Welcome to Parr-World

In Sandown, a working-class resort on the Isle of Wight with a wide, golden beach, the members of Martin Parr’s photography class shoot a miniature golf course, a rinky-dink amusement park, and a cricket field. I notice that my vision has taken on a Parr-like cast. Looking over the railing of the elevated main street, I get an aerial view of a beachside cafe, where a family, their ample flesh roasted red, savors slick plates of sausage and beans. Meanwhile, Parr spies a “car boot sale”—a flea market where vendors sell goods from their car trunks and hatchbacks—and we follow him there. The merchandise forms a capsule history of 20th-century British culture: Rupert Bear books, Cliff Richard DVDs, the self-published first and second editions of The History of the Sandown Conservative Clubs.

As we gather back at the van, seven air force jets blaze down the strand in formation, leaving red, white, and blue smoke trails that form a cloud like a melted Bomb Pop. The moseying pedestrians come to a standstill. It’s the Red Arrows, someone says—the RAF’s aerobatic team, which performs displays of synchronized flying around the United Kingdom. Children, grannies, young couples with spiky gelled hair, all look up at the sky, shading their eyes from the sun, oblivious to the photographers capturing their open-mouthed poses. The planes swan and pirouette, break apart and reshuffle themselves like a deck of cards. Parr looks as pleased as if he had organized the air show for our pleasure.

Parr has invited a friend, Jem Southam, whom he calls “Britain’s greatest landscape photographer,” to be a co-instructor for the weekend. Southam is gentle and earnest where Parr is puckish. His dense, painterly images of English forests, ponds, fields, and rock falls offer a different kind of sublime than Parr’s witty documentation of English society. Often, Southam photographs the same location over months or years, illustrating the effects of time and fate on the countryside.

Southam directs our minivan to Whale Chine, a breathtakingly steep ridge of coastal cliffs that he has been photographing since the 1990s. Dressed in cargo shorts, hiking boots, and a corduroy blazer with a map sticking out of the pocket, he looks like a traditional British explorer-gentleman. He handily balances a large-plate camera—the kind that 19th-century photographers used—as he leads us to the edge of a cliff and onto a wooden staircase that plunges into a deep ravine. The staircase halts abruptly midway down; after that, we shin along a rope and hop over dirt paths and stone ledges to the beach, 140 feet below the cliff top. The photographers scatter along the shore, taking pictures of the sea, the piles of garbage that have accumulated at the foot of the cliffs, the silver and rust horizontal lines that rivulets of water have painted down the rock face. Southam sets up his camera on a tall tripod and aims the lens at a rock fall—rain regularly chips away at the cliffs. These rocks weren’t here a month ago, he tells us, and at the current rate of erosion, the Isle of Wight will disappear in 8,000 years. We watch Southam climb up a stepladder to the viewfinder and duck in and out from under a large black cloth. After much preparation, he takes precisely one exposure. “This is going to cost me 15 quid,” he explains, “so you don’t exactly go bang-bang-bang.”

At the beginning of the weekend, Parr sets out two challenges for the group. Prizes—signed Martin Parr books—will go to whoever takes the most interesting photograph of the hotel and whoever finds the best postcard of the Isle of Wight. He doesn’t define what he means by “best,” but an evening slide presentation makes clear that his own taste leans toward kitsch. In addition to postcards of shopping malls, holiday camps, highways, postwar German housing projects, and other mundanities, he hoards—”perversely”—Margaret Thatcher plates, Spice Girls chocolate bars, Lawrence Welk trays, and other junk-culture souvenirs. (“If I didn’t collect Saddam Hussein watches,” he says, “no one would.”) Parr’s massive collections will one day be inherited by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

We find the most fruitful postcard shopping in Ventnor, another quaint seaside town, with Victorian-era residences skirting a steep hill. It’s Sunday, and the antique shops on the high street are closed; there is a foot race today, and a scant few half-marathoners run their final miles through the quiet city. The photographers scout the souvenir shops along the beachfront street. Martin and Susie Parr rest outside a Victorian bathing hut on rented deck chairs made from brightly colored, mismatched fabrics.

Back at the Northbank Hotel, over a cream tea, the group gathers for a collective vote. (Parr refrains from casting a ballot in either contest.) A young art school student wins the postcard contest for a weird, blurry card of a collie running along the shore. Each photographer displays his or her pictures of the hotel—some chintz drapes, the moldering piano, the telephone table marrow—before we elect one of the Union Jack framed by a hotel window and surreally reflected in a wardrobe mirror. It’s appropriately Parr-ish.