Jesse’s Book Review – Last Resort by Martin Parr
Jesse is back and this time he is reviewing a well known and well covered western photo book for a change. Last resort was one of the first photo books I ever saw, so I am very happy to feature this.
Ironically Martin Parr’s The Last Resort was the first resort for me several years ago when I told myself I’d cut back on literature in favor of purchasing at least one photo book a month. With my limited knowledge of photography at the time I always remembered Martin Parr because his photography was just so original and decided to get this one.
It was color, it was day time flash, it was ugly, it was intelligent, it was satiric, it was medium format, and more importantly everyone who I got into photography with at the time hated him (so I knew he was doing something right lol). In addition, as a film person the everyday of suburbia enhanced with saturated colors felt like David Lynch. This book in ways changed photography for Europeans who were still in the mode of sober black and white photos as it was really only the American photographers in the 70s who were really doing color, and Parr took it
He of course wasn’t the first photographer to do documentary in color, just as Nirvana wasn’t the first to do grunge…it is just that they did it so much better that it no longer matters. As well, I figured I’d change things up and write on some western photographers. I think I lost some people with the last couple of reviews (I know I was pushing it with 1920s German Expressionism).
Published in 1986 it immediately polarized the photography community and still does today as I found out in a few conversations I have had over the course of writing this when people asked me what book would be next. This was really his second major project as his first was concerned with documenting life in the north of England. With the 1980s there was a lot of social unrest with the Thatcher years and I found it interesting that while photographers were going to the center of the issue towards the protests, etc…Martin Parr instead went to the beach and The Last Resort was the result.
This is where a lot of the complexity begins. First I think it is on one level this work is hard to get because people I find deal with issues in a more direct topical sense. What I mean is if there is a problem most go straight to the issue or the tip of the iceberg never really wanting see how far reaching the roots are. In photography this would be going straight to the protest or place of unrest as there is an importance placed on being in the moment and at the same time necessary. However, what very few do is look at the causes and attack that point before it spills out and are left to deal with the effects.
What Parr did in going to the beach of the working class was attack the hypocrisy of what was being preached during the Thatcher years that led to the unrest. If you look through this book the poverty and filth of the conditions are evident. I think going away from the protest un-like everyone else and focusing on the cause and not the effect was the first right thing this series does.
Then there is the issue of art. I had a friend who I deeply respect say flat out that it isn’t art. I of course feel that it is. There is the aesthetic of medium format, day time flash, and the colors, but it goes further. If you take away the subject and use of color, it would be like most street photography today (done better of course). There are the arbitrary shots, loose compositions, less obvious juxtapositions, stories, humor, and incidental framing.
Taking a look at the photo above, let’s examine all the elements he combines into it. To begin with there is that pure black wall that leads the eye through the photo into the vanishing point that makes up the background. The main subjects are all along this line, the silhouetted people in the background and the umbrella and baby in the mid-ground. Then there is the element of tension created by the baby and the mother who is at the bottom of the frame seemingly looking away from the issue at hand as well as the composition itself. This is symbolic. The size of the umbrella and perfectly captured typical cry of a baby lends the photo humor. These elements are characteristic of what makes photography art.
Now, this series isn’t without its issues, aestheticizing the working class in this way could easily and justifiably be viewed as exploitation. Without the context one is moved to a feeling of superiority when looking at the filth of the environment and delusions of grandeur sprinkled throughout the book on behalf of the working class women. Everything from the shoddy gambling parlor, the women trying to be fashionable, the overcrowded pools, and the beauty contest that looks third rate at best. All of these things encompass what the working class did to get a little relief from the disparaging Thatcher years. Not to mention this was all taken from the view of a comfortably middle class photographer who really isn’t from the area at all and would seemingly be mocking the lower class. However, in interviews with Parr and what you can gather from his character this doesn’t really seem to be the case. Also, he would dispel this by next doing the middle classes, his own class. This would also make up his first work as a Magnum photographer if am correct.
In all I would argue the merits of this being art and the intelligence to do the opposite of what everyone was doing at the time looking for the causes of problems instead of documenting the effects. The medium however affords the photographer no way to control the meaning of his or her photos, so the negative interpretations are more than fair. This book along with the rest of his works can be easily had for fairly reasonable prices.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Thanks to Jesse for sharing this review. I am really happy to see this as this book means a lot to me. If you have not got this book then you owe it to yourself to get a copy.