It’s only fitting that Martin Parr’s exhibition of photographs of Dunoon is being held in the town’s recently reopened Burgh Hall. A decade ago, what is now a B listed building was rescued from demolition by the local community, who worked with the John McAslan Family Trust, set up by locally born architect McAslan, to purchase it from property developers Fyfe Homes for a token £1.
A few years earlier, Parr and McAslan, whose work has included the 2006 restoration of railway engine shed turned London counter-cultural fun palace the Roundhouse, teamed up after veteran photographer Parr included some of McAslan’s personal collection of postcards in his book, Boring Postcards. The project that resulted, Light along the A8 corridor, was a road-trip of sorts that saw the pair navigate their way between Port Glasgow and a once-thriving Dunoon.
As they travelled, Parr documented the local colour along the route to what Visit Scotland describes as ‘the main resort on the beautiful Cowal Peninsula and the maritime gateway to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’ in all its mundane everyday glory. This gave rise to the book, A8, which featured 28 images by Parr, the titles of which - Cowal Games, Craigen Tea Room, Daisy’s Den – only hinting at the unruly bustle of life barely contained within.
Almost a decade on from the sale, and with tireless work from the Dunoon Burgh Hall Trust, the building reopened in 2017 as a fully functioning artistic resource for the local community.
In keeping with this confluence of old and new, Martin Parr’s Dunoon is something of a pilgrimage that takes stock of some of the original A8 pictures seen alongside new work.
“I was invited to do more, and came up over six or seven weekends,” says Parr of the revisitation. “Dunoon’s still basically the same place. Its economy isn’t in great shape, because it relied on tourism, and that’s in decline. But it’s still ticking away. There’s still lots of life there, and it’s great that the Burgh Hall has reopened. Without John that would never have happened.”
Such personal input to his images of Dunoon is typical of Parr, who first came to prominence
in the mid-1980s with the publication of The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton. The book documented a series of photographs taken in the rough and tumble leisureland of New Brighton, the faded Merseyside seaside town which, in its cheerfully low-rent, kiss-me-quick splendour, offered some kind of brief respite for Liverpool day-trippers seeking sanctuary from the ravages of the 1980s recession.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who documented various urban wastelands in gritty black-and white, Parr showed his studies of communities at work, rest but largely play in living and often wilfully garish warts-and-all colour. This gave his candid slices of life a vivid sense of the bodies in rest and motion that populated them. It is perhaps telling that in the early years of his career Parr worked as a roving photographer at seaside holiday camps, where the working class were captured with some of the largesse of the picture postcards they sometimes seemed to mirror.
Some of Parr’s early pre-occupations and insightful thoughts on photography in Documentary Photography: Asset or Liability?, a talk Parr gave at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh in 1987. A recording of the talk is being released online as part of a series drawn from the gallery’s rich past to commemorate its fortieth anniversary. Listening to the Parr of three decades ago is akin to tuning in to a fascinating time capsule, in which he holds court on such topics as the subjectivity of documentary photography and how there is “no such thing as documentary truth” and photography’s seeming inability to change the world.
In 1987, of course, while photography was already a more accessible and democratic means of expression than most, it was a long way from the sort of mass ubiquity that the digital age brought with it. This came by way of camera phones, Instagram and other click-of-a-switch online platforms. Parr embraces the opportunities such new technology brings with it, and has his ow Instagram account.
“It’s still photography at its core,” he says, “but it means that the audience for photography is much bigger.”
One of the Parr’s most striking comments during the talk comes towards the end of the recording, when he talks about his then impending move to Bristol, where he will effectively be photographing a more middle class strata of society than those in Liverpool and Ireland, where he previously lived and worked. Crucially, he talks about how people were becoming more selfish. Given that this was arguably still in the relatively early days of an increasingly broken Britain we are perhaps only now feeling the full fall-out from, thirty years on, Parr’s words sound like prophecy.
“Will you be saying I’m a visionary?” he jokes.
Beyond Dunoon, Parr has at least one major exhibition in the pipeline, and there will also be a book of space dog ephemera. This latter project is drawn from one of several of Parr’s collections that go beyond photography, and which here encompass anything connected with the Soviet space programme in the 1950s and 1960s, which sent dogs into space to determine whether human space-flight was possible.
All of which acts as a conduit and a continuum for Parr’s main interest.
“Leisure,” he says. “Whether it’s a flower show or a concert or people playing bowls, leisure is my main pursuit.”
Martin Parr’s Dunoon runs at Dunoon Burgh Halls until April 15th. Documentary Photography: Asset or Liability will form part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, and will be available online.
Scottish Art News, Summer 2018