A major new photography exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in London reveals the unique idiosyncrasies of the British seaside, via works by Martin Parr, David Hurn, Tony Ray-Jones and Simon Roberts.
As with all activities that might hinge on the weather, the British have a rather complex relationship with going to the seaside. On the rare occasion of an out-and-out sunny day, the beaches across the country will be packed to the gills, but even a forecast of mixed weather will be unlikely to put many off during the summer months.
There is a tenaciousness in the Brits’ determination to enjoy a day at the beach, and this was especially evident in the years before cheap package holidays made it possible to pop off to Spain for some genuinely sunny weather. Add in the distinctive UK seaside architecture of piers, arcades and funfairs, and a series of iconic images of a day at the beach spring easily to mind.
Many of these scenes will likely have been captured by the four photographers featured in the National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition. The British seaside has long proved a draw to photographers, offering the chance to capture the British in (often awkward) repose. And in turn, the images they have taken have helped shape our idea of what we want from the seaside, which in many parts of the UK has changed little over the past five decades.
GB. England. Kent. Broadstairs. 1986.
Brighton Palace Pier, East Sussex, April 2013
The National Maritime Museum show contains work going back to the 1960s by four photographers: Martin Parr, Simon Roberts, Tony Ray-Jones and David Hurn. All have captured moments on British beaches – from Margate to Brighton, Blackpool to Southport – that have crystalised our image of a UK summer, in all its ice-cream laden, slightly over-dressed glory.
Probably the most contentious images have come from Parr, whose colour-saturated shots of quirky beach habits have at times been accused of being critical of their subjects. Yet Parr has photographed the British seaside for over four decades now, first drawn to it as a subject in 1983 when he began The Last Resort, a three-year project documenting the working-class seaside resort of New Brighton.
“The seaside has to be one of the most fascinating places for people-watching,” says Parr. “It is a place where we relax and lose our inhibitions, and that’s when true personalities come on display.”
GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85.
A black and white pigment print photograph, entitled ‘Margate’ by Tony Ray-Jones, taken c. 1967. This was selected from the original contact sheet by Martin Parr, and printed from the original negative in 2013.
Tony Ray-Jones and David Hurn’s photographs of the UK beaches of the 1960s and 70s reveal generations of beach dwellers who were uncomfortable stripping off in the sun, sitting instead on deckchairs in full suits and ties. “My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things,” says Ray-Jones.
While these older images may speak of fashions long changed, part of the allure of the British seaside is the qualities that have endured. We are drawn to the nostalgia of the UK beach culture, and of how little it changes (for better or worse) over the decades. This can be seen clearly in one of Simon Roberts’ photographs of Blackpool, which was taken in 2008, but could just as easily be a shot from the 1960s.
The British seaside is unlikely ever to be hip or steeped in contemporary cool, but that is perhaps the reason we love it most, and are so drawn to images of it: it is open to all and everyone is welcome. “The seaside is a place for uninhibited fun,” says Hurn. “It is cheap and very democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness but basically a way of having a good time.”
Blackpool Promenade, Lancashire, 24th July 2008
The Great British Seaside: Photography From The 1960s To The Present runs from March 23 to September 30 at the National Maritime Museum, rmg.co.uk
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These images of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s might be black and white — but they’re bursting with vibrancy, and colourful characters.
Rook Gallery in Newmarket has released the collection, which was taken by amateur photographer, Norman McCaskill — a jazz musician by night and keen photographer by day.
His favourite area was Portobello Road Market, Notting Hill, where wealthy and working class worked alongside one another to sell their antiques, bric-a-brac, fruit, vegetables and jumble.
McCaskill’s work shows a fascinating and intimate portrait of life back then and of a forgotten working class that made west London so vibrant.
Says Rook Gallery, “Norman was an observer of the streets and had a wonderful eye to create images at a decisive moment. There are many photographic exhibitions now on that nostalgic era, that we thought this is the right time to release his work.”
McCaskill’s daughter, Norma, remembers walking the streets of London with him later in the 60s where he always had his Leica slung over his arm to create a moment. She grew up watching him develop his 35mm film in his darkroom and was fascinated by the process.
