The British seaside has never had as penetrating a critic as Martin Parr. He sprang to international prominence with the publication of The Last Resort in 1986, a compendium of garish, unforgiving photographs of New Brighton showing crying babies in ugly push chairs, elderly couples eating fish and chips at a litter-strewn bus stop, or sunbathing on filthy concrete slabs.
Even the name of the location – New Brighton, in Merseyside – served to reinforce the troubled inauthenticity of Britain under Margaret Thatcher. Now, almost a quarter of a century on, Parr is coming to Brighton proper as curator of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2010, with ambitious plans to do something new and fresh.
’I just love the British seaside, and in fact I am just back from taking pictures of the seaside in China,’ says Parr. The link between the two Brightons, suggests Parr, is ’unconnected and just a happy coincidence’, yet it was no doubt not lost on the biennial’s organisers.
You’ll look in vain, however, for new photographs by Parr himself. Given his penchant for photographing the seaside, was he not tempted? ’No, showing my own photographs never came into it,’ he says. ’I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to share exciting and emerging work that I’ve discovered.’ Parr has in any case always sought to present himself as a collector of images, merging the process of taking photographs with curating and collating others’ images, whether inexhibition or in books.
New Documents is the title that Parr has chosen for the event, encompassing the wide and unusual reach of the photography that will be included. ’All the images will have either been shot for the biennial or are unlikely to have been seen before,’ says Parr. The three keynote photographers, who will make up one of the five main exhibitions, have been commissioned to document Brighton. Hackney-based Stephen Gill has literally put Brighton inside the camera, with bits of seaweed or insects crawling on the inside of the lens or surface of the film, while Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi was inspired by the flocks of starlings around the piers, contrasting them with the swirling crowds of humanity in other parts of the city. Immigration issues meant that American Alec Soth’s more straightforward images were a collaboration with his eight-year-old daughter Carmen.
Two American photographers (Molly Landreth and Zoe Strauss) were commissioned to photograph the gay community for another exhibition called Queer Brighton. ’It’s not been documented, and I thought it should be, and also that we should get gay photographers to do it,’ says Parr. He hasn’t yet seen the images, but is assured the shooting went well.
Apart from the work of these five, the rest of the biennial is given over to unknown photographers from around the world. Parr is keen to point out that the entire event will be ’frameless’ – all the images will be printed by the organisers and pinned or stuck up around the various locations and venues in Brighton. He says he wants it to be very different in feel to other photographic festivals. ’I want it to have a sense of excitement and immediacy,’ he explains.
Parr refuses to be drawn on whether this is an explicit critique of the po-faced gallery culture (and inflated sizes and prices) that is part and parcel of much contemporary photography. ’I’m not criticising, I’m just showing what I find interesting,’ he says. ’It is just another approach. I want it to be a festival of discovery, of openness.’
New Ways of Looking will showcase emerging photographers from around the world, including the extraordinary pictures by Mexican cab driver Oscar Fernando Gomez. However, another show, intriguingly entitled House of Vernacular, promises to be the most interesting of the five primary exhibitions. Staged at the Fabrica gallery, which more usually shows sculpture or digital art, Parr says we can expect ’an installation with photography’.
For the show, various disparate bodies of imagery have been brought together, including a series of matter-of-fact photographs documenting street bins in Britain from the 1950s and 1960s that were found in the Design Archives of the University of Brighton. This ignored chapter from the annals of design history is combined with another – the interiors of African dictators’ private jets in the 1960s. To these are added family snapshots of the US in the 1950s, folksy ’photo paintings’ from north-east Brazil, and Josef Heinrich Darchinger’s documentary photographs of the German ’Wirtschaftswunder’, or postwar regeneration. ’Of course, these are photographs taken for different reasons, but they are equally valid,’ says Parr.
The Brighton Photo Biennial runs from 2 October to 14 November at venues around the city. For more information, see www.bpb.org.uk