Street Photography Book Review: “The Last Resort” by Martin Parr By ERIC KIM
All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Martin Parr / Magnum Photos. Warning: Some of the shots in the book are NSFW as they show child nudity. One of my favorite color photography books is “The Last Resort” by Martin
Parr. For 2014, I want to start doing more book reviews– sharing some of my favorite books, sharing why I love them, and trying my best to analyze and share my observations about them.
Historical background of “The Last Resort” Note: All of the information this section has been lifted from the great introduction by Gerry Badger (including the information, context, history, and quotes): The reason I wanted to write about “The Last Resort” is because I honestly think it is Martin Parr’s best work– and I am a huge fan of his. Not only that, but it was quite revolutionary at the time– as the majority of British documentary photographers at the time were working in color. Martin Parr used to work more or less exclusively in black and white, and credits his change to color after seeing his friend Peter Mitchell’s exhibition, “A New Refutation of the Viking IV Space Mission” (also a British photographer). Not only that, but he was quite impressed by the color work of American photographers such as William Eggleston,Stephen Shore, and Joel Meyerowitz. For “The Last Resort” — he switched from shooting a 35mm to using a medium-format Plaubel Makina 6x7cm rangefinder camera. The advantage of shooting with the camera was that it gave a lot more detail than simply using a 35mm camera– while still being compact and light.
When he worked on the book, he frequented a run-down sea-side resort in
New Brighton (a mostly working class area) from 1983-1985. Parr described the seaside as: “…if the seaside was tatty, and more than a little run-down, it was also vibrant.” When he first exhibited his work at London’s Serpentine Gallery– the feedback he has was extremely harsh. Here are some things said about his exhibition, this one from art critic David Lee: “(Parr) has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food and discarding containers and wrappers with an abandon likely to send a liberal conscience into paroxysms of sanctimony. 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. They wear cheap flashy clothes and in true conservative fashion are resigned to their meagre lot. Only babies and children survive ridicule and it is their inclusion in many pictures which gives Parr’s acerbic vision of hopelessness its poetic touch.” Another harsh review came from Robert Morris from The British Journal of Photography: “This is a clammy, claustrophobic nightmare world where people lie knee-deep in chip papers, swim in polluted black ponds, and stare at a bleak horizon of urban dereliction.” However over time, the feedback of the book became much more positive. For example in October 2008, “The Last Resort” was chosen by The Guardian newspaper as one of “1000 Artworks to See Before You Die.” This is what Elisabeth Mahoney said:
“At the time, Martin Parr’s series of photographs from New Brighton, a dilapidated seaside spot on the Wirral, were seen as condescending. But now they look humorously engaged and fond, bringing British working-class nooks and crannies into view, and reminding us how unusual that was (and is) in art photography.” Furthermore Val Williams wrote: “So what was it about The Last Resort that so terrified and disgusted the people who wrote about it? There is some litter, admittedly, but it’s never knee-deep, and there are some fat people, but they’re not gargantuan and they’re not in the majority. There are crews of babies who seem to be having a good time, eating, drinking, even smiling, and a lot of very pretty women taking part in beauty competitions, dancing, sunbathing, talking to other women. There are families who may well be suffering under Thatcherism, but they’re still managing to have a good day out.”
Why I love the Last Resort I love “The Last Resort” for several reasons: 1) First of all, I think almost all of the photos in the book are strong singleimages. I feel that the majority of the images could stand on their own. They have strong compositions, well-executed framing, and a wonderful color aesthetic which is brought out by the superb detail of the medium-format negatives as well as the flash used in the middle of the day. There are a few images in the book that I think Parr could have done without– but this is just my opinion. 2) Secondly, the book has a great sense of emotion in the images– and a
wonderful cadence (flow) of images. There are images that feel quite sad, lonely, and melancholy– while other shots are much more humorous, silly, and cheerful. But I think what makes many of the images great is that this line is often blurred– you are never sure if people are really having a good time (or simply trying to escape from their misery). 3) Thirdly, I enjoy the socio-economic commentary in this book. To my understanding, New Brighton was a mostly working-class area– and as you can see through the pictures, it doesn’t look like the fanciest or prettiest place to go on holiday. So there are certainly connotations of class. But at the same time, a lot of people seem to be having fun and enjoying themselves– regardless if they aren’t in the prettiest beach-side resort. When I visited London, I also learned that there is a strong cultural aspect of the British to visit seaside resorts during holiday– so it shows a lot of what the British like to do in their time off. 4) Lastly, I love the sequencing, pacing, and the pairing of images. Most of the photos in the book only show one picture per spread, but some of the shots being paired up (which are done very purposefully). Not only that, but the book seems to start with a melancholy mood, switching from anxiety, to humor, to despair, to cheerfulness. Like I mentioned earlier, it is an emotional rollercoaster of a book — and I feel that there is a perfect number of images (41 images in total). I often find some books have too many images — which make them burdensome to look through. But The Last Resort makes every image purposeful.