Norma holds over a 1,000 negatives of her father’s work. As well as Notting Hill, there is photography on Brentford Docks, Chiswick, Crufts and more.
Norma would love to know if any of the children are still alive and living in London today.
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The first ever UK retrospective of iconic photographer Dorothea Lange will take place this at the Barbican this summer.
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing will open at the Barbican Art Gallery in June as part of The Art of Change, a major season of events exploring bold artistic responses to major global issues.
Lange, one of the most influential female photographers of the 20th century, is known for her work documenting the devastating impact of the Great Depression on American society. Her Migrant Mother image is one of the most recognisable images ever photographed.
The exhibition will explore her vast body of work, from early portraits of the San Francisco bourgeoisie to rarely seen photographs of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Lange used her camera as a political tool to document social injustice in both urban and rural contexts, focusing on hardship and suffering to evoke compassion in the viewer. She died in 1965.
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WILLIAM EGGLESTON PORTRAITS – PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION OF THE YEAR
The National Portrait Gallery’s Eggleston show raised many issues — about the history of photography, the nature of portraiture and so much more — that it was a natural choice to be our photography exhibition of the year, says Eliza Williams
What makes for an exhibition of the year? The work must be of the highest quality, of course, but the show should also have that elusive aspect, the mysterious something that stays with you long after you’ve left the gallery space. In the case of a historical show, we would also expect to learn something new about the work, and discover a different perspective on the artist.
William Eggleston Portraits, held at the National Portrait Gallery in London from July 21 until October 23, achieved all these elements. Its reviews were ecstatic from the off. “Momentous, trivial, marvellous,” said Adrian Searle in the Guardian, finishing his review by saying simply, “What a great show.” “Devastatingly brilliant,” wrote Louisa Buck in the Telegraph, while Karen Wright in the Independent proclaimed it “confirms his importance”.
Many critics talked of the images lingering with them, and of the complexity held within what are seemingly straightforward shots. “Time and again, Eggleston shows us that a picture of a person is never a simple thing,” said Chris Waywell in Time Out, while Wright continues in the Independent: “Photography can capture a moment, and Eggleston does not just chronicle events but delivers images that are ambiguous, allowing many possible interpretations.”
Eggleston is not known as a portraitist, and in fact this is the first ever show to concentrate on this aspect of his work. It worked brilliantly, perhaps due to the general excellence of his photography, but also because, within a fairly small show of around only 100 images, curator Philip Prodger was able to bring forth all the themes and questions that have followed Eggleston b throughout his career – some of them doggedly – and examine them in a new light.
For Prodger, Eggleston’s work raises questions over the very nature of what makes a portrait. “Eggleston’s photography strikes some as ambivalent and impersonal, insufficiently humane to qualify as ‘portraiture’,” he writes in the exhibition catalogue. “This in itself is interesting, for it makes us look uncomfortably at some of the presumptions on which portrait practice is built. Photographic portraiture gravitates towards likeness – looking at a clear, head-and-shoulders photograph of a person with a known biography at an intimate distance is meant to reveal something about them, to provide insight. It is a romantic idea, ultimately: to look into the eyes of a sitter so that we might peer into their soul. Yet who is to say that at that moment, in that place, from that distance, at that angle, a photograph tells us anything at all about what drives a person, what shapes them, how they think? Or whether such things even matter. Eggleston is the antidote to such over-reaching conceits.”
The show features photographs stretching back to the 1960s and its subjects are a mix of family members and friends – some of whom are famous figures – as well as strangers that Eggleston shot on the street. His works are usually displayed without titles and descriptions though Prodger persuaded him to forego this habit for the NPG show, and, where known, identities are revealed, as well as often considerable context.
We are taken into Eggleston’s childhood, via photographs of the family’s help, who became surrogate parents to him while his parents were away. Intriguing characters abound in his later pictures too, framed by Eggleston in a way that speaks always of a wider, unknown narrative. It’s easy to see why he’s been so influential on filmmakers. Writing in the catalogue, director Sofia Coppola sums it up thus: “So many people take those simple snapshots of life, but there’s something about Eggleston that no-one can match. So many of his images I’ve seen over the years stay with me, like a pastel memory from another time.”
