The Great British Seaside @ the National Maritime Museum

‘Don’t take boring photos’ (Tony Ray-Jones)

To my shame I hadn’t been to the National Maritime Museum since it added a new exhibition wing back in 2011. The new wing is a startlingly modern, light, bright and airy building with a number of galleries showing the history of the Royal Navy through the centuries across two floors.

The temporary exhibition space is down some wide stairs (or you could take the swish glass lift) into a light airy reception area, then through swing doors and into half a dozen large, well-lit rooms.

The Great British seaside

It’s a simple idea. Bring together photos of the British seaside by four great English photographers of the past forty years or so. To quote the exhibition blurb:

From the abandoned piers to the dazzling arcades, celebrate the British seaside through the lenses of Britain’s most popular photographers, featuring Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts and new work by Martin Parr.

Examine the ambiguities and absurdities of seaside life through this major exhibition of over 100 photographs. All four photographers share a love of the seaside which reveals itself in playful and often profound representations of the British by the sea while still bringing their own distinctive take on the seaside experience.

Ray-Jones gives us a social anthropologist’s view, Hurn’s is a nostalgic love letter to the beach, Parr provides an often-satirical examination of class and cliché while Roberts explores our collective relationship with, and impact on, the coast.

The Great British Seaside includes images from the archival collections of each of the photographers, new films, and new work by Martin Parr.

Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) 20 photos

Three years ago the Science Museum held an exhibition, Only in England, which featured black and white photos by Tony Ray-Jones, and was curated by Martin Parr. Both there and here, Ray-Jones emerges as a brilliant, inspiringly acute observer of the quirks and oddities of the English. A big wall label quotes his aim:

‘I have tried to show the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people.’

In the mid-60s Ray-Jones set off on a two-year-long mission in a camper van to capture the oddness of English life: he was worried about the creeping Americanisation infecting English life (as, I think, every generation since about 1920 has been) so he wanted to capture in photographs the enduring and endearing qualities of the English before they disappeared.

The result is a treasure trove of black and white images of the English bravely enduring the grim weather, cobbly beaches, and freezing winds of their inhospitable seafronts.

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Ray-Jones’s images show working class people wearing thick clothes, in respectable haircuts or wearing cloth caps, the women in shawls and cardigans, gathered into protective groups, munching on sandwiches, sharing round the thermos flasks of tea, squashed into deckchairs, with a tin of Fray Bentos corned beef part of the general picnic.

There’s an image of one old man wearing a thick suit and shirt, a cloth cap on his head, with his trousers rolled up, standing in seawater up to his knobbly knees. Ah, the English!

The overwhelming impression is that the English don’t know what to do with their seaside. They treat it as in inconvenience which has somehow invaded their living rooms – so the old ladies on show here have clustered together behind their tied-together windbreaks, put on extra layers to keep warm, and continued knitting or reading the paper as if they were still indoors.

For the most part, the adults don’t know how to dress or behave. A million miles away from being ‘beach body ready’, the old boys figured here are still wearing their best suits, the old ladies their necklaces and even decorative hats.

Only the kids, the under-12s, have a clue. For some reason they are licensed to wear swimming trunks and actually go into the sea. Maybe it was seen as a childish thing to do while the old (who look really, really, really old) paddle in the shallows or warm up another brew on the carefully protected gas heater.

A handful of pictures of badly dressed, long-haired teenagers snogging on the beach under the disapproving stare of a deckchair attendant make you realise this is not the 1930s or 40s. These young lads could be Mods, but even their provincial gracelessness makes you realise what a long, long time it took for the shiny London fashions and liberal attitudes of the 1960s to penetrate beyond the bright lights of Swinging London.

Here’s a trendy young woman making herself at home on the horribly cobbly beach at Brighton and playing singles on her Dansette portable record player. I wonder what the singles are. More importantly, and so English, she is on a seafront beach fully clothed.

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967© Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967 © Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

David Hurn (b.1934) 20 photos

The Museum has taken a lot of time and trouble to stage the exhibition, including a number of humorously seaside-themed accessories, for example a little flowerbed width of white cobbled stones in front of some of the exhibition walls.

Among these features is a ‘Seaside Cinema’, a kind of fairground booth decorated with pavilion-style stripes and its name beaming out in shiny fluorescent lights. It has one or two life sized stuffed seagulls perched on the walls. Alas, it is not showing ‘What the Butler Saw’ or other saucy seaside entertainment, but the rather more worthy content of four 3-minute videos, one for each of the photographers in the show.

These films turn out to be extremely useful, revealing insights into the biographies and approaches of the three surviving photographers, in particular. YouTube has a brief selection of clips from them which give you a good flavour.

