Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Margate - avoiding "The Martin Parr thing."

Joe lives and breathes the re-invention of Margate. Affably radiating quiet purpose,  dressed in a knee-length brown shopkeepers coat and sporting a parted pudding-bowl haircut, he doesn't just sell vintage objects and retro clothes for a living, he utterly embraces the ethos. Rediscover, repair, reuse, - find the things from the recent past that elicit a feeling not just of nostalgia, but of individuality and the path less-traveled.

In this way he and his wife Kelly could be considered a perfect example of the changes going on in the town. Like their businesses, Margate has borrowed from past glories and is in the process of adapting the best of those things coupled with a growing artistic community to create new prosperity.

Stood together in the Margate Retro General Store, one of two shops they own and run, Joe was attempting to give me the inside track on his hometown, so hard to define or categorise, and explain why he and his family moved back.

"There are two things everyone knows about Margate," said Joe, "The first one is that  song by Chas and Dave, you know, Daaahhhn to Margate," he half sings, "And the other one is Only Fools and Horses where the coach blows up."

I blinked several times. Certainly, I knew the song, no matter how much I would like to pretend otherwise but Only Fools and Horses is a genuine gap in my TV viewing.

"But the thing is," he continued, "it was never that place, or should I say, never JUST that place. Margate has always been a much more complicated town."

This was something I could definitely grasp. After two solid days of shooting - documentary and portraits - it was hard to escape the feeling that I had barely scratched the surface. The photographs were to illustrate an article by Iain Aitch that spanned decades and his observations from growing up in this misunderstood, misrepresented British seaside institution at the far end of Kent. Reflecting the scope and sweep of the piece was not my only problem, there was also the inevitable spectre of Martin Parr. 

Parr's vision of UK seaside towns will never be equalled in my opinion. Their humour, observation and photographic aesthetic are so brilliantly combined that they still cast a long shadow over any British seaside-related photojournalism. Those that criticise him for ridiculing or demeaning his subjects are missing an essential point. His work reflects an intimacy with and affection for the traditional coastal destinations and the families who choose them for their holidays.

So it left me with a quandary - On one hand, I cannot pretend that his work hasn't made me scrutinise and evaluate my own photography and techniques. On the other, the last thing I want to produce is a pale imitation of someone I admire. Most troubling in this equation is the use of flash. I don't know how Martin Parr started to use strong flash in his pictures but I suspect it was in response to a simple technical problem. If you don't want deep shadows on a sunny day then you have to fill them in somehow, either with reflected light or flash. It is something I have occasionally done, using a radio-triggered Q-flash, held off-camera to give a very directional, contra-lit image. It's purposefully different from the ring-flash approach he used but I still worried that it might end up looking too similar.

However, with very little time to get all the pictures completed and a budget that meant I had to limit myself to a couple of days shooting, my hands were somewhat tied. 

I attempted to blend two very different looks into one story. The weather was very variable on both days. The first day I limited myself to strictly working with available light, either diffuse, reflected or just shooting with the sun when it was at it's strongest. On the second day (a Saturday as it turned out) I persuaded my wife Jane to step into the gaping budgetary hole that I would otherwise have spent on an assistant. Armed with the Q-flash, she patiently followed me as I tried to get a number of lit portraits that might thicken-out the edit.

Having already posted the tear sheet, I thought it might be interesting to also make a short gallery, including those that made it into the piece and a few that I liked but weren't chosen for the layout.

The original brief had called for a small number of final images to suggest the changes that Margate had undergone. The culture clash caused by the arrival of the Turner Contemporary and the cultures of an artistic community in a traditional seaside resort. 

What became apparent very quickly from talking to locals, visitors and shopkeepers was that far from a clash there had been a cross-pollination. In the sunny weather, the beach is the great magnet but on overcast days, the cafes and shops of old-town still draw-in visitors looking for authentic vintage and non-label fashions that are concentrated in the small accessible area. 

The designers at the New Review came up with a minimalist take on the idea of postcards which worked well in the final layout but the last word should go to Iain Aitch's writing.

"It has always had the feel of a frontier town - Always about to mutate." He wrote.

Iain made reference to a how the real renaissance began one Saturday night in 2007 when a huge Anthony Gormley sculpture was burned as part of a film and artistic performance. This, he said, was the spark that gave Margate the arts momentum which is now being continued by the Turner Contemporary and planned revival of the famous, but now defunct, Dreamland.

As luck would have it, I was there that night and had taken photographs - on assignment for The Independent's news section. Here is my favourite, taken just before it was set ablaze showing the giant art-work made of furniture, already glowing orange in the setting sun.