Some of the real stories revealed in the show surpass any that could be invented, however. TC Boring, an “eccentric dentist” that Eggleston knew, is shown standing naked in a bright red room, its walls scrawled with text. It turns out this is the room where Eggleston’s famous ‘red ceiling’ image, which focuses on a light fitting, was taken, but the caption also explains Boring’s later fate, which was to be murdered, with his house set on fire.
Other captions are downright gossipy. One painterly photo of two young women on a sofa turns out to be of Eggleston’s cousin Lesa Aldridge and her friend Karen Chatham. According to the caption, Aldridge was comforting her friend who had been rejected by the singer Alex Chilton of Box Tops/Big Star fame, who was also a neighbour of Eggleston (and appears in another portrait in the show). It went on to say that Aldridge then took up with Chilton herself and that their rocky relationship inspired many of his songs.
Beside another image, of Eggleston’s girlfriend Leigh Haizlip in tears, we find the caption speculating on the cause, and wondering if it was down to the photographer himself. There’s a risk that these kinds of ponderings and insights could distract from the photographs, or, perhaps worse, fix them in a certain time and place. But Eggleston’s work, by its sheer force, always rises above the trivialities, making them enjoyable to discover rather than interfering with the work.
In an interview with Prodger from 2015, which is included in the catalogue, Eggleston’s belief in his work as being beyond a specific setting is clear. “I do not a bit call myself a documentary photographer because I do not feel associated with people and their problems every day. I’m not [the photo agency] Magnum.”
“So many people take those simple snapshots of life, but there’s something about Eggleston that no-one can match,” Sofia Coppola
The same interview reveals Eggleston’s shooting style, which is quick and anonymous: “You know, it happens so fast, they don’t even know it.” One of the criticisms that has been levelled at him over the years is that his work is just throwaway snapshots. As Adrian Searle points out in his Guardian review, this accusation seems patently ridiculous now. “Eggleston’s photography has been derided for its ordinariness, for its compositional blankness, even for its use of colour. This now seems absurd.”
For what ‘snapshots’ they are, if anyone insists on still calling them so. In a world that is now saturated with imagery, where many of us share our photos daily, if not hourly, it is impossible not to be struck by just how keen and clear Eggleston’s eye is. “For most people, ‘just taking the picture’ would result in tedious clichés,” writes Sarah Kent in theartsdesk.com, “but Eggleston has an uncanny knack of spotting those sublime moments when random elements cohere to make the ordinary seem strange or beautiful.”
The other controversy most associated with Eggleston is his use of colour. Alongside contemporaries including Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore, Eggleston pioneered the use of colour in art photography, and caused outrage in 1976 with a show of colour works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was cited by the New York Times at the time as “the most hated show of the year”.
Like the complaints about snapshots, the idea of colour photography being so shocking seems quaint nowadays. The show at the NPG tracks Eggleston’s journey from black and white through to using colour, and contains many works created using the complex ‘dye transfer’ process that he famously favoured. Originally used for commercial purposes due to the exceptional depth of colour that it produces, Eggleston spotted the potential of dye transfer in art photography and the works produced here using it truly sing.
Eggleston’s work in many ways tracks the progress of our acceptance of photography, in all its varied forms, as art. And while the old complaints about his work are revisited here – they have to be, for historical purposes if nothing else – it feels that what shines out is his status as an ‘artist’, not a ‘photographer’.
“Duchamp demonstrated how a thing can be thought of as something other than what it appears to be,” writes Prodger in his catalogue essay. “Eggleston took this a step further, by showing that the camera, with its unparalleled capacity to record information in exacting detail, does not have to be used for representational purposes, nor do photographs have to be taken at face value.”
Near the end of the 2015 interview in the catalogue, Prodger and Eggleston muse on how people react to exhibitions, and the lack of control that artists and curators have over this. “In terms of exhibitions, I’ve come to appreciate that people enter them with different levels of information and they get different things out of them,” says Prodger. “Some people will see your show, and they’ll say, ‘There are some interesting, pretty pictures’, and leave it at that.”
“You know, I compare it to this,” replies Eggleston. “Different people have different reactions to certain drugs. One will kill one person while another person has the same drug and they feel better.”
In this instance, with this show, it seems clear that the Eggleston medicine worked for the good.
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