Caught on camera: Using art to regenerate British seaside towns

To mark World Photography Day, MA Art History and Curating student Sam Robinson discusses the significance of British seaside towns as a subject for photography and how art has been at the centre of regeneration efforts. 

Porthleven beach, Cornwall, 2013.

British seaside photography has long been held up as capturing some truthful essence of national identity; a lens on everyday people enjoying their hard-earned break from the toils of working life. Bustling seaside towns, from Blackpool to Margate, have often proven the perfect subject for documentary. From Bill Brandt’s Brighton Belle (I'm no Angel) in the 30s, a carefully staged vision of liberated and frivolous Britishness, all the way up to Martin Parr’s ubiquitous The Last Resort (1986), photography by the sea has been the preferred medium for a nation obsessed with its own image.

The rise and sustained popularity of British seaside documentary, particularly with arts institutions, has made it a valuable export – as an aesthetic showcase of both national artistic talent, and some perceived quintessential British character. Capitalising on the camera’s perceived claims to truthful representation, the photographer carefully formulates narrative with an eye for the sensational or stereotype.

Wont as we are to romanticise our memories of childhood holidays, such images offer an alluring sense of affirmation – a quick hit of nostalgia for the way things were.

But what happens when the reality hits, and the British tradition of seaside photography meets those same seaside towns in decline?

As Martin Parr hinted all too garishly in The Last Resort, the subsequent arrival of cheap air travel all but consigned the British coastal resort holiday to its furtive demise, as the lure of warmer climates on the continent put paid to traditional seaside jaunts.

By the late 2010s, Margate in particular had become a byword for the unyielding decay of British seaside towns. Originally made popular by Victorian holidaymakers like JMW Turner, the destination had seen a stark drop off in visitors since the post-war boom in the 1960s and 70s. Now deemed one of the country’s most deprived areas, it seemed an image-revival was required to help turn the tide of socioeconomic decline.

In April 2011, then, the Turner Contemporary opened on the water’s edge in Margate, on the site where Turner often holidayed. It was intended as the flagship initiative in the culture-led regeneration of the area – an institution dedicated to world-class fine art to help salvage Margate’s image. Tasked with reviving the town’s cultural legacy, with Turner’s influence, and a healthy dose of Tracy Emin’s local upbringing, the gallery had a ready-made heavy arsenal of British Art icons at their disposal.

Add to that, British seaside documentary. With a host of names like Brandt, Parr, Tony Ray-Jones – among many others – Margate in particular was well-placed to generate a new wave of cultural tourism. The ‘Seaside: Photographed’ exhibition in 2019 is a great example of how an institution can utilise documentary photography, with its narrative sway and aesthetic glamour, to help attract a new kind of monied tourist. Alongside visions of a ‘golden age’ by established names were new artists who presented 21st-century updates. Hannah Blackmore and Danielle Peck are just two examples of photographers who turned the documentary lens towards the material decay of architecture, hotels, shops and public spaces. Taken around the time of the Turner Contemporary’s opening, the images act as ‘before’ shots prior to the town’s regeneration, visual ‘proof’ of the need for cultural intervention.

The grand sum of such image-making, where contemporary decline meets bygone glory days, is a narrative of decline and fall tailored to a fairly specific audience. Irrespective of intention, arts-led regeneration is an ongoing process that emphasises speculative interest in image and brand. It would seem the jury is still out on the Turner Contemporary, and concerns over gentrification remain. While showing visions of dereliction on gallery walls does little to help the existing population, it does propose potential for outside investment – a Margate as previously ruined, dead, and in need of salvation via a new population. The combination of melancholic charm, cultural heritage, and cheap property prices formulate an attractive proposal for investment. While gentrification of this nature can be multifaceted and complicated, it is the weight of the photographic image – especially when presented as art with an art-history – which sets the wheels in motion.

Sam studied this topic on the ‘What is British Art?’ module, a popular choice among the wide range of optional modules on the MA Art History and Curating course.

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