Analyzing the Images I will now try my best to analyze the images in the book — and interpret it according to how I see it. Of course, this isn’t how Martin Parr intended — but
I hope these thoughts will be helpful to you. You can see all the photos from the book on the Magnum Photos website here.
In this leading image, we see a bored couple sitting inside a restaurant. There is a lovely pinkish pastel on the wall, juxtaposed against a teal green on the wall– very soothing colors. But you see the older man on the far right, cigarette in mouth– staring off into the distance. And the woman in the left doesn’t seem very interested as well, inspecting her fingernails. What I feel is the “cherry on top” (my favorite detail) is the lamp on the top of the frame– which mirrors that of the couple. The leading image is always the most important photo of the book– as it sets the tone for the rest of the book. This image creates a sense of melancholy and loneliness– and that sense that when you are on holiday you are supposed to be having “fun” — whereas this couple obviously don’t seem they are. Also note that the majority of the photos in the book are shot with a flash– whereas this is one of the few that doesn’t have a flash– it uses natural light. You see a few natural light shots in the book– but they are all mostly in the beginning of the book. This helps create a sense of consistency in terms of the aesthetic of the images throughout the book.
In this second image you see an even darker and gloomier photograph. Parr photographs what looks like either an extremely young couple, or siblings holding their little baby sister — pacifier in mouth. You see how dirty and derelict the environment is, with the dusty and dirty windows– as well as the great detail of the cracked window on top. This image follows up well to the first image– setting a darker mood.
Suddenly the following image is a much brighter image– although you still see some of the graffiti and grunge in the background. The primary content of the photograph is a young woman petting a dog, an older man with his hands on his hips looking pleased– and a little girl in red pushing a baby stroller looking curiously over. All of the subjects in this shot are well spaced from one another– and I love the vibrancy that the flash brings to the shot– even though it was during the day. Not only that, but the red of the little girl’s shirt makes he pop out and be the main subject in the photograph. The best detail is of course, the fake baby in the stroller– which follows up well to the previous image of the baby also in the photograph.
The next image then sets the scene a little more– showing how dystopic and dirty the beach-side is. You see the ground littered with styrofoam plates, halfeaten french fries (or “chips” as the British call them), and of course the iconic red “Coke” cup on the bottom. The adult figure in the shot has her head decapitated on top of the frame– but you se her reflection in the window, looking as if she is going to eat something (this is a great composition). Furthermore, you see the little girl on the left in a cute little outfit, enjoying her meal– and the boy on the right seems to be yelling, crying, or complaining about something. He is the only one in the shot who doesn’t have any food– and the slight redness in the shot shows his frustration.
Speaking of babies and children– they are a re-occuring theme in this book. This image was one of the most stirring images I first saw int he book– a baby that seemed to have magically escaped its sroller, and is playing (or hugging) the arcade machines. The first question comes to mind is: Where is the baby’s parents– why isn’t anyone looking after this child? Then you look around the frame, and you see that there are some older ladies on the left– playing some games. They seem so engrossed in their activity that they totally leave the baby alone to wander– and possibly hurt itself? The greater concept that comes to mind is parental responsibility– should’t someone take care of the baby? Or are we so distracted by games and amusement that we totally forget about them now?
