Social historian Dr Roni Brown introduces Anna Fox's hyper-real photographs of Butlins Bognor Regis.
Anna Fox, Hair and Make-Up Shop, Butlins Bognor Regis 2010, C-Type print © Anna Fox, courtesy James Hyman Photography, London
What two organisations could be more contrasting in terms of their audience than Butlins Bognor Regis and Pallant House Gallery and what better reason could there be for bringing them together? The commissioning of 'Resort' by documentary photographer Anna Fox was inspired by this very idea – that the popular cultural heritage of the Butlins brand in tandem with their 75th anniversary in summer 2011 provided a unique opportunity to provide a fresh perspective on the nature of contemporary British leisure by one of Britain's leading photographers.
Fox's curiosity for the subject matter is causally linked with other prominent colour photographers. Fox is Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts where she studied and was taught by Martin Parr who edited John Hinde's extraordinary work on Butlins from the 1960s and 70s . Hinde was a leading practitioner in the field of commercial colour photography from which he established one of the world's largest postcard businesses. The postcards produced for Butlins were in fact the work of Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nagele and David Noble who were employed by Hinde to orchestrate compositions of intense detail according to Hinde's house style. For Hinde and Bill Butlin the postcards served purely commercial purposes. However, reproduced as large scale images and seen within the context of the gallery (the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 1993 and the Photographers' Gallery London in 2007), Parr recognised the social significance of Hinde's images in providing a unique record of British leisure during a period of economic change and the expansion of the package holiday industry.
'As with all Hinde imagery, they show an idealised view of the world and, after the passage of time, acquire the power of a lost dream. The most remarkable thing of all is that the cards were painstakingly produced not for any aspirational ideas or as great art, but as humble postcards to sell for a few pence to holiday makers.' (Martin Parr )
Like Parr, Fox sees in the Butlin's experience a series of social encounters set against the culture, values and commercial imperatives of a successful and evolving business. Fox sees business in operation – the sets and costumes, the highly trained redcoats, but she also sees the tools, the construction and the evolving site (multi-million pound hotels emerge to replace chalet accommodation). 'In my photographs I have tried to give small clues to the theatrical nature of the Butlins resort by making sure there are always details of the world behind the stage set visible at the edges of the images.' Fox also conveys that unique proposition of a Butlins holiday, one that is highly self-contained, safe and family orientated: children and adults alike create moments of sheer fantasy – there is freedom of expression here - and there is boredom and waiting and conspicuous consumption too. Moving between the poles of the ordinary and extraordinary is Fox's leitmotif.
In Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007 Fox finds the surreal and funny in her Hampshire village, depicts the social fabric of Basingstoke as a new business hub, and with extraordinary care and honesty explores the relationship of her parents as they deal with long term illness. The reason I find Fox's work so apprehending is that she appears to judge so well how to engage with the subject of her work, with warmth or humour, or when to observe with cool neutrality.
In the case of Butlins Fox has to contend with a set of popular preconceptions about the brand: not least the jollity of the hi-de-hi image (a phrase long since abandoned by Butlins) that seeks to undermine the authenticity of experiences that are 'laid on' against those that have the appearance at least, of being contrived around individual circumstances and taste. It is inescapable that the image of Butlins is tied to ideas about class, which through the popular media has been satirised for its overtly popularist stance. Such well-rehearsed perceptions became evident with the opening of the Butlins Ocean Spa Hotel at Bognor Regis in 2009 in which the press contrasted the image of dowdy camp goers with an uber-modern exuberance that only a company so invested in the idea of family fun could conjure up. Yet the history of Butlins attests to the very idea of supplying 'affordable luxury': many of the early buildings were deliberately designed to echo the visual iconography of transatlantic liners alongside the programming of high profile 'names' for the entertainment of guests.
For Fox the matter of representation lies less in dealing with the image of Butlins, richly laden as it is, but with authenticating the experience of a highly diverse range of holiday-makers – as diverse in age, ethnicity, culture and aspiration as any community outside London. If ideas about representation pose artistic challenges then so too does the technical and working environment. Butlins is a technically complex space to work in and to establish these images required a team of people, just as it did for Hinde's photographers in the 1960s. As Fox comments 'it has been incredibly hard shooting this project and it is vital to understand that there has been a whole team of people working for me. In particular, lighting director Vicki Churchill who has done so many inventive things both with the lighting and the direction of the shooting and Andrew Bruce who has been first assistant. Without his technical know-how and creative understanding the whole thing would have been impossible. When Hinde created his work there was never the suspicion of the photographer that exists today. The scandalous story of the photographers at the tragic incident of Diana's death has tarnished the public's view of photography. I try to mediate this anxiety by using the large format as people see this type of camera quite differently. Our work resembles a film set and we resemble a film crew - at times there have been 8 of us at one shoot.'
Today, rightly, there are a series of ethical guidelines to photographing people to ensure that those captured in Fox's work have given their permission and understand the curatorial context in which their images will be contemplated. We have been conscious throughout the project of these and other issues of representation – not only of people but the Butlins brand and the inevitable tensions between the needs of the commercial organisation to protect and promote a very particular brand image and the documentary photographer whose purpose is to create an historical record. Jeremy Pardey, the Resort Director at Butlins Bognor Regis, has perhaps unusually and bravely placed his trust in the highly individual vision of the artist – and this brought with it considerable risk. As Pardey says, the most challenging aspect of the project has been 'getting everyone to understand the brand and the journey we are on.'
There is a deliberately hyper-real quality to Fox's interpretation of the Butlins experience – that is contrasted with simple everyday pleasures. As Fox says 'I am interested in how we all are in society and our desires, more than I am actually interested in the brand. The brand has grown out of our society and as such could be seen as a metaphor for our desires.'
This article has been taken from Issue 24 of the Pallant House Gallery Magazine.
Anna Fox is represented by the James Hyman Gallery, London.