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Life’s A Beach, Even in Hungary: Martin Parr at the Budapest Photo Festival

Art

“Close-up of Face,” Spain, Benidorm 1997 pigment, print by Martin Parr.

“Close-up of Face," Spain, Benidorm 1997 pigment, print © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos. Photo courtesy of Műcsarnok.

British photographer Martin Parr, whose “Life’s A Beach” show at Műcsarnok on Heroes Square in Budapest is the must-see exhibition of the sixth Budapest Photo Festival for me, has written “You can read a lot about a country by looking at its beaches.”

Reading this instantly made me wonder what Parr would think of Hungary, which has no beaches. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, “one is never more than 75 miles away from the coast,” Parr writes. This has led to “a strong tradition of photography by the seaside.”

Parr’s photography of the British on their beaches emphasizes what he calls “mildly eccentric British behavior.” This is certainly evident in the “Life’s A Beach” exhibition which includes a photograph of a woman sunning herself next to a caterpillar digger on what must have been a supremely uncomfortable stretch of concrete at New Brighton Beach near Liverpool.

But Parr has also photographed people on beaches all over the world, from Latvia to Argentina. There are always people on his beaches. He doesn’t appear to do landscapes.

Looking at Parr’s photos in the flesh, as it were, I’m always struck by how colorful they are. At first glance the beach photos are seductive, making the viewer immediately wish they were sunbathing themselves. But Parr, who regards published images as “propaganda” and has accepted advertising commissions, uses seductiveness, along with humor, to provoke us into questioning what we’re consuming through our eyes.

“The fundamental thing I’m exploring constantly is the difference between the mythology of the place and the reality of it,” he says. “Remember I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment. That’s part of my mantra. I make the pictures acceptable to find the audience but deep down there is actually a lot going on that’s not sharply written in your face. If you want to read it you can read it.”

So, while our first response to Parr’s beach photos is usually that we wish we were there, his real aim is for us to consider what beaches mean in our culture. On the surface, they represent escape, but they’re also places where people, who are often poor, eke out a living by selling umbrella hats or offering massages.

“Woman and Child,” Great Britain, England, New Brighton 1985 pigment, print by Martin Parr.

First Steps

In recent years, beaches have increasingly become places where refugees fleeing conflict, dire economic straits and the effects of climate change take their first steps into what they hope is a new life.

This is what occurs to me when I stand in front of Parr’s beach photographs, but I would imagine that, for Hungarian viewers, other associations spring to mind.

I wrote earlier that Hungary has no beaches which is, of course, not true. What it doesn’t have is a coastline, although it does have a navy that runs minesweepers and other craft along the Danube.

Hungarian beaches are found along rivers. Római strand is a strip of beach on the Buda side of Budapest a little way out of the city. In Szeged, there is a tiny strip of sand on one bank of the River Tisza that is packed with sunbathers in summer. The more adventurous even take a few steps into the swiftly flowing river.

Then there is Lake Balaton. As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up 14 or so kilometers from the British coast and who spends as much time as he can on the island of Mallorca, I like to think of myself as a bit of a connoisseur of beaches.

By my standards, the beach at Siófok is far from impressive and the experience of taking the tepid waters of Lake Balaton doesn’t compare with swimming in the Mediterranean. Despite national pride, I’m sure any Hungarian would agree.

My partner, a fierce patriot, melts when she sees my local beach in Mallorca. As soon as we arrive, whatever the time of day, we scamper to the beach so she can commune. She even harbors fond feelings for the pebbly beaches that line the grey-brown North Sea, in which I grew up swimming.

Seaside Vibe

The best thing about Siófok for me isn’t the swimming or the beach. It’s the one or two streets lined with bars and restaurants that run parallel with the water’s edge. I don’t know what they’re like right now – does the Balaton summer season start this early? – but in the height of summer those streets have as much vibe as any seaside resort.

This proves to me that, for the most fortunate of us, the beach remains a necessary place of escape from the rest of our lives. It doesn’t even have to be real, as Parr’s surreal photo “Ocean Dome, Japan, 1996” demonstrates. This shows a crowd of people reclining on an entirely artificial interior beach or swimming in water in front of a depiction of a blue sky.

Martin Parr’s “Life’s A Beach” is only one of the exhibitions taking place across Budapest between now and June as part of the photo festival.

The aim of the festival is to position Budapest as the “City of Photography” by offering an opening international show, Parr’s, in this case, and an overview of contemporary Hungarian photography.

I’ll certainly be checking out the exhibition of experimental contemporary Hungarian photography at the atmospheric Kiscelli Museum in the hills on the Buda side of the city. A great excuse for me to visit what is probably my favorite museum in Budapest.

Of the other exhibitions, “40 years of the Hungarian Press Photo Competition and Exhibition” at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center just off Király utca in the center of the city looks especially interesting.

In any case, there are around 50 exhibitions and programs taking place in more than 40 galleries, cultural institutes and museums across the city so there’s plenty to choose from in the coming couple of months.

You’ll find full details of the sixth Budapest Photo Festival at www.budapestphotofestival.hu.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 8, 2022.

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