Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
Review by Sean Sheehan
Media Space, Science Museum, London, until 16 March 2014
National Media Museum, Bradford, West Yorkshire, 28 March – 29 June 2014.
This is the best photography exhibition currently open in London and with only a month to go no time should be wasted in getting to the Science Museum. There are over 50 previously unseen works by Tony Ray-Jones on display and, given that his previously available work is quantifiably small and not as well known as it should be, this is a rare opportunity to see what makes this British photographer so important. The other part of the exhibition, showing early work by the famous (some would say, infamous) Martin Parr reveals the influence Ray-Jones had on him; an influence which unfortunately did not last long enough.
Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) has a unique place in British photography because of the way his fine-art sensibility allied itself to a tradition of documentary photography that was unknown in Britain at that time. He was able to introduce something new and much needed as a result of his time in the USA, particularly one year spent in New York where there were opportunities to meet and be influenced by Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz. Returning to Britain, he had to contend with a photographic mafia of advertising, fashion photography and photojournalism that he dismissed as ‘phoney baloney’. If still alive, Ray-Jones would need stronger language than this to calibrate the way such a fraternity malignly dominates so much of what passes for contemporary photography.
Between 1966 and 1969 Tony Ray-Jones photographed English life and revealed his unerring ability to capture the dramatic aspect of moments from everyday life. A fine example is the Pinteresque ‘The City’, showing four men sheltering from the rain but standing in isolation from one another, emblems of loneliness and an undefined tension. Another splendid moment is captured in his shot of day-tripping passengers, ‘Beachy Head Tripper Boat’, centered around a young couple embracing on deck surrounded by fellow passengers who are as invisible to the couple and to each other as the young lovers are to them. The frame is supremely well crafted and evokes, in the most unlikely manner, a still from a film Antonioni might have made if British life had ever become his subject.
A highlight of the exhibition is the backlit display of some of his contact sheets showing all the shots he took of a scene, seeking that one moment when the dispositions come uncannily into play. Ray-Jones’ background was design and not art photography and this is the key to the quality of his work. He possesses a choreograph’s eye and knows that determining what to leave out is just as important as what is retained; aware of the effect of space between people – in all senses — he juxtaposes elements with apparently effortless ease. A master of mise-en-scène, the crafted arrangement of animate and inanimate bodies within a specified space, Ray- Jones is often photographing people at rest and recreation but usually with a singular absence of innocent tranquility. Nevertheless, although the human subjects of his work often look miserable they also bring a smile to your face and I wager this has something to do with the sympathetic engagement of the photographer.
Martin Parr was hugely influenced by Ray-Jones, although they never met, and this is very evident in the exhibition’s display of Parr’s early black and white work, before he burst into colour and the mainstream with The Last Resort. A clear example is ‘Redman’s Factory, Scarbottom’ (1975), showing three female workers taking a break in a garment workshop; fatigued into immobility they are profoundly indifferent to the photographer and to one another. All of Parr’s photos on display are from his time spent in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and his interest in the community’s relationship with its non-conformist chapels brings out solicitude for his subject that is singularly missing in his later work. By 1992, when Parr’s book of photographs, Signs of the Times: a portrait of the nation’s tastes, appeared it is as if Ray-Jones had never existed. Instead, we are presented with a set of staged scenes of individuals and couples sitting or standing in their homes, supplemented by other shots of individual items of their homes’ décor. The photographs are untitled but come with quotations designed to mock the poor taste or ridiculous pretensions of those whose homes are displayed. Thus, for example, we see a woman standing with her upright Hoover by a small bay window, her husband sitting contentedly with a mug of tea on a sofa which faces a TV and a stack of videos lined along the carpet; and we read ‘I’ve only started showing an interest in the house since we got engaged.’. Another photo shows toilet paper with a floral design hanging from a wooden holder affixed to a tiled wall (the tiles also carry a floral motif) and this time we read ‘Sue has definitely given the bathroom a feminine touch.’ The supercilious intent of the photographer is far more worthy of contemptuous distain than the people it sets out to ridicule and it seems remarkable that someone whose early work was so obviously influenced by Ray-Jones could have gone on to produce Signs of the Times. The visitor to Media Space at the Science Museum can appreciate Parr’s early work and wonder how and why the progressive influence of Tony Ray-Jones was abandoned in favour of an infinitely less worthy approach to photography.