In his video interview, David Hurn emphasises his own working class roots in the coal mining community of South Wales. He was born in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression and he remembers as a small boy how the mines used to close for two weeks for safety and repairs and so entire workforces and their families went on holiday at the same time. He remembers whole villages catching trains down the valley to the coast en masse.

Thus some of his photographs feature people who he knew all lived in the same street, for example a classic photo of a group of twenty or so fully dressed adults who have created a circular windbreak and are all huddling against the chill wind on an otherwise deserted beach. They’ve paid for their holiday in windy Aberavon and they’re damn well going to enjoy it.

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004© David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Possibly his most striking photo is of an attractive young woman in a bikini lighting a cigarette, watched by a more traditional family who are slouched, fully dressed, against a wooden groyne. It is a striking image in itself but lends itself to numerous interpretations. The old boy and his wife are looking on disapprovingly, the adult son is looking on with – shall we guess – lust in his heart, his wife can’t be bothered. And bikini-ed babe herself? Represents a kind of Julie Christie breaking free of the shackles and limitations of grim, repressed English physicality.

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr (b.1952) 41 photos

Why has Parr got twice as many photos as the other three? This becomes clear when you walk into the room titled ‘The Essex Seaside’ where a wall label explains that the National Maritime Museum commissioned Parr in 2017 to take photos of London’s beach resorts i.e. the ones within easy train journey of London. Whitstable, Margate and Ramsgate on the North Kent coast suggest themselves, let alone the obvious Brighton, but Parr ended up concentrating on resorts along the Essex coast of the Thames Estuary.

Hence there is a room giving a selection of his seaside photos – like the other three – PLUS this extra room devoted to 20 photos from the Essex seaside project.

COLOUR

But the most important development is that, as you enter the Martin Parr section, the exhibition changes from the black-and-white and fairly standard print size of Ray-Jones and Hurn, into a new world of vivid colour and BIG prints.

Martin Parr is colour photography with a vengeance.

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

There’s no doubting that Parr’s images are big and bright and striking. But coming directly from looking closely at the grainy old images of Ray-Jones and Hurn gives the visitor a strong sense that with colour something is lost and something gained. I tried to figure out what and why:

BLACK AND WHITE

  • gives a a feeling of history, a mood of nostalgia, conjured by the old clothes, old hairstyles, old ‘looks’
  • black and white photos are somehow more homely, unthreatening, even inviting
  • in black and white photos all elements of the composition are equal; there is a kind of democracy of details – you are drawn to elements of the composition in structural or diagrammatic terms i.e. shapes and patterns, lines and shadows, are much more prominent or discernible

COLOUR

  • big colour photos undoubtedly have an advert-type ‘hit’, are more prone to deliver impactful images – but the downside is the loss of subtle integrated composition you get in black and white

The more I looked at Parr’s big professional photos the more I found the garish colours disparate, jarring and distracting. There’s a huge print of an Asian woman on a beach with her head leaned far back, finishing off a big green bottle of Sprite. Your eye is immediately startled, grabbed, overwhelmed by the greenness of the plastic bottle, and by the vivid colours of her husband’s top and her nearby son’s t-shirt.

After half an hour spent cultivating a sensitive approach to the subtle details in the works of Hurn and Ray-Jones, it is like someone has turned up the volume to earsplitting level.

Somehow, in colour photos like these, the main central image tends to shout, to dominate and drown out the wealth of smaller, minor details which are what make the black and white photos so quaint and – dare I say it – endearing, lovable almost.

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Where black and white warmly invites you in, colour pushes the viewer away.

In his video interview in the ‘Seaside Cinema’, Parr makes a number of revealing points.

Experimentation One is how, over the course of his career, he has experimented with different cameras and different lenses. Recently he has been using a long lens. This explains works like the massive print showing a woman in the centre of shot wearing dark sunglasses in which her entire face is strongly out of focus.

I didn’t like this photo at all, but can see how it forms part of a continuum of technical experimentation which might intrigue and instruct other photographers and students.

Cruelty A few years ago I visited an exhibition of Parr’s work devoted to London’s annual Lord Mayor’s Show or, more specifically, to the bedraggled visitors and crowds who come up from the suburbs and out of town to line the route of the parade despite the fact that, the year in question, it was tipping down with rain.

It was in reviews of that exhibition that I first read the criticism that the clarity and detachment, and the vibrant colours which Parr uses, can often result in images with a harsh and even a humiliating clarity.

There is a ghost of contempt for his human subjects hovering around some of Parr’s big, unsparing photos of poor, fat, tasteless chavs and their pitiful seaside amusements. Something merciless.

