No single photoproject in the last 30 years appalled more people nor revealed more about the sensibilities of that bygone era than Martin Parr’s The Last Resort.
A casual visitor admiring Martin Parr’s colorful photos of fat, lethargic, and relaxed British vacationers on New Brighton would never understand the controversy and critical derision that surrounded them when they were first displayed in 1986. Even today, one might be tempted to dismiss the controversy as a peculiar and parochial moment rather than a defining watershed for British photography.
The shock it delivered registered on many different levels. Fans of black-and-white social documentary photography disliked the bright beach scenes shot with medium-format color film. The images of overweight and sunburnt people surrounded by screaming and shooting children on cluttered beaches, eating repulsive looking food, and wearing mismatched clothes held up an ugly mirror to class-conscious Britain. Art critic David Lee criticized Parr for his patronizing and exploitative view of the working class:
[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 generously 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 meager 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.
Robert Morris wrote in the British Journal of Photography, “This is a clammy, claustrophobic nightmare world where people lie knee-deep in chip papers, swim in polluted black pools, and stare at a bleak horizon of urban dereliction.” Now, some 26 years later, to this author at least, the controversy said as much about sensitivities of the time as about Parr’s style. The photographer himself would agreed; Parr said, “I was rather surprised there was a controversy. It didn’t seem to me to be a controversial subject. It was a rundown seaside resort in Britain. What’s the surprise in that?”
Three years after The Last Resort, Parr moved to Bristol and began the project that would later be published as The Cost of Living. There he poked fun at that other extreme of Thatcherite Britain – the yuppie hell of consumer-crazy, horribly perfect, starched-shirt and floral-dress brigades.