11 JANUARY 2003, Page 38

Something unique

Tanya Harrod

This is the story of two visionaries. Billy Butlin needs no introduction but John Hinde is more obscure. Camera buffs will know him as one of the pioneers of colour photography in the late 1930s. Colour, however, was simply not part of the high culture of mid-century photography, and in 1956 Hinde set up a postcard business that became the biggest and most successful in Britain. By 1965 we have convergence, when John Hinde Ltd was hired to produce a series of some 50 postcards of Butlin's camps the length and breadth of Britain.

Blown up to a 50 inches by 40 inches format, Hinde's Butlin's images have a disturbing back-to-the-future quality. Their dream-like distinctness was not accidental. Hinde was a perfectionist and his hardpressed photographers would spend a whole day carefully positioning as many as 32 flashbulbs and then marshalling sizable crowds for a single all-or-nothing shot. Admirers of post-war black-and-white documentary photography may argue that there is little to be learnt from these obvi ously posed tableaux. But despite the artifice, they stand as some of the most remarkable documents of post-war Britain at play.

Billy Butlin touchingly believed that his relentless timetable of early morning wakeup calls, exercise classes and endless joky competitions for Knobbly Knees and Glamorous Grannies would help his holidaymakers develop charm and individuality. To that end, he imposed a regime of pleasure based on structures more usually found in sanatoria, army barracks and prisons. Nonetheless, Butlin recognised something unique about Britain (or perhaps just England). A high percentage of the population felt rootless and ill at ease. Butlin responded with a reassuring framework and with poetry. Our true intent is all for your delight' was his slogan. It glowed in sansserif lights on the clock tower by the Skegness open-air swimming-pool. It underpinned the whole enterprise. Denying any knowledge of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he claimed to have first seen the quotation painted on a fairground carousel.

Part of this 'delight' was shelter from the unforgiving, rain-sodden climate, and the majority of Hinde's images show interiors — mostly loosely inspired by a Festival of Britain aesthetic but far more wayward than even that eclectic design moment. Big abstract wallpapers, yards of draped acetate, swirly carpets and `contemporary' lighting and seating jostle with 'Polynesian' carvings, murals of erupting volcanoes, fishermen's nets, faux African sculpture and rubber plants. In each crowded photograph a handful of individuals look out at us and hold our attention — a little boy with a rubber ring in the golden light of the indoor pool at Mosney, the innocent-looking girl with a heavily lacquered beehive sitting in the Beachcomber bar at Bognor Regis. Because of Hinde's genius, we wonder about these people and what became of them.

The curator of this exhibition, the Magnum photographer Martin Parr, has rescued the Butlin's photographs from virtual oblivion. Indeed, they are re-presented at the Photographers' Gallery as 'are in the form of limited-edition prints. What is interesting is that Hinde's photography has clearly influenced Parr, particularly in its remarkable use of saturated colour. But Parr's work offers something very different in spirit — a savage critique of mass leisure, an unsettling vision of a run-down Britain peopled by grotesques. And famously, Parr also collects and republishes a knowing series of 'Boring Postcards'. His endorsement of Hinde's work has, therefore, the curious effect of removing some of our unselfconscious delight and of making our consumption of the Butlin's images ironic rather than innocent.