the working classes.
Parr said, ‘I was rather surprised there was a controversy. It didn’t seem to me to be a controversial subject. It was a rundown seaside resort in Britain. What’s the surprise in that?’
I’m inclined to agree with those who see Parr’s work as ‘anthropological’, in the sense that he saw a bleak picture of urban deprivation and recorded it as an outsider, without judgement. In so far as he offers a critique, it's of the culture not the people themselves.
I like his empathy and humour. Commentators have remarked that the poise and steady gaze of the young girl recalls the barmaid in Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2 (Courtauld Institute of Art). Perhaps there’s also a tiny trace of Donald McGill’s seaside postcards too?
Three years after The Last Resort, Parr moved to Bristol and began the project that would later be published as The Cost of Living. There he poked fun at that other extreme of Thatcherite Britain – 'the yuppie hell of consumer-crazy, horribly perfect, starched-shirt and floral-dress brigades'.
Martin Parr: Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, was published in 1986.
Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography: how photography has changed our lives Quadrille Publishing 2007