Photography as therapy This suspicion was confirmed by the video about Parr in the ‘Seaside Cinema’. An amiable, easy-going-sounding bloke, he explains that he has had a love-hate relationship with Britain all his life and that his photos are a sort of therapy which help him work through his feelings.

His comments really crystallise something about these big, garish, colour photos, which show the English in all their obesity and bad clothes, inhabiting a decayed world of derelict bus shelters and overflowing litter bins. Not very far beneath the surface briliance is contempt and, maybe, even despair at the wretched human condition.

None of the works by Ray-Jones nor Hurn make you feel that.

Simon Roberts (b.1974) 21 photos

The fourth ‘Seaside Cinema’ video, in effect an extended interview with Simon Roberts, is just as interesting and revealing, as he explains his approach, his aims and techniques.

Among other things, Roberts says that he likes to take photographs from above and to prove it we saw footage of him standing on the roof of his traveller van parked on some beachfront esplanade, and photgaraphing downwards onto the beach.

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Raising his point of view like this means that many of his photos have not only a horizon and foreground but what he appeared to call a ‘midriff’.

In this central stretch of the image Roberts is at pains to look for narratives, stories and incidents. Thus, in the photo above, the pier provides the horizon and there’s the dad digging in the foreground who provides maybe the foreground focus of the image – but there’s a whole load of other small narratives going on all over the ‘midriff’, to distract and amuse and entertain the viewer.

The Roberts room is the final room of images and what became obvious was:

1. The size of the prints – some of them are simply huge, even bigger than Parr’s, several yards across

2. The emptiness – the example shown above is a relatively standard example of a seaside snap, with a pier and people in the sand – but a lot of Roberts’ images really aren’t actually like that at all. The best ones are Big and almost Empty. I realised after looking at them for a while that two things were going on on these bigger, more atmospheric works:

1. He has an almost classical regard for the horizon. There is almost always a horizon in his seaside photos and the horizon is always horizontal. Sounds obvious, but the horizon hadn’t been much of a concern for the previous three photographers; often the sea level was quite obviously wonky because the photographer was concentrating on the human subjects in the foreground.

Not so in Roberts’ work:  in almost all his 21 photos there is a dead straight horizon and it is exactly parallel to the top and bottom of the frame, giving the whole thing a very composed and classical feel.

2. And the second thing is how many of his beaches are almost empty. Striking examples are:

Some of them are more cluttered with people, seafront roads and buildings than these two, but there were quite a few others which managed to transform the English beach into not only a surprisingly beautiful but even a haunting and spiritual location.

The progression of images

The human mind has evolved to find patterns even where there aren’t any.

I went back to the start and walked slowly back through the exhibition, noticing the progression from minutely detailed black and white sociological studies (Hurn and Ray-Jones) which reek nostalgia for a black and white 1960s, then turning into studies of long-haired layabouts from the 1970s – which suddenly and dramatically morphs into the big, brash, supercoloured images of Martin Parr, a vulgar brashness we might associate with Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s and Tony Blair’s 1990s – and then the show ends with a completely unexpected turn into Roberts’s genuinely haunting and spectrally beautiful images from the 2000s.

I don’t know if we can draw any conclusions at all from this progression, but that’s how it felt.

Effort and staging

I mentioned the tremendous effort the National Maritime Museum has gone to in order to make the staging and setting of this exhibition really special.

This photo shows you the ‘Seaside Cinema’ booth in the background (alas, you can’t see the stuffed seagulls) and a row of deckchairs laid out in front of some photos by Martin Parr.

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Outside the exhibition itself, in the main ‘lobby’ area, they’ve gone to the trouble of creating a ‘British Seaside set’, complete with an enormous backdrop, two deckchairs and various blow-up plastic seaside toys, all designed for you to sit in with your mates and take selfies of each other.

The nearby gallery attendant kindly offered to take a photo of me and I was tempted for a moment to roll up my trousers and put in a knotted hankie for the occasion, like one of the old boys in a David Hurn photo, but managed to resist the temptation.

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Conclusion

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, on one level a sociological tour of the English and their seaside holidays, a social history of changing attitudes and seaside dress; on another level a selective history of the development of photographic technique and attitude over the last 50 years, taking the seaside as its guiding thread.

And, on a simpler level, it just contains lots and lots of beguiling, striking, brilliant, repellent and haunting photographs.

And the funkiest take-home message for any budding photographers?

In his video interview David Hurn says that one of the most important things he ever learned from Tony Ray-Jones was – to wear comfortable shoes. The good photographer, the really inquisitive, curious, exploratory and investigative photographer, is going to be on his or her feet for up to twelves hours a day in order to catch that perfect moment, that perfect shot.

By all means invest in good kit, in good cameras and lenses and the rest of it but also – Respect Your Feet!

The promotional video


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Other photography reviews

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