Beaches have been a rich source of material throughout Martin Parr's career. His images are filled with people sunbathing, sleeping, reading, exercising and eating, on territory staked out with towels, deckchairs and windbreaks. Beaches are places where not just human bodies, but also the quirks of human behaviour, are laid bare.
For Martin, one of the world's most popular and distinctive documentary photographers, beaches are also the places where he experiments with new equipment and techniques. It's a tradition that goes back to the beginning of his career. In the early 1970s he shot some of his first black-and-white images on beaches. His later approaches, such as using wide-angle lenses, colour film and flash, or a macro lens and ring flash, have all been tested at beach locations.
So when the Magnum Photos photographer decided to experiment with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, beaches were his first destination. He found he enjoyed discovering new creative possibilities by exploiting the lens's flexibility and compressed perspective. Thanks to the lens's four-stop Image Stabiliser, he found he could shoot with the camera handheld while capturing sharp images.
Martin has created a body of work recently published as a book, Beach Therapy (2019), entirely shot using that one telephoto lens. Most of the images have been shot on home ground in the UK, but some have been taken on beaches in other countries such as India, Argentina and Spain.
We caught up with Martin at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, UK, where he discussed the roots of his fascination with beaches, what motivates his work, and how a telephoto lens has enabled him to create images that are, in some ways, very different to his earlier work…
You've said you weren't taken on beach holidays as a child. Has that led to your fascination with beaches?
"Oh, I think so, yes. It certainly comes into it. My parents were keen bird watchers, so the seaside I was taken to as a child was mainly marshes and suchlike, where we were looking for warblers and waders. There wasn't a slot machine or a fellow beachgoer in sight. Having missed out at a young age, I can't get enough as an adult. It's a theme that's been maintained for almost all the 50 years I've been working as a photographer. There's no let up. The great thing is that when the beaches are empty here [in the UK] in winter, you can go to Latin America or Australia and catch up with beach activity in the southern hemisphere."
Your project is called Beach Therapy. Do you find it therapeutic to take photos on beaches?
"I think photography, generally, is a therapeutic activity. I have this desire to explore the world, to express what I see as the good and the bad. I have a love-hate relationship with Britain, and the great thing about photography is that you can express that conundrum and ambiguity quite effectively, and have both sides of the arguments running along simultaneously. So that's really why I think of it as a therapeutic process. When I reflected on the role of the seaside throughout my career, and how I've used the beach as an experimental laboratory, Beach Therapy seemed the perfect title."
Why did you choose to shoot this project with a telephoto lens?
"Within art and documentary photography, it's a lens that isn't used at all frequently. [Using a different lens] is one way of keeping fresh. I was intrigued to see what the telephoto would deliver and that's really what this five-year period of shooting was all about. So I went and bought my Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. It's quite an expensive bit of kit, but the sharpness is mind-blowing. In my National Portrait Gallery show [Only Human, 2019], we blew up an image of Mar del Plata in Argentina to about four metres high and the quality was incredible. I could not believe it. I've never seen a sharper file from a 35mm equivalent DSLR image."
Why did you choose that particular lens?
"I thought 300mm was long enough and it is. It's the perfect lens really. The 70mm focal length is about right to start off with and 300mm really pushes things out. In fact, at that end of the lens you see things you can't see with the human eye."
Which camera bodies have you used for your beach series, and why?
I've used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. I thought the EOS 5D Mark IV was a substantial improvement on the Mark III – it's a great workhorse camera: it's user-friendly, intuitive and delivers a very good quality file.
What do you like about shooting on beaches?
"I like the idea that people are themselves. I like the fact you can look down, especially when you've got a clifftop, scan everything and see what's going on. Another big factor [in beach photography] is the issue of photographing kids. When I did The Last Resort, back in the 1980s, that wasn't really an issue. Now, understandably, it is. It was very good timing for me to have chosen to use a telephoto lens, because nobody even knows they're being photographed. So that was a happy coincidence."
You often feature out-of-focus plant life in the foreground of your beach pictures – why?
"I use plants a lot. Whenever I'm shooting and I see a lot of plants, I'll incorporate them. I'll make them sharp or have things out of focus. It's just a natural inclination for me. I know that there's the potential to get weirdness out of the situation. Using the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, the plant life and the relationship between the plant life and what's happening on the beach was terrific. Remember, I'm creating fiction out of reality, so my job is to make the pictures look distinctive and different, and to put my own stamp and viewpoint on them. That's something I'm always looking out for."
So once you've selected a subject, you just have to wait for the right moment?
"Yes, so for example with the ice cream queue picture [below], I took 30-odd shots of that, waiting for the right length of queue, the right people on the corner and at the edge. You have an idea and you wait for it to fulfil itself. Then you're waiting for the small details: how people look, not just the general feel. Sometimes I'm literally waiting for people to walk into a particular area. Sometimes it doesn't happen; sometimes the beach isn't busy enough. That's why it's best to go out on Sundays and Bank Holidays when the weather's good and there are more people."
What, for you, are the other benefits of shooting beaches with a telephoto lens?
"Generally, shooting on wide to standard lenses, most things are reasonably sharp. The great thing about the telephoto is it sends some things out of focus. So I played around with having the foreground in and out of focus, and seeing the relationship between things sharp and things unsharp. Not in every picture, but that's a theme I explored and I got really excited about: the possibilities of how things look when they're severely out of focus.
"The compression is also interesting – it's almost artificial. But again, it's part of photography and part of what I want to explore and incorporate into the pictures. What's good about this whole project is the excitement you generate when you explore and new things start to happen."