The next spread is the first spread which includes two images paired together. I love this paired spread — as you see two sets of parents (one woman, and the other male) playing with their children inside amusement park spaceships. The first spaceship is orange, which perfectly complements the blue/white spaceship in the following image. Not only that, but I love the orientation of the two images: The orange spaceship is facing to the right, while the man on the right is faced to the left. It appears as if both of them are going to collide.
In the image of the younger woman with the baby in the orange spaceshipâ€“ she looks obviously bored, and even the baby looks like it is trying to escape from this boring ride.
The other image with the man in the spaceship fighter with his younger daughter â€” looks pretty engrossed in the game. But then you have this other baby in the red as if it were abandonedâ€“ looking aimlessly outside. Then you have that little animal-figurine in the background smiling on nonchalantly.
There is then another image in the sequence of arcade machines and rides– this time a surprised looking baby in a tank. It is a pretty powerful image– as it looks as if the tank is heading straight towards you. And it isn’t any old tank– it is a ferocious looking one, with realistic-looking machine guns pointed straight ahead. And the unassuming child at head command.
To finish off the sequence of children in coin-operated rides, you see a young couple on a creepy looking ride with clowns on each side. The frame is well filled– with the two clowns acting as the “book-ends” of the photograph, and the young parents filling the middle of the frame, and the baby in the middlebottom of the frame, as the primary subject. Personally this isn’t my favorite image in the book– it looks as if the baby is blinking. I wish Parr caught a moment where the baby had a different expression in her face.
The next shot is then a nice change of pace — you now zoom out from the previous shots which were shot closely. You see a landscape of people at what seems to be an indoor-outdoor pool. This artificial beach is swarming with people–like ants all over a picnic basket. It is a bit claustrophobic — and the primary subjects in the shot are the young couple, with the girl in the pink bikini looking as if she is overwhelmed or passed out from all of the commotion. The pink also is crucial in her outfit– as it causes her to pop out from the scene, and is a nice juxtaposition between the blue sky and blue water in the background.
The next image then zooms in again on the action. As a side note– what Parr does so well in many of the shots in the book is that he fills the frame extremely well. Not only that but his use of flash during the day really helps his subjects pop out. In terms of his exposure and shutter speed– he is under-exposing the background by 2/3 or a full stop, which gives the subjects more contrast. In this shot, you see an entire family either sipping on a Pepsi (the older perhaps grandparents on the far left) and the “decisive moment” of the little boy in the middle ripping open a bag of chips. Amongst all this chaos– you see the baby in the stroller looking directly at Parr, with a look of anxiety and frustration on her face.
When I first saw this image it was quite shocking– a photograph of a little boy without pants on. To my understanding, when Parr shot this book in the 80’s, nobody really seemed to care to have their kids walking around with pants on. But nowadays of course– there is a lot of paranoia about child pedophilia. This is a scene you will never see anymore. Anyways, what I love about the shot is all of the hand gestures and arms reaching around in the frame. You have the woman in the far left handing over the woman in the far right a Milky Way chocolate bar, the second to left woman seems to be about to feed her little boy something, the lady in the middle seems to be bothered by her son who is reaching over at her thigh, perhaps asking for something. And the little boy himself seems confused and a bit overwhelmed with all of this action. And the “cherry on top” in terms of details in this shot is that little
bright-red shovel in the bottom of the frame, once again popping out of the frame.
The next shot in the sequence seems to be around the same area– by the murky water (with everyone sitting on the concrete). You see multiple actions going on– and a nice use of filling the frame by Parr. You have the little boy in the center holding up what looks like a wooden bicycle wheel with a heroic gesture (almost like a Roman statue), the woman with the red shirt and waving hair dipping her child playfully in the water, and the woman in the middle looking over with an exasperated gesture (hand on her face, and elbow slouched over her knees). It is hard to see in the image above (but easy to see in the book)– that there are lovely details of two orange rubber duckies, shoes with socks stuffed
inside, and an open purse with stuff inside. You also have another baby on the far right of the frame moving around– to add more movement and action to the scene.
