Markéta Luskačová was 17 years-old when she first saw the sea. The Czech photographer was travelling to Bulgaria when passengers in her train carriage were struck with excitement as they glimpsed the vast blue waters. Fifteen years later, Luskačová experienced a similar moment as she first encountered the North Sea, attached to the coastline at Whitley Bay, near Newcastle. This time, instead of blueness she was met with unending grey.
That trip catalysed a longstanding love affair with the North East seaside, thanks in no small part to the people who proudly took up a spot on the sand clad in their Sunday best.
“I was very touched by it all: the families with children, old women in their best hats, elderly couples with grandchildren, teenagers courting shyly or boisterously, the ponies and donkeys walking patiently to and fro on the beach,” she recalls wistfully in the introduction to her upcoming book published by RRB Photobooks. The book is accompanying her exhibition, By the Sea: Photographs from the North East, 1976-1980, which opens at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol on August 21.
“The fairground and the omnipresent tents, fortresses against the wind and rain, the seaside cafés selling sandwiches, apple pies, custard pies, ice creams and teas, of course,” Luskačová reminisces. “But they also sold boiling water to women who brought teapots and teabags with them from home, because to buy teas for the whole family would be too expensive.”
Luskačová first began photographing the area in 1976 and 1977, returning the subsequent year on a commission for film and photography collective Amber, with her one year-old son in tow.
The scenes captured by Luskačová are testament to the warmth of the people who braved the cold in the name of a day at the beach – the same kinds of people who readily agreed to care for her son while she set about her photography work along the coast. “I became one of the women with children on the beach, not a voyeur, not a foreigner,” Luskačová recalls.
These experiences reminded her of the “peasant women in the mountain village of Sumiac, in Slovakia”, who she had photographed a few years earlier. “The women there had taken their babies with them while working in the fields. I thought if they managed, I would too,” she remembers. She did manage, but she attributes it to the women who generously gave up their time to look after her son.
“This long-forgotten body of work, depicting the North East beaches, fits perfectly into the remit of the Martin Parr Foundation – to revive important bodies of work,” said Martin Parr, a fellow champion of the British seaside. “Luskačová’s images of the beach and associated life show the sense of community that this area is rightly noted for, with the family scenes at its heart.”
By the Sea: Photographs from the North East, 1976-1980 runs at the Martin Parr Foundation from August 21 – October 5; the book is published by RRB photobooks in September; martinparrfoundation.org; rrbphotobooks.com