Monday, 3 September 2012

A Holiday with Martin Parr in Folkestone

I'm just back from one of the best things I've ever done. I went on a weekend in Folkestone organised by the School of Life called 'A Holiday with Martin Parr'.
What a brilliant, special thing! To stay in a charmingly kitsch hotel in charmingly kitsch (though also excitingly up and coming) Folkestone with my absolute favourite photographer. Not only that, but in spite of natural fears about what I was in for, given the unknown quantities involved (not least all the other people on the weekend), it turned out to be a completely engaging two and a half days with a really fine group of people, all interesting and likeable, and not a single crazed egomaniac or unaware BO-sufferer or (apparent) psycho among them.
A member of the hotel staff, in the lobby
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
     I took Friday off work and drove down to Folkestone in the morning. The first rendezvous for the Martin Parr weekend wasn't until 6pm (drinks in the hotel, the Langhorne Garden). But I wanted to make the most of the experience and by 12 noon I was sitting on the seafront at Sandgate, a 'suburb' of Folkestone just along from the town in blistering sunshine -- already casting my eyes around for suitable subjects for photos (abandoned grannies, scrapping children, etc, etc) but not actually daring to take any photos of them. I didn't see Vic and Bob or Paul O'Grady, all rumoured to live in or near Sandgate. The night before I had done extensive research on Folkestone in preparation for the weekend, including looking it up on, which is something one should only do as a last resort and definitely not about one's own home town as it will kill any affection you have for the place. Thus my view of Folkestone, prior to arrival, was one of hellish levels of grimness, perhaps comparable to Albania or Dagestan, with added loveable celebrity residents. As is so often the case (thank the Lord), none of my research was borne out -- or only to a very small degree and highly photogenically.
After Sandgate, I went into Folkestone proper and made a beeline for Rennies' Seaside Modern, in the lovely 'Creative Quarter' (aka the Old High Street). I've wanted to visit Paul and Karen Rennie's amazing vintage shop for years. Calling what they do 'vintage' doesn't remotely do them justice as they are serious (world-class) collectors and purveyors of the best modern antiques, particularly graphic design. In the past we have bought one or two Festival of Britain pieces from them that I don't believe you would easily find anywhere else.
I walked into the shop and, rather daringly, I thought, said to the gentleman who was sitting there, 'Are you Paul?' And he was! So I had a lovely chat with him and was able to pay homage to his and Karen's wonderfulness in person. I met Karen too and you would have thought my happiness couldn't increase when into the shop came Martin Parr himself, with his wife Susie. Great excitement all round! I had already told Paul why I was in Folkestone, so Martin's appearance wasn't entirely unexplained. Soon they were chatting and then MP asked if he could take Paul's picture. I didn't want to intrude on this moment so looked intently into the shop window (from the inside), but it was very very interesting to hear how powerfully MP directed the mini-shoot, knowing exactly what he wanted. I stored all this away for later.
     Tearing myself away from Rennies, I toured the rest of the Creative Quarter, spotted an art gallery that I really liked the look of: Strange Cargo's George's House (with a show on that I liked too, by John Howard), and finally made it to the hotel.
My room was cavernous, with a double bed and a single, and for a while I was haunted by the terrible thought that I might have misunderstood the set-up and have to share a room with an unknown Martin Parr fan, but happily no one else came through the door. The levels of kitsch were perhaps not quite as rococo as I had been led to believe -- this may be the result of my having stayed in more lowly hotels than Martin Parr and the School of Life people: this hotel was not many removes away from others I've known. But still, pink candlewick bedspreads and Seventies wall-mounted radios must be savoured before they finally disappear.
     Going down for the welcome drinks was really the most challenging moment of the whole weekend. No amount of publishing parties and conferences will ever prepare me for having to walk into a room of strangers and introduce myself. Especially a room full of photography enthusiasts jostling for their first moment with the Great Man of the weekend. I had the advantage there in that I had already made Martin and Susie's acquaintance, in the Rennies' shop, so they said hello when they saw me. I must just say at this point that Susie Parr was the loveliest, most gracious, delightful person and added a great deal to the pleasure of the weekend.
     Before I had summoned up the courage to speak to more than a couple of people, we found ourselves walking en masse through Folkestone to our dinner venue. I thought (still in the mindset of Folkestone-as-Dagestan) that the deranged gangs probably wouldn't take us on if we stayed bunched together. Although it was dusk, I had reluctantly to accept that the town still seemed perfectly lovely and unthreatening. What on earth are they to do to dispel their online image? Soon we arrived at Rocksalt, a beautiful, modern restaurant on the harbour front (with a Gordon Ramsay trained chef). The meal was very delicious and I was keen on the use they'd made of local ingredients such as buckthorn. A jolly atmosphere soon rose like a heat haze around us. The School of Life certainly didn't stint on the wine. Then it was back to the hotel (unmolested, not to say ignored, by the ravening natives. I was starting to think my whole internet-inspired picture of Folkestone was entirely false) to sleep and prepare mentally for the real work of the weekend, which was to start at 9am the next morning.
sunrise from my room
After breakfast the next morning, we had a pep talk from Martin to arm us with confidence when we went out to suck the very essence of Folkestone into our cameras. He issued us with a challenge: to produce a 'portfolio' of five photos, which we would then view the next afternoon. The five photos were to be: a portrait, a cup of tea, a shot of the hotel, the fading glory of Folkestone, and a free choice. We streamed out of the hotel. Within seconds (literally) I saw two of us moving in on the unsuspecting rider of a mobility vehicle (I made a mental note to force myself to refrain from all such shots, however tantalising -- in any case I got my favourite shot of said mobility vehicles on a previous holiday to Whitstable -- see below) and one of us already up on a walkway above a shop (how?? Incredible ninja-like dedication to the project) to get a good shot of the hotel. The race was on. Who would get to the ice-cream van and the cockle stall first?
I spent the next two hours asking people if I could take their picture, an entirely new experience for me. It was a combination of unnerving and happy-making. Only one person said no, everyone else was fine about it.
What I realised, when I looked back through my shots, and especially after I had seen what other people had achieved with their portraits, was that I hadn't really taken it far enough. I was so bowled over at having found the courage to speak directly to people that I then just politely pointed the camera at them and didn't try to get to know them or to direct the shots at all. All this is to learn and then try out next time.
my shot for the 'cup of tea' challenge
The two days just filled up with taking photos, looking at them, rendezvous-ing for food (dinner on Saturday night was at a kitschy Italian), watching some of Martin's films, including a brilliant portrait of Teddy Gray's sweet company in Dudley. You can watch the full film online here (really worth it -- 22 mins long). We also had a delightful lecture by Susie Parr about her book, The Story of Swimming.
Still another treat was a talk by photographer Robin Maddock about his career to date and particularly his project to photograph Plymouth, which has resulted in the book, God Forgotten Face.
His work is definitely work looking up. I can't really reproduce any here because of copyright.
We had another mammoth picture-taking session on Sunday morning. There were Newfoundland dogs being trained to rescue people in the sea. I tried to take a good photo of some of the many dogs who were watching it with great interest. Didn't really come off.
Imagine the high excitement, the hopes, the tension when we had all given in our five selected images and gathered in the hotel lounge to view them all on the large screen. Martin Parr announced that we would all vote on which ones we liked best in each category, points would be awarded for first, second and third, then the points would be tallied up and there'd be overall winners. You could just tell everyone was really hoping their images would be liked. Martin gave some comments as we went through -- very positive and very helpful, with pointers on composition that would really have helped me, if I had just had him there at the moment the shutter opened. I found it very difficult to choose which shots to put forward, and when I got home I showed D, D and C the ones I had 'shortlisted' to see if they would have chosen the same five images as me. In almost every case they disagreed with my choices. As for my photo which actually came top in one category, they all agreed it was rubbish. A good counterbalance there, then. I won't tell you which one it was of the ones I've posted here. The people who came out as overall winners were truly deserving and had taken the most beautiful photos. Lots of the photos across the board were brilliant. I think a Flickr page is going to be set up for us to post to, so I'll let you know if that gets up and running. I was left with an intense desire to try to take some better photos. I couldn't have asked for a more enjoyable, stimulating weekend and I didn't put on the TV once, or go online, or go in a shop (apart from Rennies' Seaside Modern, which is exceptional).


