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The Last Resort is a series of forty photographs taken in New Brighton, a beach suburb of Liverpool. Shot with a medium format camera and daylight flash, the photographs are an early example of Parr’s characteristic saturated colour, influenced by the American colour photography of William Eggleston (born 1939) and Garry Winogrand (1928-84). Parr printed eleven images from The Last Resort in a large-format edition of five for his 2002 retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. New Brighton, Merseyside (23) is one of four works from this special edition owned by Tate.
The photographs comprising The Last Resort were taken between 1983 and 1985, a period of economic decline in northwest England. They depict a seaside resort past its prime with attractions designed to appeal to an economically depressed working class: overcrowded beaches, video arcades, beauty competitions, tea rooms and chip shops. The series was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery, London and published as a book in 1986, and was instrumental in establishing Parr’s reputation as a photographer. Traditionally, documentary photography in Britain sought to glorify the working class; here Parr shows a warts-and-all picture of a down-at-heel resort populated by day trippers seeking cheap thrills. The series contains many images of people dressed in the day-glo lycra fashions of the time, eating junk food in the crumbling remains of a seaside town.
In the 1980s The Last Resort was seen as an indictment of the market-led economic policies of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-90). Some critics understood Parr’s depiction of an area of economic deprivation and his focus on his subjects’ personal indulgences as a political statement decrying the excesses of Thatcherism. More recently, in her monograph on Parr, Val Williams has proposed a less political reading of the pictures. In her view, The Last Resort typifies Parr’s incisive eye for the eccentric. She has commented, ‘There’s no cynicism in Parr’s gaze, just interest, excitement and a real sense of the comedic’ (Williams, p.161). Parr himself has claimed, ‘I’m less interested in the fact that these people aren’t well off financially as in the fact that they have to deal with screaming kids, like anyone has to ... I’m also interested in making the photographs work on another level, showing how British society is decaying; how this once great society is falling apart’ (quoted in Williams, p.160).
This picture depicts a jostling crowd of children buying ice cream in a shop. Behind the counter a young woman turns to face the camera. Dressed in a long-sleeved black t-shirt and jeans, and a blue and white patterned nylon smock, she rests her right hand on the counter, her left hand on her hip. She looks bored and defiant. Her heavy eyeliner and frosted pink lipstick appear at odds with the youthful roundness of her face. Her pose and steady gaze directly at the viewer recall the barmaid in Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2 (Courtauld Institute of Art).
Behind her a horde of children push to the counter to collect their ice cream cones. One boy, older than the others, leans on the counter, about to hand over money for two ice cream cones. Parr has photographed him as his gaze falls on the young woman’s chest. He holds the cones so that the two scoops of ice cream form a visual metaphor for her breasts. The minimal horizontal and vertical lines of the window frame and the fence-like separation between customers and servers give the picture a static simplicity and shallow depth of field. Against the pale window, the fluorescent colours of the scene stand out: the bright blue slats of the counter, the lurid green ice cream and the shiny pink of the girl’s lipstick.
Martin Parr and Ian Walker, The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1986, reproduced no.23 in colour.
Val Williams, Martin Parr, London: Phaidon, 2002, reproduced p.189 in colour.