Vacation: a theme with a long photographic history, one as diverse as the concept itself, encompassing a variety of captivating imagery, and all corners of the globe.
From Henri Cartier Bresson who documented French workers in 1936 as they enjoyed their first every paid holiday, to his second wife and fellow humanist great Martine Franck, and her 1976 depictions of her countrymen and women on summer vacation, over the years some of the medium’s greatest practitioners have focused their lens on the leisure time of others.
But what was it about this subject that these preeminent practitioners found so interesting; what can depictions of vacations reveal about people, places, or society as a whole?
Naturally, this subject immediately brings to mind Martin Parr, one of the most important photographers of our time and a prolific chronicler of leisure since the early 1970s. He spent his summer breaks from university working as a roving photographer at a branch of Butlins, (a chain of family-focused coastal holiday parks) in the North Yorkshire seaside town of Filey.
“The contradictions of British life are everywhere to be seen – the beach is no different.” – Martin Parr
His seminal series ‘Last Resort’ captured between 1983 & 85 in the seaside town of New Brighton (near where he was living at the time) includes some of the most iconic depictions of vacation that exist, displaying the veracity, humor, and acute eye for color, for which he would become renowned.
A popular destination for working-class families, the series in many respects captured the zeitgeist of the time and caused controversy when first exhibited in London, laying bare the realities of working-class life in a manner that shocked the bourgeois sensibilities of the capital’s artistic elite.
Like Parr, Miami-based Greek photographer, Niki Gleoudi, captures strikingly candid images that subtly convey the oddities and idiosyncrasies of everyday life.
‘Beach Stories’ her ongoing series, explores how people of all ages and demographics, when freed from the constraints and pressures of daily life, are able to express themselves with complete freedom, engendering moments of humor, joy, and love, fundamental components of the human condition.
“People on the beach to me are usually closer to their true self, not attached to obligations, social musts, or taboos. They are able to let go, they are liberated and closer to any emotions they choose.” – Niki Gleoudi
Magnum photographer and fellow purveyor of candid street imagery, Constantine Manos likewise expresses this astutely through his depictions of coastal America. He describes beaches as ‘democratic’, places where one may find a “cross-section of society” unperturbed by the confines of the quotidian routine.
“There’s an energy at the beaches of America that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the country in quite the same way: people are uninhibited, they interact more personally than anywhere else in the public domain.” – Constantine Manos
Yet portrayals of vacations can also be more poetic, a means of immortalizing moments; capturing memories; conveying, through an image, the very essence of a particular time and place.
This is unquestionably true for Joel Meyerowitz and his hugely influential 1979 series Cape Light. Over the course of two summers, he trained his 8×10 Deardoff vintage camera (loaded with color film) on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (a hugely popular destination for summer vacations at the time) capturing its ever-changing complexion with extraordinary artistry and thus displaying the incredible potential of chromaticity.
A truly remarkable and enduring body of work, it remains powerful to this day, inducing a sense of wanderlust, nostalgia, placidity, and even, longing, sensitivities that, in many ways encapsulate our memories of vacations.
“You look at it (a photograph) and all around the real world is humming, buzzing and moving, and yet in this little frame there is stillness that looks like the world. That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience.” – Joel Meyerowitz
The meaning of vacation is subjective, and thus, is expressed differently by each individual photographer. Of course, for many, the term evokes the golden sands of a sun-soaked beach, but for others, it is the labyrinthine streets of some unknown city; far-flung peaks, or perhaps, verdant countryside closer to home. However, from the works of masters like Bresson or Meyerowitz to those of lesser-known contemporary practitioners, what unites all great depictions of the subject is their ability to capture the immense sense of freedom that a vacation can provide.
All images © their respective owners