Ever since I went on the School of Life’s Holiday with Martin Parr in Folkestone, I’ve been seeing the world lit up with the bright pop of a flash gun.
Martin Parr, photographer of Britishness, collector of dictator-abilia, boring postcards and much else besides, put together a weekend saturated in Parr-esque delight. We stayed in the charmingly kitsch Langhorne Garden hotel and were inspired to capture the down-at-heel beauty of an English seaside resort with our cameras.
Image: Jane Housham
I got to Folkestone early, curious to see how the town’s focus on art (with the Triennial and the new Creative Quarter) is affecting the place. The Creative Quarter is centred on the Old High Street, a narrow cobbled way where the many empty properties are being smartened up and leased to artists and small galleries. Although they aren’t all occupied yet, there is a palpable sense of regeneration. I saw A K Dolven’s bell on the beach and Cornelia Parker’s curiously bipedal Mermaid was perched on a rock.
At the hotel, I reeled around my cavernous room. There was a pink candlewick bedspread on the bed and a wallmounted radio that looked as though it would still wake guests with Terry Wogan’s breakfast show and lull them to sleep to the sound of David Jacobs. The butterscotch hue of the bathroom suite was even more redolent of the Seventies than avocado.
At six o’clock sharp Martin Parr’s acolytes for the weekend converged on the hotel lounge to meet our hero. Tall, friendly, nicely sardonic, voraciously engaged with the visual, Martin was a delight (his wife, author Susie Parr, was adorable too). He received our tributes graciously and indulged our need to impress him with our knowhow. I have no photography knowhow but I share Martin’s deep love of kitsch – and I have a collection of miniature televisions that can hold its own against his. I took my place in the eager crowd.
Image: Tanya Freedman
We had a congenial dinner at Rocksalt, Folkestone’s stand-out restaurant, which sits in a wonderful spot on the harbour front. Then quickly to bed under the ridges of our candlewick covers to be ready for the photography to begin early the next day.
Martin prepped us with a talk and issued a challenge to come up with a portfolio of five shots by the next afternoon (a portrait, a shot of a cup of tea, a shot taken in the hotel, Folkestone’s faded glory and a free choice). It was the portrait that both daunted and appealed to me the most. I would have to find likely subjects and, unless I only stole shots of them, would have to speak to them, interact with them. I would do it for Martin.
Image: David Edge
As we streamed out of the hotel an elderly lady on a mobility scooter pootled into view. Martin Parr subject matter alert! Several of us made a beeline for the unsuspecting woman. That’s one thing to think about when your teacher has a highly recognisable style: are you going to try to emulate them (which could potentially end up as pastiche) or strike out on your own? We twenty attending the weekend were there because we admired Martin Parr, of course our eyes were going to be drawn to the sort of subjects he unerringly picks out. Whether we had an ‘eye’ of our own would be discovered at the final viewing. I decided to hold off from mobility scooters. But the race was on. Who would get to the ice-cream van and the jellied eel stall first?
After I had got up my nerve to ask my first mark if I could take his picture, I was away. Taking portraits was both unnerving and exhilarating. Later though, looking back through my shots, I realised I had only approached people who weren’t in a position to chase after me: people safely behind shop counters, the elderly and infirm. What’s more, I was so overwhelmed by the novelty of photographing strangers that I just pointed my camera at them and then swiftly withdrew. Others had clearly interacted with people much more and their photos were so much better for that.
Image: Katrin Gaertner
The two days flew by. As well as our photo shoots and sessions with Martin, we had a delightful lecture by Susie Parr about the history of swimming (plus the opportunity of a swim in the sea) and a talk by upcoming photographer Robin Maddock.
In spite of an unspoken but palpable desire on all our parts to wow Martin with our photos, it was a notably affable group of people doing the weekend and the chance to get to know them added a lot to the experience. Oh, but the excitement, the tension, when we had all given in our five selected images and gathered in the hotel lounge to view them on the large screen. Martin gave some gentle crits as we went through – if only I had had him there at the moment I pressed the shutter.
The photos people had taken were fantastic, some breathtaking. I left Folkestone with an intense desire to do more photography, to move up a notch from snaps, and to return to Folkestone soon.
Main Image: Alex Nitzsche
Jane Housham was a participant on A Holiday with Martin Parr which took place between the 30 August & 2 September. If Jane has stirred the amateur photographer inside you, why not attend our weekend, Photographing London with street photographer Nick Turpin on 29 & 30 September? For more details and to book, click here.