LAC EMP 2020 said...

Wow, wow and more wows. You lucky old thing, what a fabulous sounding weekend. I love all the photos especially the chap on the bench with the lucozade. Is he sitting on a carrier bag I wonder? Can't believe you will have spent a weekend with Maritn and not talked about your mutual postcard obsession. You must have done surely? I bet he could offer you a few Butlins swaps now you know him personally! Fabulous post Jane and perfectly displays that the photo is in the camera and not the computer. Brava!

Jill said...

What a fantastic experience jane, well done you for taking your courage in your hands and photographing people in public. I have done it once or twice, but did not have the courage to keep it up. I hope you do. I rather like the hotel worker and the the beach shot with the family. How inspiring to work with the man.

colleen said...

This is all so RICH. The images, the observations, the learning. But I wonder, when one is taught by a master/ mistress of the art, how can you ensure that your own vision is not clouded/over influenced by theirs (if that makes sense?) .

I really like the image of the man with the eggs - very natural. The ice cream man is more posed, but such lovely little details - the tattoos. the glitzy watch and bracelet, the stars on the glass at the back.

As to Folkestone - we had to go back their twice last year to capture it all. Like so many of those south coast towns, such a mix of hope, potential, failed grandeur, wealth, poverty and beauty. More, more.

James Russell said...

Thanks for a lovely description. I know exactly what you mean about photographing people: I've seen good photographers in action and half the skill is getting to know your subject, making them feel comfortable and then persuading them gently to do Exactly What You Want!

Where next I wonder?

Kitsch and Curious said...

Oh this all sounds marvellous, but I think I would have been too scared to take any photos at all! I think the photo of the doorway is a winner for me, a small study of the mundane and kitsch, but the portraits are all splendid too! So pleased that you've been able to spend some time focussed on the creative too.

menopausalmusing said...

A wonderful, rich post Jane. My favourite picture is the one with the three totally glorious patterns in the doorway.

How amazing to "get over" a fear/discomfort of photographing strangers. Do you have to just stand there for ages whilst they relax in order that you get a natural shot?

Gaynor said...

I was on this holiday also. It was a fabulous weekend. Jane, your photos are lovely. It was great to meet you. And BTW, i've already got my Gary Fong.