The British Seaside is a public space, a place of democracy, a landscape we all have a stake in where place meets behaviour to form a national identity framed by sea, sand, clouded skies, piers and colourfully striped deckchairs. Who decides what constitutes national identity? In The Great British Seaside (National Maritime Museum, London, 2018), the work of four white male photographers is presented as a curated story documenting objective truths of British national identity, whilst failing to acknowledge the limited nature of viewpoints shaped by socialised and situated identities of privilege.
The seaside is seen as a place to celebrate because it shapes national identities: all are seemingly equal when taken out of towns and cities and viewed against a backdrop of leisure. The ‘seaside’ indicates an edge, a borderland where two landscapes meet. For an island nation where the only exit is across sea, the border holds a romantic appeal as a setting for escape and behaviour uninhibited by daily life. This is the landscape and position inhabited by the photographers Martin Parr, David Hurn, Simon Roberts and Tony Ray-Jones. In The Great British Seaside, all types of behaviour are captured in a time span which ranges from Ray-Jones’ early 1960’s work to Hurn’s work spanning decades, up until the present day, with works from Roberts’ ‘Pierdom’ and ‘We English’ projects, and Parr’s projects that include a showcase of his 2017 series, commissioned by the National Maritime Museum, ‘The Essex Seaside’.
In their own unique styles, Ray-Jones, Hurn, Parr and Roberts celebrate these populous edges, photographing families picnicking, children playing, donkey rides, sleeping bodies, beach scenes both crowded and empty. The photographer’s subjects swim in the sea and run across the sand, taking photographs and posing for them. Ordinary and mundane behaviours responding to the social space and time of leisure are captured, and placed alongside each other the photographs form a narrative which spans decades. In the exhibition the seaside as social space is used to bridge human relationships across barriers: as the exhibition goer moves through the exhibition they cross and merge timelines. Joining together geographical spaces that include Blackpool, Essex, Norfolk, Kent and Merseyside a palatable perception of identity is created, bound to a specific landscape.
In this constellation of times, spaces, and identities, what appears to be missing is an acknowledgement of the situated photographer controlling the gaze. What position do these photographers inhabit and how do their identities fit into the frame, informing and shaping what they capture? The camera is not a detached impartial observer, but a tool utilised by socialised bodies. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that photographs are outcomes of momentary encounters occurring in real time. Does it matter who is behind the lens making the photograph? Photography is subjective, while seemingly detached from social identity, a photograph is made as an outcome of human inhabitation. For an exhibition to make claims on national identity whilst disregarding the social currency held by the men behind the camera creates a skewed perspective that contributes to a narrative of ownership in viewpoint, where some are the onlookers and others are the looked at, used as subjects but not in control of how the story is framed.
The exhibition places an emphasis on the eccentric nature of the stereotypical British character. In his opening statement Tony Ray Jones’ work is declared as showing ‘warmth, pathos and surreal humour’. Martin Parr’s work is framed as ‘satirical’, ‘fresh’ and ‘uncomfortable’ in approach, as if its bravado constitutes some kind of admirable moral feat of representation. In their photographs there is the potential to examine what it means to search for national identity at the borders, to inhabit the seaside as public space and observe behaviour through its social relationships. Only Roberts stays on the outskirts, distancing himself from his subjects, his viewpoint is the closest to anonymous: giving the viewer a choice of interactions to zone in on, the stories in his photographs are softened by distance.
In the context of this exhibition the seaside is sold and packaged to the audience as democratic space. There is a distance between the curated product and an acknowledgement of the exchange of power that occurs in the moment when the photograph is taken. In Parr’s newest series ‘The Essex Seaside’, he photographs beaches on the Essex coastline. The exhibition text states that the people in the images ‘continue to seek the nostalgia of the ‘traditional’ British break’. Parr’s photographs are introduced as revealing ‘a diversity of day-trippers who have embraced and adapted the seaside experience to meet their own social, cultural and religious needs’. Alongside the photographs the statement equates Britishness with whiteness, shifting the meaning of inhabitation to one of borrowing space. Space is no longer public but a political tool. The exhibition fails to question what it means to make subjects visible, championing diversity to suit curatorial agendas whilst distancing subjects with a separatist narrative that reinforces discriminatory viewpoints. What does it mean for a white man to point his lens at people of colour and women in their leisure time? If there is discomfort in viewing Parr’s images, perhaps it is the discomfort of our gaze that we should stop and question.
What does the landscape of the British Seaside mean to British people? That question is not answered by this exhibition, which offers point of view as fact, bathing in the safety and nostalgia of place and identity and ignoring the processes that inform viewpoints. What we see here is a selective view which does not delve deeper than surface level. Consider the democratic nature of the space depicted. Relationships informed by specificities of race, class, gender and sexuality are played out in the interactions between photographer and subject. What is lacking is democracy in the way the subject is curated and packaged as a whole. The exhibition is enjoyable and interesting in its comparative imagery of seasides across geographies and timelines, but it stays in the shallows, selecting a narrative that confirms a comfortable notion of British identity unified by social space, whilst failing to examine the nuances informing the lived experience of the people in those spaces.
The opening exhibition statement declares that the show ‘holds up a critical and affectionate mirror to an experience loved by us all’. There is no acknowledgement here of the privilege that shapes the photographers experiences in public space. Equality reaches one way: the reflexive viewpoint is unequal. Only white men are offered the platform to make statements on nationality without referring to how their socialised viewpoint frames that perspective. Hurn, Ray-Jones, Parr and Roberts are able to step outside of the consciousness of their own identity and place in the world and observe others, with their observations offered up as indicative of the experience of all.
The Great British Seaside presents a surface level look at stereotypical notions of British identity. Criticality is claimed but not exercised. Does it matter who is behind the lens taking the photograph? Who gets to control the story? Certainly it does. While public narratives are presented by those with power and privilege, without acknowledgement of position claims on public identity are incomplete.
Jessie Martin is a photographer, writer and researcher based in London. Her work focuses on the relationship between built environments and performed public identities, and the ways this can be researched and recorded through a photographic creative practice. She is a member of the Urban Photographers Association, holds a BA in Photographic Arts at the University of Westminster, and an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.