In this image we have one of what I think are the strongest images in the book– a young-looking mother on the bottom of the frame, feeling a bit overwhelmed and stressed out from her baby crying above. The mother is looking out of the frame– perhaps wondering when this stressful vacation will be over. The baby (as cute as it looks with the pink umbrella above) — is crying and wailing her lungs out– a sound that most parents have a difficult time getting used to. Not only that, but you see them all lying on top of solid concrete– not the softest or most pleasant surface to be on top. The ground is also littered with
biscuit wrappers, clothes, and shoes– and I love the detail of the woman in the far right of the frame in the blue bikini, looking casually onwards at their pain.
This next image is a much more intimate photograph than the one prior– also shot at an unusually low angle. When I saw this photograph, I was curious how Parr shot it. He must have been lying on the ground– but how did he take this photo (that seems to look candid) without the attractive young mother noticing? Perhaps she did and didn’t care– but perhaps she didn’t? Anyways, I love the look of intensity the mother is feeding the baby with– also grasping the baby’s head. The funny juxtaposition in the shot is the man with the thick eyebrows, facial hair, and black speedo in the background.
Another shot that has many lovely little details is this one– with the baby playing alone in the sand, with all of this action going on in the background. The baby looks disintered in what he/she is doing–looking away from the action. And in the background we have a kid on the top right, taking off his shirt– as if he wants to go play. You also have a pair of legs, crossed and dangling into the shot of the far left. And you have the decapitated (perhaps mother) in the middle of the frame, hands crossed over her hips and smoking a cigarette. I have to give props to Parr for taking this shot– he must have had to got right into the scene, crouched down low, and took the shot without hesitating. Although it isn’t my favorite shot in the book (I wish the baby’s expression was a little more interesting)– you can see how well Parr does with getting close to his subjects and filling the frame, while getting interesting actions going on in
To continue, you have a humorous shot– of a mother perhaps changing her baby’s diaper with the pacifier in her mouth. This sequences well after the previous shot– in which the baby had its pacifier in its mouth. Not only that, but the baby looks quite surprised at Parr taking the photograph (almost as much as surprised as the mother). What is a bit gross is all the trash in the water on the right side of the frame. It doesn’t seem to be the most hygienic place to change the diaper of a child. In terms of the background even though it is a bit busy– it is quite organized. You have a couple in the middle of the frame together that fills that spot, and another couple in the background, with one lady pointing (that doesn’t overlap with the other couple). And you also have a nice detail of a girl in the far right of the frame– sticking one leg in the water and playing with her toes.
The images then start to transition into being very sweet and intimate moments. In this image you have a father and his little daughter– close to one another and intimate on the ground with one another. The father is chilling by his side, hand on his head–looking lovingly at her daughter who is taking a big gulp of the red Coke bottle (which juxtaposes against her little yellow outfit well). The boy in the top left looks as if he is looking admirably– smiling along. But then you have the woman in the top right of the frame, looking a bit alone and despondent– a strong emotional contrast to the father and the daughter central in the frame. Note you also get a great sense of intimacy in the shot considering how low Parr got to take this photo — while also getting close to his subjects and filling his frame.
Another sweet moment is this photograph in which you see a little girl brushing the hair of her young and attractive mother. The mother looks onâ€“ admiring the little girl. Another thing you notice obviously is how the little girl is nakedâ€“ something you would never see nowadays.
Suddenly the book changes pace and rhythmâ€“ as we are thrust into the middle of a beauty pageant. The beautiful woman looks radiant and shines towards the crowd, but the scene just looks so empty. You even wonder to yourself: is there even a crowd that is looking at her?
Then the second two-image spread shows in the book. You have the beauty pageant contestants getting ready on the left side of the page (all who are young women), juxtaposed against the young girls on the right side of the page that also look as if they are getting ready for a beauty pageant. There are two different aged women/girls both getting ready for the same thingâ€“ showing off their beauty.
The first image in the left side of the frame is interesting for the depth in the shot. You have a photographer in the far left of the frame (perhaps a funny joke of Parr self-referencing himself as a photographer)â€“ and the three beauty pageant contestants holding their numbers, getting ready to go on stage. You have nice little details of the colored flags on top and little flowers on bottom. I love the spacing between the three women, and how they are all doing different gestures in preparation to get ready.
Street Photography Book Review: “The Last Resort” by Martin Parr By ERIC KIM