As a long time admirer of the work of Martin Parr I was glad of the opportunity to see this exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I first came across his work in The Last Resort, his collection of photographs taken in New Brighton and first published, I now see, as long ago as 1985. These pictures, taken in colour, are bright and sharp, which serves only to highlight the sense of desperation about the place. Sunbathers sit on crowded beaches, their feet surrounded by litter, babies play amidst the debris, pensioners relax in semi-derelict shelters. They reminded me of childhood visits to the place and today seem to share more with that era than the present time: New Brighton is cleaner, smarter and less tawdry than it was then. But the seaside has been a continuous theme in Parr’s work and this exhibition shows not only some rarely seen examples of his early photography, but also pictures by a major influence on his own work.
Tony Ray-Jones died at a tragically young age in 1972. Martin Parr has curated a collection of his pictures from the 1960s. All in black and white many of them depict scenes taken at sea side locations – Broadstairs, Brighton, Southport, Blackpool and so on. Each picture conveys that sense of melancholy that only the English seaside seems to contain, both in and out of season. Tony Ray-Jones’s own injunction to himself was “don’t take boring pictures” and each contains a strange mixture of humour, ennui and sometimes even a vague sense of menace.
But Martin Parr’s own section of the exhibition is entitled The Non-Conformists, in this case a precise reference to religious dissenters of the traditional type. Taken in the 1970s this looks very much like a vanished age, the last days of an old order. Most of the subjects in the run down chapels are elderly, the ladies all wear impressive hats, the men Sunday-best suits. There is an air of melancholy about many of these pictures too. Chapel goers assemble for anniversary teas and resemble nothing so much as mourners at a wake. And yet the video that accompanies the exhibition shows some of the scenes as they are today and the remote Methodist Chapel looks pretty much like it is still in operation. Non-Conformists can be tenacious survivors.
But if the same Methodist Chapel is still on the go, the congregation are unlikely to look as formal and as staid as they did in the 1970s. You have to go to Ulster, to Brethren and Free Presbyterian churches, to find such a collection of hats on a Sunday, it is generally shirt-sleeve order these days, casual informality is the style in most places now. There is a rigidity and a strictness in these photos of forty years ago that seems strange to modern eyes, as well as a sense of sadness; the chapels look run down, the paint is peeling, the congregations mostly elderly. But here we see chapel life as it was lived in a remote rural corner of England in the 1970s. Worshippers crouch in prayer, in the non-conformist style; sumptuous suppers are piled on to plates after worship; cabbages are auctioned after the harvest festival. Many of the compositions are very striking. A clever view of a service shows part of the congregation seated downstairs while others sit patiently in the gallery above them. Perhaps the most arresting is of a lady wearing a very large hat solemnly ladling sugar into a cup while seated at a table amongst others sharing in a post-service tea in a Baptist chapel. Her movements seem to mirror the illustration on the wall behind her – a curious and somewhat disquieting rendition of the Last Supper which must have been a permanent decoration in the church hall. A blown up version of this picture is used to advertise the show and I reproduce it below:
But all this, plus Martin Parr’s pictures of home life and working life in the Calder Valley and Tony Ray-Jones’s depictions of English eccentricities like the Bacup Coconut Dancers, makes for a fascinating exhibition which is on show in the Walker Art Gallery until 7th June.