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 (29) 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 image shows a naked young boy standing on a stony beachfront. Just behind the boy is a grubby area of rubbish full of muddy cans, food wrappers and bits of newspaper. More detritus is visible in the shallow water further out. The boy balances on one foot on a pipe coated in concrete. His arms are outstretched in an awkward gesture to maintain his balance. Behind him, on the right side of the picture, a low concrete jetty extends into the distance. Several women and children sit on it, dangling their feet in the water. The woman closest to the camera dangles a child’s pair of cartoon-print underpants on the tip of her finger. At the end of the jetty a crane stands in front of a low brick municipal building. A breakwater extends off to the left just above the midpoint of the photograph, separating the dark blue water from the pale blue sky above.
The boy appears completely absorbed in his task, concentrating on walking along the pipe. Parr discusses his work in autobiographical terms, and has talked about how, as a new father himself in the early 1980s, he was interested in photographing young families and children in New Brighton (Williams, p.160). Despite the dirty surroundings this image is a celebration of the pleasures of childhood, demonstrating that the intense concentration of play exists regardless of surroundings.
Martin Parr and Ian Walker, The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1986, reproduced no.29 in colour.
Val Williams, Martin Parr, London: Phaidon, 2002, reproduced p.194 in colour.