Martin Parr: Early Work 1971-1986 is at the Huxley-Parlour gallery, London W1, 16 May-9 June
An early Martin Parr picture of a crowded pool in Filey, North Yorkshire shows a spirit of social realism
Martin Parr took this photograph in 1972, when shivering in crowded public baths was the archetypal experience of knock-kneed British seven-year-olds. At the time Parr, aged 20, was a student of photography at Manchester Poly. His real education, though, came from his paid holiday work as an official snapper at Butlin’s by the Sea in Filey, North Yorkshire. This picture, part of an exhibition of Parr’s early work opening next week, was taken in his first year on the job, as a “black and white walkie”. He graduated the following summer to the coveted status of “colour walkie”, able to take pictures at the Hawaiian/Caribbean beachcomber bar, where a tropical storm was conjured every half an hour.
You could say that Parr’s mature style as a photographer followed from that promotion. The colour-saturated images of fast food and sunburnt flesh, with which he made his name in the 1980s with series such as The Last Resort, were still to come. And you could also say that the shift in Parr’s style mirrored a shift in British society. His holiday subjects became more singular, atomised; those left behind by packaged fortnights to Greece and Spain.
This picture comes from just before that great migration, and looks recognisably in the spirit of the social realist photographers – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt – who had turned their affectionate lenses towards working families at play. In Parr’s photograph the swimmers – notably skinnier than those of today – appear to be all in it together. The only division seems that between shallow and deep end. And no one seems to mind much that the only sun likely to be available all week was the soaraway version, advertised on the far wall.